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).