KNIFE RIVER INDIAN VILLAGES, N.D. – The renowned Mandan-Hidatsa flute player shared his people’s songs and stories as listeners huddled around a glowing fire in the earth-covered lodge.
“A young lady might hear a song similar to this along the river,” explained Keith Bear, as he began to play the flute, pausing midway to sing the words from a courtship song before ending the soulful melody with one last breath.
Today, many are trying to recapture the moment. On Saturday and Sunday, a limited group of 20 people – half from North Dakota, the rest trekking from as far as Idaho, Minnesota, South Dakota, Ohio and Pennsylvania – were allowed to camp one night near the Lower Hidatsa village.
A group led by the North Dakota State Historical Society helped create the opportunity for others to experience what life might have been like when Lewis and Clark spent the 1804-1805 winter at Fort Mandan near the Mandan and Hidatsa earth lodge villages where 5,000 people lived.
In addition to learning about the five villages and hearing the Native perspective from half a dozen members of the Three Affiliated Tribes, winter camp participants also had the chance to explore trails along the river, discover Fort Mandan, don snowshoes and visit the interpretive center in Washburn.
David Borlaug, president of the North Dakota Lewis and Clark Bicentennial Foundation, had been at Fort Mandan – where Lewis and Clark had built a winter fort – when the winter tour group arrived.
He pointed to the wide range of Lewis and Clark-related accommodations that were within a 30- to 60-mile drive north of Bismarck.
“When you can walk out here under the canopy of cottonwoods and look out on the Missouri River, the way the river looked 200 years ago, that’s what visitors can really enjoy here.”
For some, sharing the Lewis and Clark winter experience meant roughing it in the cold. Participants in the winter camp were given two choices Saturday night – they knew this when they signed up for the camp – that they could sleep under the stars or inside a tent.
“I felt like to really understand what Lewis and Clark went through I needed to visit Fort Mandan and the Knife River Indian Villages in the wintertime,” said Julie Fanselow of Twin Falls, Idaho, author of “Traveling the Lewis and Clark Trail.” “That was my motivation.”
She said she also was motivated to sleep under the stars but woke up at about 1:30 a.m. and moved into a tent, where it was warmer. “It wasn’t that bad,” said Joel Bickford a junior high history teacher in Wahpeton who also chose to sleep outdoors, letting the snow fall on his face as nighttime temperatures hit about 20 degrees.
Bickford said he would leave with more than memories of sleeping outside. He said he has a lot more experience to draw upon when he goes back to the classroom.
“It’s important the kids realize the size of the villages. At the time they were bigger than St. Louis,” he said.
“The population was amazing. Most people think an Indian village is 12 people out there living independently in a small forest, when in fact this was a civilization, it was pretty advanced.”
Said Lyle Gwinn, a Mandan-Hidatsa storyteller: “This area of Knife River and here at Fort Mandan, we kind of coined the phrase, ‘the first international mall.’ This is where all the trade came from all over the country, from the Arctic down to the Gulf. Everybody traded here.
As long as they came in peace, they were welcomed here.” Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation speakers from the Fort Berthold Reservation say they are doing their part to help shake down stereotypes while teaching others about the history of their tribe.
“We want to make sure the contributions of our people are recognized,” said Calvin Grinnell, cultural specialist at the Three Affiliated Tribes Museum.
“They were overshadowed by the legend of Sacagawea. We gave them maps and food supplies. They took about 90 bushels of corn when they left here up river that helped keep them alive.”
While Bear had similar stories to share, he had one simple message. He expressed the shared humanity that crosses generations, time and race, like the story of blossoming love between a man and woman.
As the adventure group sat around the fire in the earth lodge, Bear explained how young people might avoid the earth lodge, leaving the old ones there to sit, laugh and talk.
He told of how flute music was often used during the courtship process. He spoke of how a young man might have a “heartbeat that speaks strong” for a girl, “so he’ll come around and say maybe you can go get some wood, maybe I’ll be in the area.”
THREE AFFILIATED TRIBES RELATED LINKS:
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Reach Jodi Rave Lee at 402-473-7240 or [email protected]