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Earth Lodges of the Mandan, Arikara and Hidatsa

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Earth House
Photo courtesy of Three Affiliated Tribes 2. Painting by George Catlin

When the Lewis & Clark Expedition traveled up the Missouri River in 1804, they befriended a small tribe named the Mandan, who lived in earth covered shelters near the river. In contrast to most of the tribes on the Plains, the Mandan were farmers in addition to being bison hunters. They traded their surplus produce to hunting tribes. French trappers had known of the Mandan’s friendliness since 1738. However, by the time the Americans made contact with the Mandans, their numbers were already dropping drastically from attacks by enemy tribes and European diseases. After a major smallpox epidemic struck the tribe in 1837, their population was reduced to around 125 persons.

After the 1837 epidemic, the Mandan joined with their allies the Arikara and Hidatsa in order to survive. The Arikara were branch of the Pawnee from eastern Texas or Oklahoma, who spoke a Caddo dialect. They were descendants of the Mississippian Culture. In 1845 the allied tribes moved upstream to another site on the Missouri River. The 1862 they were joined by the Hidatsa. The Hidatsa were Siouan and probably the ancestral tribe for the Crow Indians. The official name of this confederacy eventually became known as “the three affiliated tribes. The Arikara and Hidatsa had arrived in the upper Missouri Valley after the Mandan, but adapted the Mandan’s architecture to their cultures.

Note: The joining of the three remnant peoples into one tribe was very typical of many areas of North America during the 1700s and 1800s. The modern Native American tribes are a direct result of political, economic and environmental pressures created by the European onslaught. The legends some Eastern Native Americans tell tourists about the unique origin of their tribe are in fact the mixed oral traditions of remnant bands of native peoples, who had come together to form “tribes” in response to a holocaust that killed off about 90-95% of the indigenous population of North America.

The Mandan language appears to be a highly variant form of Siouan. This, in itself, is nothing unusual. Most of the Siouan languages formerly spoken in South Carolina and Mississippi have never been documented or translated. The Mandans could have been late arrivals from the Southern Highlands, who shared several cultural traits with the Northern Siouan, but spoke a mutually unintelligible language. Alternatively, the Mandan could have originally been a non-Siouan ethnic group that picked up several Siouan linguistic traits after living near Siouan bands. The Yuchi, in particular, were known to have scattered their villages over much of the eastern United States in order to create a trade network.

However, because of their variant language and earth lodges, the Mandan have been the focus of much speculation by amateur anthropologists because early settlers on the Plains thought them to be the only native peoples, who lived in larger permanent houses, and because some Mandans had gray or blue eyes. There have been several books which linked them to the Bronze Age Celts, Medieval Welsh or Vikings. The bison skin boat used by the Mandans is theorized by these writers as having been invented by the Celts.

Certainly it is possible that during the Bronze Age some adventurous Europeans traveled to the Great Lakes and mined its exceptionally high quality copper. It is also possible that some Vikings or Welsh sailed to North America during the Middle Ages and married some of the locals. However, the prime argument of these Europhiles is that Native Americans would not know how to build a large, permanent earth covered house or boats sheaved with animal skins . . . which is just not true. Many North American indigenous cultures built structures far larger and more sophisticated than the Mandan earth lodge. The skin sheaved canoe was very common throughout all of North America.

Mandan Architecture

Scene in a Mandan Village - George Catlin
Plate 38b – Scene in a Mandan Village – George Catlin. Note earth lodges in background.

Mandan villages had more formal plans that were typical of the Plains tribes. The earth lodges were clustered around a public plaza containing a ring of cedar posts. The ring of cedar posts symbolized their deity, the Lone Man, who founded their culture eons before.

Mandan houses seem to have evolved from the traditional Siouan pit house. (See article on the Siouan pit houses.) However, the Mandan structures were much larger and of more sophisticated structural details than indigenous pit houses built during in the Eastern United States (1000 BC – 1700 AD.) They are indeed similar to the houses built by Scandinavians living in semi-arctic regions, but this may be a coincidence resulting from logical architectural responses to extreme climates. Native Americans were definitely building pit houses long before the Scandinavians had developed their ship-building skills sufficiently to cross the Atlantic Ocean.

The sod covered – timber framed houses of the Mandan, Arikara and Hidatsa Peoples of the Upper Missouri River Valley protected their occupants from the extreme cold of winter and the heat of summer. They were not truly round, but rather in plan resembled squares with rounded corners. The houses were constructed by first excavating a pit about 12-24 inches deep, The occupied area of a typical Mandan house was about 25-40 feet in diameter, whereas a typical Siouan or Caddo pit house was about 15-20 feet in diameter. The men of the village then cut timbers and inserted an inner square formed by tall timber columns and an outer ring of shorter timber posts. From that point onward, the women did the work. The woman of the house owned the house!

The women laid a dense mat of small saplings and reeds in a radial pattern across the timber cross beams. Like the Siouan pit house, clay or earth was packed against the sapling mat at least six to eight feet high. Sometimes thatch was applied to the roof section as if it was to be a traditional pit house, but the purpose was insulation. Then sections of sod were placed on both the roof and the earth berm to create a living façade material which protected the interior of the house from extreme temperatures and severe rain damage.

The interior of the house was finished after it was water tight. A hearth was constructed in the center of the floor. A hole was left in the top of the roof to allow smoke to escape. Pit houses typically allowed smoke to escape through loosely applied thatch or bark shingles. Most Mandan house had interior partitions which separated living, sleeping and storage spaces. The sleep spaces were often insulated with bison and bear skins. A “bull boat” made from bison skin was placed over the smoke hole during heavy rains or snow.

The houses built for village chiefs were somewhat larger than the norm. Europeans called this structure a medicine lodge. Medicine lodges doubled as council houses for village meetings. They contained the shields of warriors around their periphery, plus various objects that were considered “good medicine” for the hunt, farming or war. The diameters of these semi-public structures were possibly as large as 50 feet.

The Mandans also built specialized structures that were not used as habitations. Small “earth lodges” were constructed for sweating ceremonies, clan rituals or warrior societies. The Mandans erected “medicine poles” on houses, medicine lodges and plazas, which either brought “good luck” or memorialized past events. They also built platform like structures for drying maize or desiccating the bodies of deceased loved ones.

Although the surviving Mandan, Arikara and Hidatsa peoples no longer live in earth lodges, several have been constructed at former village sites as living history museum exhibits. The most accurate reconstruction of Mandan, Arikara & Hidatsa houses may be seen at the Four Bears Park near Newtown, North Dakota on the Fort Berthold Reservation of the Three Affiliated Tribes. This project was the first time in over 100 years that these Native peoples had constructed an earth lodge.

Most encyclopedia entries and archaeology books, written by non-Native Americans, state that Mandan-style earth lodges were built on top of mounds in the Southeast. They also label Siouan pit houses in the Midwest and Southeast as earth lodges – plus call Creek Indian chokopa’s “Mandan earth lodges.” These statements are absolutely not true.

The source of these inaccuracies is the consistent failure of non-Native scholars to communicate directly with Native American tribes and scholars. The Mandan earth lodge is probably descended from the Siouan pit house, but the pit house had a thatch or shingle roof on top. It was much smaller and lacked the heavy structural support of a Mandan house. The Creek chokopa’s are entirely different structures that were descended from folk temples to the god, Quetzalcoatl, in Mexico. In fact, chokopa means “warm place” in Chontal Maya.


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