Above: A Mandan Earthlodge

Historical Overview from MHANation.com, the official website of the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara, known as the Three Affiliated Tribes.

The Mandan, Hidatsa, and Sahnish live in the Missouri River area. Historians document the first tribe to occupy this area was the Mandan with the Hidatsa. The Sahnish moved up the river later. The Mandan and Hidatsa people were originally woodland people who moved to the plains at various times. One theory is the Mandan moved from the area of southern Minnesota and northern Iowa to the plains in South Dakota about 900 A.D., and slowly migrated north along the Missouri River to North Dakota about 1000 A.D. The Hidatsa moved from central Minnesota to the eastern part of North Dakota near Devils Lake, and moved to join the Mandan at the Missouri River about 1600 A.D. The Mandan and Hidatsa believe they were created in this area and have always lived here.

According to anthropologists, the Sahnish people lived in an area that extended from the Gulf of Mexico, across Kansas, Nebraska, South Dakota. Dates of migrations all Three Tribes have been determined by archeological investigation of village sites constructed along the Missouri and elsewhere.  Many of these sites, although collapsed and abandoned long before, were excavated along the Missouri River during the 1950’s and 1960’s.

In the 1995 the North Dakota Historical Society completed the Missouri Trench National Historical Landmark Theme Study  that summarized the archeological investigation of the Missouri River area from southern South Dakota through North Dakota to Montana.  Many of the sites were of Mandan, Hidatsa, and Sahnish origins.

Ethnographers (people who study cultural societies) group people by the languages they used or were likely to be used by a single group at one time. Indian nations were divided into several linguistic groups. The Mandan and Hidatsa tribes belong to the Siouxan linguistic group, along with the Crow, Dakota, Lakota, Yanktonai, Assiniboine, Iowa-Oto- Missouri, Quapaw, Omaha-Ponca-Osage-Kansa. The Sahnish belong to the Caddoan linguistic group, along with the Pawnee, Caddo, Wichita, Anadarko, Skidi, Tawakoni and Waco. This guide links the oral and written histories of the Mandan, Hidatsa and Sahnish to provide a more accurate viewpoint. The oral tradition preserved the history and ceremonies of the Tribes through a strict and sacred process, thereby adding to the validity of oral tradition

Mandan and Hidatsa Tribes Thrived
As European explorers discovered the Mandan and Hidatsa, they had created a focal point of trade on the Missouri River.  All of the plains tribes came to barter for agricultural good and products.  Called the "Marketplace of the Central Plains", the Mandan established what was to be the forerunner of trading posts that came later to the area. The Mandan prospered and grew powerful up to 1772.  Their remaining history is summed up in their own tradition as related to Lewis and Clark and Maximilian.Formerly they lived happily and prosperously in nine large villages on the Missouri near the mouth of the Heart River. Six or seven of these villages were on the west side and two or three were on the east side of the river.  For a great many years they lived there when one day the smallpox came to those on the east side of the river. The survivors then proceeded up the river some forty miles where they settled in one large village.  Lewis & Clark report that the tribes battled with other Sioux as they were weakened by succeeding epidemics.

Small Pox Decimates People and Culture
Each tribe maintained separate bands, clan systems, and separate ceremonial bundles. After the devastation of the small pox epidemics of 1792, 1836, and 1837, homogenous societies evolved for economic and social survival. The three tribes lived in earth lodges, were farmers, hunted wild game and relied heavily on the buffalo for food, shelter, clothing, and animal pans for making various utensils and garden tools.  They maintained a vast trading system and were considered middlemen by neighboring tribes with different types of trade products.