Three Affiliated Tribes

Three Affiliated Tribes – Arikara, Hidatsa, and Mandan
Arikara Indians

Arikara Indians

Tribal Origin: Pawnee Confederacy

Also known as: Sahnish, Arikaree and Ree

Home Territories: North Dakata and South Dakota

Language: Caddoan

Alliances: Mandan and Hidatsas

The Arikara are a group of Caddoan-speaking American Indians who in historic times lived along the Missouri River in northern South Dakota and west-central North Dakota.

The Arikara are culturally related to the Pawnee. They are believed to have originated in the Southeast and migrated north along the Missouri River before reaching the Dakotas sometime around 1770. At that time they numbered between three thousand and four thousand people.

In 1837 the Arikara were severely affected by a smallpox epidemic, and in 1862, their numbers much reduced, they joined the Mandan and Hidatsa tribes.

In about 1870 all three groups were settled on the Fort Berthold Reservation in North Dakota and became known as the present day Three Affiliated Tribes of the Fort Bertold Reservation.

In the 1980s they numbered about one thousand.

The Arikara were primarily an agricultural people living in permanent villages of semisubterranean earth lodges located on bluffs overlooking the Missouri River.

They cultivated maize, beans, squash, pumpkins, and sunflowers and also hunted bison, deer, and antelope and gathered wild foods.

Politically, the Arikara were organized into a loose Confederacy of villages led by a head chief assisted by a tribal council of village chiefs. Religious life and ceremonies centered around the planting, cultivation, and harvesting of maize, the principal food resource.

Arikara Bands, Gens & Clans

Hidatsa Indians

Tribal Origin: Siouan

Native Name: Nuxbaaga, means ‘original people.’ The name “Hidatsa” is a term of their own derivation that means “willow people,” and was used by them to refer to one of their three village Subgroups. Two other subgroups were called “Awatixa” and “Awaxawi.” 

Home Territories: North Dakota

Language: Hidatsa

Alliances: Mandan and Crow

Enemies: Dakota, Cheyenne, Assiniboin, and Arikara

Aboriginally, the Hidatsa occupied three villages in the Missouri River valley near the confluence of the Knife River in present-day west-central North Dakota. The Hidatsa often intermarried with their Mandan allies.

Later, the remnants of the Arikara tribe joined them after a smallpox epidemic nearly wiped them out.

The Hidatsa language belongs to the Siouan language family. It is most closely related to the Crow language, which was a divergent dialect of Hidatsa.

It is more distantly related to Mandan, a separate language spoken by a tribe culturally and geographically close to the Hidatsa. The Hidatsa language is still spoken today.

Mythological evidence suggests that the Hidatsa migrated into the Missouri River valley from the northeast, near Present-day Devils Lake, North Dakota.

Acquiring maize agriculture from the Mandan, the Hidatsa established several Villages nearby. Archaeological evidence suggests that some Hidatsa were present in their historically known location by the early 1600s.

Nearby groups included the Mandan and Crow, with whom the Hidatsa were allied, and the Dakota, Cheyenne, Assiniboin, and Arikara, all of whom the Hidatsa counted as enemies.

Sustained contact with Europeans began during the late eighteenth century, when the Hidatsa were brought into the fur trade.

In 1804, the Hidatsa established peaceful relations with the United States as a result of the Lewis and Clark Expedition.

While initially prospering from the fur trade, frequent intertribal warfare with the Dakota, coupled with extensive loss of life from the 1837 smallpox epidemic, caused the Hidatsa to relocate into a single village near the relative safety of Fort Berthold in 1845.

The Hidatsa were subsequently joined by the Mandan and Arikara, resulting in the formation of the Three Affiliated Tribes and the Fort Berthold Reservation during the 1860s within traditional Hidatsa territory.

Throughout the historic period, the Hidatsa have maintained peaceful relations with the United States.

Three Affiliated Tribes review new constitution

Mandan Indians

Tribal Origin:

Native Name:  Unlike many Indian tribes, the “Mandan,” despite various spellings, have been known by that name since the earliest contact with non-Indians.

They were sometimes identified by a name belonging to one of the four divisions of Mandan—Nuitadi, Nuptadi, Awigaxa, or Istopa.

