North Dakota: Knife River Indian Villages Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

An important hub of intertribal and later international trade, the Knife River Indian Villages also played an important role in Plains Indian agricultural and cultural development. Many archaeological sites are preserved at the site. A reconstructed earth lodge re-creates aboriginal life. In addition, the site preserves important native prairie and riverine habitats.

Site Office

Knife River Indian Villages National Historic Site

P.O. Box 9

Stanton, ND 58571-0009

ph.: (701) 745-3309

Web site: www.nps.gov/knri/

Although prehistoric nomadic peoples exploited the resources of the Knife River region for thousands of years, sedentary life, associated with semipermanent earth lodge villages and well-developed horticulture, belongs to the Plains Village period, beginning about 1000 c.e. Firmly established in the Knife River region by 1200 c.e., this way of life dominated the area until the middle of the nineteenth century. Chiefly associated with the Mandan and Hidatsa peoples, the Knife River Indian Villages represent the peak of Plains Village period cultural and horticultural development.

Traditional Village Life

The Mandans and Hidatsas shared a village and horticultural tradition particularly adapted to conditions in the upper Missouri River Valley. Summer villages, found along natural terraces above the river, could consist of as many as 120 earth-covered lodges, each holding between ten to thirty members of an extended family. Defensive considerations often played a role in village location, with the river and constructed wooden palisades affording protection. In the winter, the people relocated to smaller lodges along the wooded river bottomland.

In general, matrilineally related women built, maintained, and owned the earth lodges. A number of related lodge families made up a clan whose members provided mutual aid and support. Vehicles for individual expression, age-grade societies for both men and women cut across clan and village lines and often performed important ceremonial and social tasks. Village life observed a sexual division of labor, with women oriented toward agriculture and men toward hunting.

Although the hunting of wild game supplemented village subsistence, horticulture constituted the basis of village life. Cultivated by women, garden plots in the rich river floodplain produced corn, squash, beans, and other crops. Villagers traded their surpluses with nomadic hunting peoples in exchange for hides, dried meat, and other products. Eventually, the peoples of the Knife River became important middlemen in the trade of the upper Missouri, keying into larger complex trading networks far beyond their homes. Food products, locally quarried flint, mineral, and shell products, and later, after European contact, horses, guns, and metal items, made up the increasingly varied trading inventory of the villagers. With the Arikaras to the south, these groups played an important economic role in the region until changes ushered in as a result of European and American contact undermined village life and culture.

European American Contact and Its Aftermath

The villagers’ contact with European Americans began in the eighteenth century and accelerated in the nineteenth century as an increasing number of fur traders and travelers penetrated the area, ushering in profound changes. Trading patterns shifted to accommodate the fur trade, dependence on European manufactured items increased, intertribal warfare intensified, and, most significant, epidemic diseases caused drastic population losses. Increasingly vulnerable, Knife River Indian Village peoples shifted and consolidated their village sites a number of times, culminating in the establishment of Like-a-Fishook village, some sixty miles upriver, in 1845. In 1885, this village, also, was abandoned as the federal government relocated the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara peoples to the Fort Berthold Reservation. Notable visitors to the Knife River Indian Villages included the explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark and the artists Karl Bodmer and George Catlin, who painted detailed images of village life in the 1830’s.

Visiting the Site

Wishing to preserve the archaeological richness and ecological diversity of the area, the federal government set aside 1,759 acres to establish the Knife River Indian Villages National Historic Site in 1974. Administered by the National Park Service, the site is open year-round. Facilities include a museum and visitors’ center featuring exhibits and books and a fully furnished, reconstructed earth lodge. In addition, a network of trails takes visitors to a number of archaeological sites, including Big Hidatsa Village, Lower Hidatsa Village, and Sakakawea Village, as well as to protected stretches of prairie and riverine habitats. Near the site, visitors may also visit the remains of Fort Clark, established by the American Fur Company in 1831, and the reconstructed Fort Mandan, winter headquarters of Lewis and Clark.

For Further Information
  • Ahler, Stanley A., Thomas D. Thiessen, and Michael K. Trimble. People of the Willows: The Prehistory and Early History of the Hidatsa Indians. Grand Forks: University of North Dakota Press, 1991. Discusses in detail the archaeological record at Knife River.
  • Gilman, Carolyn, and Mary Jane Schneider. The Way to Independence: Memories of a Hidatsa Indian Family, 1840-1920. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 1987. An exhibition catalog, this book contains illustrations and photographs of artifacts relevant to Plains Indian village life.
  • Holder, Preston. The Hoe and the Horse on the Plains: A Study of Cultural Development Among North American Indians. Reprint. Lincoln, Nebr.: Bison Books, 1974. Cross-cultural examination of the village way of life. Also discusses village relations with equestrian nomads.
  • Meyer, Roy W. The Village Indians of the Upper Missouri: The Mandans, Hidatsas, and Arikaras. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1977. Detailed overview of the culture and history of the village Indians closely associated with Knife River.
  • Peters, Virginia Bergman. Women of the Earth Lodges: Tribal Life on the Plains. North Haven, Conn.: Archon Books, 1995. Explores life in the earth lodge villages from the perspective of American Indian women.
  • Schneider, Mary Jane. North Dakota’s Indian Heritage. Grand Forks: University of North Dakota Press, 1990. Discusses the history, culture, and contemporary situation of the Mandans, Hidatsas, and Arikaras.
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