Mandan Tribe

Mandan Indians. A Siouan tribe of the northwest. The name, according to Maximilian, originally given by the Sioux is believed by Matthews to be a corruption of the Dakota Mawatani. Previous to 1830 they called themselves simply Numakiki, ‘people’ (Matthews). Maximilian says “if they wish to particularize their descent they add the name of the village whence they came originally.” Hayden gives Miah’tanēs, ‘ people on the bank,’ as the name they apply to themselves, and draws from this the inference that “they must have resided on the banks of the Missouri at a very remote period.” According to Morgan 1 the native name of the tribe is Metootahäk, South villagers.’ Their relations, so far as known historically and traditionally, have been most intimate with the Hidatsa; yet, judged by the linguistic test, their position must be nearer the Winnebago.

Matthews appears to consider the Hidatsa and Mandan descendants from the same immediate stem. Their traditions regarding their early history are scant and almost entirely mythological. All that can be gathered from them is the indication that at some time they lived in a more easterly locality in the vicinity of a lake. This tradition, often repeated by subsequent authors, is given by Lewis and Clark, as follows: “The whole nation resided in one large village underground near a subterraneous lake; a grapevine extended its roots down to their habitation and gave them a view of the light; some of the most adventurous climbed up the vine and were delighted with the sight of the earth, which they found covered with buffalo and rich with every kind of fruits; returning with the grapes they had gathered, their countrymen were so pleased with the taste of these that the whole nation resolved to leave their dull residence for the charms of the upper region; men, women, and children ascended by means of the vine; but when about half the nation had reached the surface of the earth, a corpulent woman who was clambering up the vine broke it with her weight, and closed upon herself and the rest of the nation the light of the sun. Those who were left on earth made a village below, where we saw the nine villages; and when the Mandan die they expect to return to the original seats of their forefathers, the good reaching the ancient village by means of the lake, which the burden of the sins of the wicked will not enable them to cross.” Maximilian says: “They affirm that they descended originally from the more eastern nations, near the seacoast.” Their linguistic relation to the Winnebago and the fact that their movements in their historic era have been westward up the Missouri correspond with their tradition of a more easterly origin, and would seemingly locate them in the vicinity of the upper lakes. It is possible that the tradition which has long prevailed in the region of north west Wisconsin regarding the so-called “ground-house Indians” who once lived in that section and dwelt in circular earth lodges, partly underground, applies to the people of this tribe, although other tribes of this general region formerly lived in houses of this character. Assuming that the Mandan formerly resided in the vicinity of the upper Mississippi, it is probable that they moved down this stream for some distance before passing to the Missouri. The fact that when first encountered by the whites they relied to some extent on agriculture as a means of subsistence would seem to justify the conclusion that they were at some time in the past in a section where agriculture was practiced. It is possible, as Morgan contends, that they learned agriculture from the Hidatsa, but the reverse has more often been maintained. Catlin’s theory that they formerly lived in Ohio and built mounds, and moved thence to the north west is without any basis. The traditions regarding their immigrations, as given by Maximilian, commence with their arrival at the Missouri. The point where this stream was first reached was at the mouth of White River, South Dakota. From this point they moved up the Missouri to Moreau River, where they came in contact with the Cheyenne, and where also the formation of “bands or unions” began. Thence they continued up the Missouri to Heart river, North Dakota, where they were residing at the time of the first known visit of the whites, but it is probable that trappers and traders visited them earlier.

