Hidatsa Indians. A Siouan tribe living, since first known to the whites, in the vicinity of the junction of Knife river with the Missouri, North Dakota, in intimate connection with the Mandan and Arikara. Their language is closely akin to that of the Crows, with whom they claim to have been united until some time before the historic period, when the two separated in consequence of a quarrel over the division of some game, the Crows then drawing off farther to the west.
The name Hidatsa, by which they now call themselves, has been said, with doubtful authority, to mean ‘willows,’ and is stated by Matthews to have been originally the name only of a principal village of the tribe in their old home on Knife river.1 It probably came to be used as the tribe name, after the smallpox epidemic of 1837, from the consolidation of the survivors of the other two villages with those of Hidatsa. By the Mandan they are known as Minitarí, signifying ‘they crossed the water,’ traditionally said to refer to their having crossed Missouri river from the east. The Sioux call them Hewaktokto, said to mean ‘dwellers on a ridge,’ but more probably signifying ‘spreading tipis,’ or ‘tipis in a row,’ the name by which they are known to the Cheyenne and Arapaho. The sign gesture in each case would be nearly the same (Mooney). The Crows call them Amashi, ‘earth lodges,’ and they are now officially known as Gros Ventres, a name applied also to the Atsina, a detached tribe of the Arapaho.
According to their own tradition the Hidatsa came from the neighborhood of a lake north east of their later home, and identified by some of their traditionalists with Miniwakan or Devils lake, North Dakota They had here the circular earth-covered log house, in use also by the Mandan, Arikara, and other tribes living close along the upper Missouri, in addition to the skin tipi occupied when on the hunt. Removing from there, perhaps in consequence of attacks by the Sioux, they moved southwest and allied themselves with the Mandan, who then lived on the west side of the Missouri, about the mouth of Heart river. The three tribes, Hidatsa, Mandan, and Arikara were all living in this vicinity about 1765. From the Mandan the Hidatsa learned agriculture. Some time before 1796 these two tribes moved up the river to the vicinity of Knife river, where they were found by Lewis and Clark in 1804, the Hidatsa being then in three villages immediately on Knife river, while the Mandan, in two villages, were a few miles lower down, on the Missouri. The largest of the three villages of the tribe was called Hidatsa and was on the north bank of Knife river. The other two, Amatiha and Amahami, or Mahaha, were on the south side. The last named was occupied by the Amahami (Ahnahaway of Lewis and Clark), formerly a distinct but closely related tribe. In consequence of the inroads of the Sioux they had been so far reduced that they had been compelled to unite with the Hidatsa, and have long since been completely absorbed.
The three villages together had a population of about 600 warriors, equivalent to about 2,100 souls. Of these the Amahami counted about 50 warriors. There was no change in the location of the villages until after the terrible smallpox epidemic of 1837, which so greatly reduced the Indian population of the upper Missouri, and in consequence of which the survivors of the three villages consolidated into one. In 1845 they, and about the same time the remnant of the Mandan also, moved up the river and established themselves in a new village2 close to the trading post of Ft Berthold, on the north bank of the Missouri and some distance below the entrance of the Little Missouri, in North Dakota. In 1862 the Arikara moved up to the same location, the three tribes now occupying a reservation of 884,780 acres on the north east side of the Missouri, including the site of the village. In 1905 the Hidatsa (Gros Ventres) were officially reported to number only 471.
Early writers describe the Hidatsa as somewhat superior intellectually and physically to their neighbors, although according to Matthews this is not so evident in later days. In home life, religious beliefs and customs, house building, agriculture, the use of the skin boat, and general arts, they closely resembled the Mandan with whom they were associated. Their great ceremony was the Sun dance, called by them Da-hpi-ke, which was accompanied with various forms of torture. Their warriors were organized into various military societies, as is the case with the Plains tribes generally.
Morgan3 gives a list of 7 Hidatsa “gentes,” which were probably really original village names, or possibly society names, viz:
Seech-ka-be-ruh-pä’ka (`prairie chicken’),
E-tish-sho’-ka (‘hill people’),
Ah-nali-ha-nä’-me-te (an unknown animal),
The list of” bands” given by Culbertson4 is really a list of military societies, viz: Fox, Foolish Dog, Old Dog, Bull, and Blacktailed Deers.
Gros Ventres (French, ‘big bellies’) A term applied by the French, and after them by others, to two entirely distinct tribes:
- (1) the Atsina, or Hitunena, a detached band of the Arapaho.
- (2) the Hidatsa, or Minitari. In the Lewis and Clark narrative of 1806 the former are distinguished as Minitarees of Fort de Prairie and the latter as Minitarees of the Missouri, although there is no proper warrant for applying the name Minitari to the Atsina. The two tribes have also been distinguished as Grosventres of the Missouri (Hidatsa) and Grosventres of the Prairie (Atsina). The name as applied to the Atsina originates Irons the Indian sign by which they are designated in the sign language, a sweeping pass with both hands in front of the abdomen, intended to convey the idea of ‘always hungry,’ i. e., ‘beggars.’ A clew to its application to the Hidatsa is given in the statement of Matthews5 that the Hidatsa formerly tattooed parallel stripes across the chest, and were thus sometimes distinguished in picture writings. The gesture sign to indicate this style of tattooing would be sufficiently similar to that used to designate the Atsina to lead the careless observer to interpret both as “Gros Ventres.” The ordinary sign now used by the southern Plains tribes to indicate the Hidatsa is interpreted to mean ‘spreading tipis’ or ‘row of lodges.’