Cultivating Community: Agriculture and the Upper Missouri Tribes

In the early nineteenth century, the Upper Missouri tribes, including the Maha, Ponca, Arikara, Mandan, and Hidatsa, lived in a land of plenty. Great herds of bison roamed the northern plains, large schools of fish swam in the murky waters of the Missouri, and the grassland grew an abundance of wild fruits and vegetables. The tribes tapped all of these natural resources for food and fiber. And in order to supplement their diet of wild produce, they grew beans, squash, pumpkins, sunflowers, watermelons, and maize.

By practicing a mixed subsistence pattern of hunting and gathering, as well as agriculture, the tribes maintained a varied, healthy diet. Such a wide range of foods also protected the tribes against disaster.

German Prince Maximilian of Wied, who traveled up the Missouri River in 1833 on board one of the first steamboats to visit the region, noticed that the combination of hunting and gathering, along with agriculture, reduced the risk of short-term food shortages and long-term famine. He wrote, “The Indians residing in permanent villages have the advantage of the roving, hunting tribes in that they not only hunt but derive their chief subsistence from their plantations [farmlands] which afford them a degree of security against distress.”[1]

Of the crops grown by the tribes, maize reigned supreme as a source of food.

The river tribes had spent centuries selectively choosing the most resilient varieties of maize. By the 1800s, they grew varieties that were resistant to drought, extreme summer heat, excessive moisture, frost, and even hailstones.

All told, the Upper Missouri River tribes grew about fifty different varieties of corn. The Mandan alone grew thirteen different varieties. One popular variety had a high protein content, another was high in starch, and a third contained loads of sugar. As a result, the Indians met their dietary needs for protein and carbohydrates.

The maize grown along the Upper Missouri grew shorter than today’s corn. It rarely reached over six feet high and was usually less than four feet high; whereas modern corn can grow as tall as ten feet. Furthermore, each stalk possessed only two ears of corn. But in a good year, when the Upper Missouri country maintained a perfect balance between rainfall, hours of sunshine, and temperatures, corn stalks might produce three ears.

Indian corn grew quickly, reaching maturity in about sixty days. The corn had to mature fast because of the short growing season prevalent across the region. The last frost might occur in late May or early June, while the first frost could arrive in the wake of norther as early as mid-August.

Women did almost all of the agricultural work. Maximilian recalled, “The building of the huts, manufacture of their arms, hunting, and wars, and part of the labors of the harvest are the occupations of the men. The women…lay out the plantations, perform the field labor, etc.”[2] John Bradbury, who in 1811 visited the river tribes in today’s North Dakota, recalled that, “The women as is the custom with the Indians do all the drudgery, and are excellent cultivators.”[3]

Although Bradbury equated agricultural work with drudgery, we should not assume that Native American women thought the same way. Buffalo Bird Woman, who was interviewed by anthropologist Gilbert Wilson in the early 1900s, stated that women in the Hidatsa tribe took great pride in their agricultural work. They viewed the work, and its results, as personally and socially empowering.

The women carefully chose the location of their fields. Proper site selection could be the difference between a successful harvest or a crop failure. The three biggest considerations in determining the location of a field were soil fertility, proximity to the Missouri River and distance from the village. The best soils lay in the Missouri Valley, where centuries of floods had deposited a mineral-rich silt. Although the most fertile soils lay close to the river, the Indians did not plant crops on the river’s immediate banks. It was just too risky to do so. At those places, floodwaters and caving banks could wash away months of work in a mere instant. Instead, they chose sites atop the valley’s second terrace or on the high banks inside one of the river’s many bends. Maximilian observed that, “…their fields are on the low banks of the river, sufficiently sheltered by eminences, where the soil is particularly fruitful.”[4] Sometimes the Indians planted fields on flood-proof islands, which they paddled out to aboard bullboats (round vessels made out of oiled bison robes placed over a frame of willow saplings). None of their fields lay far from the village. No one wanted to walk a great distance to a field, work all day there, and then have to hike, exhausted, back home in the evening. Plus, distant fields increased the chances of losing the crop to thieves; or worse, women working in the fields alone, far from their menfolk, had a greater likelihood of being kidnapped, raped, or murdered by one of the tribe’s enemies.  

Each able-bodied woman had her own garden plot; or she shared a plot with the other females in her family.

There was no standard field size. Women farmed what they considered necessary for their own needs. Maximilian noted that most families cultivated between three and five acres.