Home Territories: Missouri

Language: Siouan

Alliances: Hidatsa, Assiniboine, Cree, Arikara, and Crow

Enemies: Cheyenne, Yanktonai, and Lakota (Teton) were sometimes peaceful, sometimes unfriendly.

In early historic times, the Mandan lived along the Heart River, a major tributary of the Missouri, in western North Dakota. In 1804, Lewis and Clark found they had moved north and settled on the Knife River.

Today, they live in the southern segment of Fort Berthold Indian Reservation, about one hundred miles northwest of their original location.


Article Index:

Arikara (Sahnish) Historical Overview

There is but one supreme being of power and wisdom, the Chief Above (Neshanu Natchitak). He rules the world. But he gave Mother Corn authority over all things on earth. Neshanu Natchitak is above all, but he made Mother Corn intermediary with human beings on earth.

Reverence and gratitude are due from mankind to Nishanu Natchitak for all the good things which we have, and to Mother Corn, through whose mediation we enjoy all these benefits.
–Albert Simpson, Arikara

For Arikaras, the Mother Corn Ceremony, a ritual which centered on the theme of world renewal, linked the universe, through Mother Corn (represented by a cedar tree), to the keepers of sacred bundles and their kin.

Each of the twelve Arikara village bands that lived along the Missouri River in what is now South Dakota had a sacred bundle associated with the Mother Corn rites. Bundles, whether personal or group, provided an object-based connection with powers that, though beyond the realm of daily life, were needed to exist in the everyday world.

In matters of daily life, Mother Corn instructed the people in the right ways of living in the world, instilling in them respect for plants and animals, and imparting knowledge of the arts and of housing construction. Through this knowledge, ceremonial lodges become symbolic of the structure of the world.

The Arikaras, who refer to themselves as the Sahnish people, lived for centuries in earth-lodge dwellings in semisedentary horticultural communities. The central earth-lodge or holy lodge was a ceremonial structure that mirrored Arikara cosmology and in which various bundle rites were performed.

Though the ancestors of the Arikaras originated in present-day eastern Texas and adjacent portions of present-day Oklahoma, Arkansas, and Louisiana, their knowledge of earth-lodge construction and maize agriculture developed during their later residence in the central Great Plains, primarily Nebraska.

Arikaras are closely related to Skiri Pawnees from whom they split while both groups were settled along the Loup River in present-day Nebraska. Both groups share linguistic features of the Caddoan language family.

Archaeological and oral historical information indicates the Arikaras migrated northward along the Missouri River until they reached what is now South Dakota. By the time European travelers encountered them, they had already suffered major population losses from smallpox epidemics (which ravaged many native villages throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries).

The remaining Arikaras continued northward along the Missouri and eventually settled south of Mandan and Hidatsa villages north of present-day Bismarck, North Dakota, where they maintained an active trade of agricultural products with other Plains groups.

Despite the devastation of disease and subsequent population losses, the earth-lodge villages of the Arikaras, Mandans, and Hidatsas remained a central destination for Euro-Americans in their increasing westward expansion.

A major smallpox epidemic decimated all three riparian settlements in 1837, however, and by 1856, the remaining Arikaras had joined with Mandans and Hidatsas at Like-A-Fishhook Village.

The Fort Berthold Reservation in North Dakota was established by executive order in 1891, at which time the Arikaras were forced to resettle there along with the Mandans and the Hidatsas.

The first cession of Arikara lands by treaty took place in 1851 at Fort Laramie. The treaty negotiated there designated more than twelve million acres of reservation land between the Yellowstone and Missouri Rivers.

Through subsequent treaty abrogations, the indigenous land base of the Mandans, Hidatsas, and Arikaras was reduced to 640,000 acres by 1910. Cultural adjustments in the early reservation period included the reversal of some gender-based occupations; for example, men were taught Euro-American techniques of farming, thereafter encroaching on what was traditionally women’s domain.

By 1920, Arikaras were successfully competing in the farming and ranching economies in North Dakota, especially in what is now the White Shield District of Fort Berthold, where they benefited from the agriculturally rich land.

Under the 1934 Indian Reorganization Act, the Arikara Nation merged into a single political body with the Hidatsa and the Mandan Nations, collectively known as the Three Affiliated Tribes.

