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Hidatsa Pitek, Emily


The Hidatsa are native to the North American Plains, and traditionally lived in semipermanent villages along the upper Missouri River and its tributaries in what is now northwestern North Dakota. Since 1868, the Hidatsa (along with the Mandan and Arikara) have lived on the Fort Berthold Reservation in North Dakota. This entry focuses on Hidatsa society as it existed prior to the last major smallpox outbreak of 1837, which decimated the Hidatsa population and marked the beginning of more intensive and frequent contact with Europeans and Americans, and subsequent cultural change. This entry relies mainly on information collected by principal ethnographic authority Alfred W. Bowers, who completed fieldwork at Fort Berthold Reservation from 1932-1933. Bowers used the memories of older informants, archaeological data, and early records to reconstruct the period of time prior to 1837. Historically, the Hidatsa lived in three independent villages along the Knife River: Hidatsa-proper, Awatixa, and Awakawi. Each village was led by a council composed of chiefs and ceremonial and war leaders; top leadership positions were held by the owners of certain sacred ceremonial bundles specific to each village. The three villages had a tribal council (of about 10 members) charged with defense against common enemies and the general welfare of the villages. The Hidatsa did not have a clear distinction between secular and religious roles: ceremonial leaders held status equal with or greater than that of chiefs. Social organization centered around elaborate clan and age-grade systems. A clan was a named matrilineal group associated with its own traditions and mythology and was responsible for taking care of its members. Clans cut across villages, and were important aspects of social, economic, and ceremonial life. Additionally, “…the entire male and female population was arranged in a series of groupings based on age. For the greater part of the population, these groups were formally organized with names, symbols of membership, songs, and prescribed rites and rules of behavior” (Bowers, 1954:174). Both men and women had religious societies within the age-grade system, and men also had military societies. An individual’s clan and age-grade determined his or her position/role in the village, as well as social and ceremonial duties. The Hidatsa have an extensive and elaborate ceremonial system associated with various supernatural beings, natural phenomena, and agricultural and subsistence cycles. It is important to note that “at the base of all Hidatsa religious activities and concepts is the belief in individual and group-owned supernatural powers which are controlled according to long-standing rules” (Bowers, 1965:282). These supernatural powers are acquired from supernatural beings during vision experiences, and are associated with either tribal or personal sacred bundles. The owner of a sacred/ritual bundle also possesses the associated myth and ceremonial procedures. The owner thus leads the associated ceremony and is responsible for knowing where it lies in the ceremonial cycle (e.g. which ceremonies precede and follow). The ceremonial system is open to the occasional introduction of new bundle rites (the result of purchase or vision experiences). Because Hidatsa religious beliefs and practices are interwoven throughout society as a whole, this entry considers the religious group to be coterminous with Hidatsa society itself.

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Attribution 4.0 International