Friday, July 17, 2009

Mandan and Hidatsa Earthlodge Villages

In the winter of 1804-1805 the Lewis and Clark Expedition stayed in the Mandan Villages, some of which were occupied by members of the Mandan tribe, and a couple by Hidatsas. The Mandan Villages were on the Missouri River, somewhat upstream from today's Washburn, North Dakota. Before the arrival of Euro-American explorers, the Mandans had lived a little farther downstream, in the vicinity of Bismarck, ND, but smallpox epidemics decimated their numbers, and the survivors moved upstream.

In the Bismarck vicinity there are a few archaeological sites where you can see remains of abandoned Mandan Villages; I wrote a little about them in Pre-Columbian Mandan Villages in North Dakota. I stopped by one of those sites today, namely Double Ditch Indian Village . It's really not much to see; what it has to offer is the opportunity to stand there and imagine the presence of a lost civilization.

It's called "Double Ditch" due to the detectable ditches which surrounded the villages. The villages were built like fortresses; the ditches were moats, and along the inner walls vertical wooden posts were placed to form a palisade. The village dwellings were eartlodges, which I will explain more in a bit.

In the center of the village site there are a few mounds called midden by archaeologists, these were village dumps where household refuse was thrown - things like animal bones, broken pottery, and ash from hearths.

Next I drove north to the site of the old Hidatsa villages. This is a much more organized site that's run by the National Park Service, it's called Knife River Indian Villages. They offer a thirteen minute orientation video, exhibits and a replica of a classic Hidatsa earthlodge.

It was at one of those Hidatsa villages that Lewis and Clark hired Toussaint Charbonneau to come along with them, so that his Shoshone wife Sacagawea could act as an interpreter. The Hidatsas would send raiding parties as far west as the Continental Divide, and Sacagawea (along with her sister) had been captured on one such raid. The French-Canadian Charbonneau was living at one of the Hidatsa villages, and won Sacagawea and her sister on a bet.

Vertical wooden poles formed the inner walls. These were covered with branches and twigs, and they were covered with earth.

The elder would sit before a fireplace situated at the center of the lodge.

A bed with what appears to be a bison hide blanket.


  1. Cool photos! I especially liked the 3rd picture, it reminds me of this movie called Spirited Away by Miyazaki. The 4th one is awesome!!!!

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