No synopsis of Arikara cultural history would be complete without emphasizing the devastating effects of the construction of the 1951 Garrison Dam, built in a post-World War II development effort to harness hydroelectric power on the Missouri River.

The benefits of this project remain few for Fort Berthold people. The Garrison Dam fragmented the reservation land base and divided communities along geopolitical boundaries. While Arikaras live throughout the Fort Berthold Reservation, the most concentrated tribal community remains at White Shield, near early reservation settlements and cultural sites.

Among these important sites is the Old Scouts Cemetery, where the famous Arikara scouts who fought with General George Custer and their descendants mark a place of remembrance in Arikara history.

Arikara political and social life mirrors the cosmological ordering of the Arikara world, which in pre-reservation times was tightly structured and hierarchical. Chieftainships were hereditary and sanctioned by ritual authority. Today, the relationships between cosmology, tribal leadership, and social organization are influenced by hereditary class positions and kinship ties that link individuals to extant ceremonial offices.

The importance of renewal ceremonies in reaffirming kinship relations is evidenced at various points in the life cycle, such as when a child receives an Arikara name, and in the funerary rites known as the After-Feed which mark a person’s passage to the next world.

Despite Arikara population losses resulting from smallpox epidemics, Euro-American conquest, and the dispossession of native lands, ritual life continues to be practiced with modified regularity among contemporary Arikaras, most of whom identify with the Awahu band and trace their ancestry to the Arikara chief, Sitting Bear.

While some Arikara elders refer to tribal genealogical associations as “clans,” these groupings do not parallel the clan constructs of Mandans and Hidatsas, with whom many Arikaras have intermarried.

All three tribes ascribe to classificatory ways of reckoning generational kin, with continuing bias toward matrilineality and matrifocality. Today, the White Shield District is home to a range of community organizations and programs that celebrate Arikara culture. Among these is the annual powwow, the White Shield Celebration.

The Dead Grass Society Singers, the resident drum group for White Shield, actively maintains and creates Arikara songs, which are integral to Arikara traditions.

In addition, through the efforts of the Sahnish Cultural Society and Fort Berthold Community College, the Arikara language has been incorporated into the community-based educational curriculum.

Through these and other efforts, the Sahnish people are working toward cultural survival and community empowerment.


Melvin R. Gilmore, Indian Notes 3 The Arikara Genesis and Its Teachings. (1926): 188-193; Douglas R. Parks, Traditional Narratives of the Arikara Indians 4 Vols. (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1991); J. Daniel Rogers and Tressa L. Berman, Objects of Change. The Archaeology and History of Arikara Contact with Europeans (Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1990).

Hidatsa Indian Tribe

Hidatsa Indians

The Hidatsa Indians often intermarried with their Mandan allies.Later, the remnants of the Arikara tribe joined them after a smallpox epidemic nearly wiped them out. Today, they are known as the Three Affiliated Tribes of Fort Bertold.

Mandan Tribe Historical Overview

According to oral tradition, the Mandan people originated from the earth as corn itself springs from the ground. This emergence metaphor is deeply rooted in Mandan cosmology and the ceremonial practices that shape Mandan social life. Corn has been the mainstay of Mandan agriculture for thousands of years and remains a vital symbol for creation, renewal, and survival.

As the keeper of seed, the Old Woman Who Never Dies recurs in the cycle of ceremonies that mark seasonal shifts in agricultural preparations, harvest, and hunting. The complex of stories and rites related to this cosmological figure directs Mandan ritual cycles by prescribing the appropriate action of cultural members. The relationship of “mother corn” to tribal sovereignty arises in contemporary land-claims cases, where knowledge about associated garden rites continues to be invoked as a means of staking legitimate claims to cultural identity.

The sacred shrine of Lone Man, Creator of the Earth, stands today at the Fort Berthold Reservation as a symbolic testament to the central role Mandan religious beliefs and practices play in the cultural survival of the people.

Prior to the U.S. government’s suppression of native religious practices, the apogee of Mandan ritual enactment was the Okipa Ceremony, a complex of rites linking all of creation to seasonal conditions. As part of the earth-renewal rites, the Okipa emphasized the renewal of game in the Bull Dance ceremonies, visually depicted by the nineteenth-century painters George Catlin and Karl Bodmer.