The first recorded visit to the Mandan was that by the Sieur de la Verendrye in 1738. About 1750 they were settled near the mouth of Heart River in 9 villages, 2 on the east and 7 on the west side. Remains of these villages were found by Lewis and Clark in 1804. Having suffered severely from smallpox and the attacks of the Assiniboin and Dakota, the inhabitants of the two eastern villages consolidated and moved up the Missouri to a point opposite the Arikara. The same causes soon reduced the other villages to 5 whose inhabitants subsequently joined those in the Arikara entry, forming 2 villages, which in 1776 were likewise merged. Thus the whole tribe was reduced to 2 villages, Metutanke and Ruptari, situated about 4 miles below the month of Knife River, on opposite sides of the Missouri. These two villages were visited by Lewis and Clark in 1804. In 1837 they were almost destroyed by smallpox, only 31 souls out of 1,600, according to one account, being left, although other and probably more reliable counts make the number of survivors from 125 to 145. After that time they occupied a single village. In 1845, when the Hidatsa removed front Knife River, some of the Mandan went with them, and others flowed at intervals. According to Mathews, some moved up to the village at Berthold as late as 1858. By treaty at the Mandan village, July 30, 1825, they entered into peaceable relations with the United States. They participated in the Laramie (Wyo.) treaty of Sept. 17, 1851, by which the boundaries of the tribes of the north were defined, and in the unratified treaty of Ft Berthold, Dakota, July 27, 1866. By Executive order of Apr. 12, 1870, a large reservation was set apart for the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara Indians in North Dakota and Montana, along Missouri and Little Missouri rivers, which included the Mandan village, then situated on the left bank of the Missouri in lat. 47° 34′, lon. 101° 48′.

By agreement at Ft Berthold Agency, Dec. 1866, the Alandan, Arikara, and Hidatsa ceded that portion of their reservation north of lat. 48°, and east of a north and south line 6 miles west of the most westerly point of the big bend of Missouri river, south of lat. 48°. Provision was also made for allotment in severalty of the remaining portion.

According to Maximilian the Mandan were vigorous, well made, rather above medium stature, many of them being robust, broad-shouldered, and muscular. Their noses, not so long and arched as those of the Sioux, were sometimes aquiline or slightly curved, sometimes quite straight, never broad; nor had they such high cheek bones as the Sioux. Some of e women were robust and rather tall, though usually they were short and broad shouldered. The men paid the greatest attention to their headdress. They sometimes wore at the back of the head a long, stiff ornament made of small sticks entwined with wire, fastened to the hair and aching down to the shoulders, which is covered with porcupine quills dyed various colors in neat patterns. At the upper end of this ornament an eagle feather as fastened horizontally, the quill end which was covered with red cloth and the tip ornamented with it hunch of horse hair dyed yellow. These ornaments varied and were symbolic. Tattooing was practiced to a limited extent, mostly on the left breast and area, with black parallel stripes and a few other figures.

The Mandan villages were assemblages of circular clay-covered log huts placed close together without regard to order. Anciently these were surrounded with palisades of strong posts. The huts were slightly vaulted and were provided with a sort of portico. In the center of the roof was a square opening for the exit of the smoke, over which was a circular screen made of twigs. The interior was spacious. Four strong pillars near the middle, with several crossbeams, supported the roof. The dwelling was covered outside with matting made of osiers, over which was laid hay .or grass, and then a covering of earth. “The beds stand against the wall of the hut; they consist of a large square case made of parchment or skins, with a square entrance, and are large enough to hold several persons, who lie very conveniently and warm on skins and blankets.” They cultivated maize, beans, gourds, and the sunflower, and manufactured earthenware, the clay being tempered with flint or granite reduced to powder by the action of fire. Polygamy was common among them. Their beliefs and ceremonies were similar to those of the Plains tribes generally. The Mandan have always been friendly to the United States, and since 1866 a number of the men have been enlisted as scouts.

In Lewis and Clark’s time the Mandan were estimated to number 1,250, and in 1837 1,600 souls, but about the latter date they were reduced by smallpox to between 125 and 150. In 1850 the number given was 150; in 1852 it had apparently increased to 385; in 1871, to 450; in 1877 the number given was 420; it was 410 in 1885, and 249 in 1905.

There were, according to Morgan 2 the following divisions, which seem to have corresponded with their villages before consolidation:

  • Horatamumake (Kharatanunanke)
  • Matonumake (Matonumanke)
  • Seepooshka (Sipushkanumanke)
  • Tanatsuka (Tanetsukanumanke)
  • Kitanemake (Khitanumanke)
  • Estapa (Histapenumanke)
  • Meteahke


  1. Morgan, Syst. Consang. and Affin., 285,[]
  2. Morgan, Am’. Soc., 158, 1877,[]


Hodge, Frederick Webb, Compiler. The Handbook of American Indians North of Mexico. Bureau of American Ethnology, Government Printing Office. 1906.

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