The anthropologist Alfred Bowers (1950) reported that the Okipa ceremonial complex had developed along the Heart River in present-day North Dakota among all the Mandan villages by the 1700s.

According to Mandan oral history, Lone Man established the ceremonial structure of the Okipa Lodge, which mirrored Mandan moiety and clan organization. In the 1980s the Okipa Ceremony underwent a revitalization, which brought with it a renewal of Mandan cultural values.

The Mandans established settlements on the Heart River in the 1600s. The villages they established there comprised mostly circular, four-post earth lodges arranged around a central ceremonial plaza. They situated the villages within naturally defensive features such as ravines or riverbanks, or built walls and ditches around them. These sites abounded with gardens of corn, squash, and beans that were controlled by women.

Before long Mandans encountered Hidatsas who had recently migrated into the area. While the Mandans had already established marriage and trade relations with the Hidatsas by the late 1700s, their reduced numbers as a result of the 1782 and 1837 smallpox epidemics forced a cultural merger with their Hidatsa neighbors that remains to this day.

Thus there are many similarities between Mandan and Hidatsa social and ceremonial organization. The largest remaining Mandan linguistic groups were the Nuptadi and Nuitadi, each comprised of smaller subgroups.

Following the devastating effects of the 1837 smallpox epidemic, the thirteen clans of the Mandans were drastically reduced to two major divisions. The two extant clan divisions are the same for Mandans and Hidatsas and are generally agreed on as the Three Clan and the Four Clan.

While Mandan-Hidatsa assimilation allows us to treat the two divisions as a single system, elder tribal members still distinguish between being a chik’sa (Hidatsa) and a si’pucka nu’mak (Mandan).

Contemporary Mandans follow matrilineal prescriptions for reckoning kinship by ascribing clan affiliation through the mother’s side. They also follow Hidatsa rites whereby the father’s clan assumes funerary responsibilities for the deceased.

Language, however, remains a key feature that distinguishes Mandan from Hidatsa identity orientation. While today there are fewer than ten fluent Mandan speakers at Fort Berthold, one’s knowledge of the Mandan language and one’s genealogical links to Mandan speakers inform a range of kinship and ceremonial behavior within the cultural system that remains uniquely “Mandan.”

Today, the Mandan language is actively taught by elders in community-based programs, as well as in the public school at Twin Buttes, North Dakota, in the southernmost segment of the reservation.

While many Mandans have married members of other tribes and non-Indians, Twin Buttes remains the heart of the Mandan community. There many families maintain their ancestral homelands and family burial sites.

Current archaeological investigations on Mandan land require compliance with tribal codes and permissions for historical inquiries into the past. The Mandan village site at Slant Village, however, is part of the North Dakota State Parks system and is open as a public site where visitors can learn about the cultural history of earth-lodge villages.

Clan origin stories, such as that of the origin of the Water Buster clan, situate the Mandans at the Slant Village site.

The Water Buster clan came into the public light in 1934 when Mandan representatives went to New York City to retrieve the sacred Water Buster bundle from the Heye Foundation’s Museum of the American Indian (now the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of the American Indian).

As they do in Hidatsa and Arikara societies, tribal bundles figure highly in Mandan social organization, and thus affect the efficacy of ritual performance and ceremonialism. Museum holdings of collectively controlled tribal objects were generally acquired under conditions of economic and emotional duress.

Thus, the Mandans’ successful reclaiming of their tribal bundle almost sixty years prior to the 1990 Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act was a remarkable victory. The success of Mandan people in surviving the demographic decimation of their tribe and the impact of white settlement attests to their cultural tenacity and innovation.


Alfred W. Bowers, Mandan Social and Ceremonial Organization (1950; reprint, Moscow, Idaho: University of Idaho Press, 1991); George Catlin, O-kee-pa: A Religious Ceremony and Other Customs of the Mandans (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1967); Robert H. Lowie, Notes on the Social Organization and Customs of the Mandan, Hidatsa and Crow Indians Anthropological Papers of the American Museum of Natural History, vol. 21, part 1 (New York, 1917).

Three Affiliated Tribes winter camp