Private property as we now know it did not exist among the tribes. No one owned their plot of land. Use equalled ownership. So long as an individual or family cleared and planted a particular piece of land, they had the rights to its produce. But as soon as anyone quit using a parcel of land, the land could go to someone else. The Hidatsa considered it very bad form for anyone to engage in a dispute over land or to try and acquire someone else’s plot. Buffalo Bird Woman believed the spirits afflicted anyone who sought the land of another.

Before agricultural work commenced in late April or early May, a shaman blessed each field and prayed for a successful growing season.

At the conclusion of the ceremony, the women, armed with digging sticks and hoes made from bison scapula, scraped their fields clean of brush and dried grass, or stubble if the field had grown a crop in the preceding year. Adventurist Henry Boller, who lived along the Upper Missouri in the late 1850s and early 1860s, wrote, “In the spring, as soon as the frost is out of the ground, the women break up their patches of land, every foot must be turned up and loosened with the hoe….”[5]

The women then collected the dead grass, brush, and stubble into a series of small piles, which they burned. Once the fires had sputtered out, they used elk antler rakes to spread the nitrogen-rich ash across the entire field. Native women did not fertilize with manure because they believed it brought weed seeds into their plots. Maximilian recalled, “The Mandans and Manitaries [Hidatsa] cultivate very fine maize without ever manuring the ground….”[6]

After finishing with land clearing and fertilization, the women piled batches of dirt into small mounds, about a foot and a half high and three to four feet apart. They then wielded a digging stick to hollow out a small opening on the top of the mound. About eight kernels of corn went into each mound, which were covered with loose soil. Beans were planted between the mounds.

In May and early June, the women cultivated their fields, hoeing weeds and piling additional earth around the mounds that held the corn.

To pass the time while working the land, the women sang songs. They possessed a rich repertoire of songs that had been specifically created for field work. Some of them sang love songs to the corn, hoping to encourage its growth.

Europeans and European-Americans often remarked on how well the Indian women tended to their fields. Bradbury stated, “I have not seen, even in the United States, any crop of Indian corn in finer order or better managed, than the corn about these…villages.”[7]

Scavengers posed a constant threat to the corn crop. If given a chance, birds plucked the recently-planted seeds from the earth or ate the young corn shoots. To keep the birds away, the Hidatsa built scarecrows (made of branches, bison robes, and gourd rattles) in the center of their fields. If the scarecrows failed to frighten the birds, the women changed tactics by erecting scaffolds either in the center of their fields or along the edges, where they sat and banged on metal pots, shook rattles, and waved blankets whenever a bird appeared nearby.

Sometimes during the early weeks of the growing season, a lack of rainfall forced the women to march down to the river’s edge with baskets, which they filled with the Missouri’s silty, cold water, and then hauled back up to their parched crops. The Indians did not use gravity irrigation to water crops since doing so would have required the placement of their fields too close to the unpredictable river.

In late June and early July, the river tribes left the Missouri Valley to hunt bison and elk on the high plains. At this time, the crops remained unattended for weeks. But in August, the Indians returned to the Missouri River trench.

As the ears of corn neared maturity, the women became more vigilant, spending long hours each day perched atop their scaffolds, keeping a close eye on their fields to prevent deer, raccoons, rabbits, and birds from eating any of the corn, pumpkins, and beans. This was one of the only times of the year when young women were not engaged in arduous daily work.

Because the women were otherwise unoccupied atop the platforms, young men considered this an ideal time to try to woo them. According to Buffalo Bird Woman, young men approached the scaffolds in the evening hours and professed their love and devotion to their favorite sweethearts. Older men tried to win over some of the single older women by bragging about their hunting prowess or bravery in horse stealing raids.

Buffalo Bird Woman recounted a song she sang to young men who sought her affections. “You young man of the Dog society…I have heard news of you; when the fight was on, you ran and hid! And you think you are a brave young man! Behold you have joined the Dog Society. Therefore, I call you just plain dog!”[8] Buffalo Bird Woman played hard to get.

Green corn was the first crop to be harvested. All the river tribes considered it a delicacy, akin to candy. The tribes usually harvested it in the second week of August. Artist George Catlin remembered, “The green corn is considered a great luxury by all these tribes… It is ready for eating as soon as the ear is of full size and the kernels are expanded to their full growth, but are yet soft and pulpy.”[9] Large celebrations always accompanied the green corn harvest.

The Indians harvested the other corn varieties, as well as the melons, squash, beans, pumpkins, and sunflower seeds, when they reached maturity later in the season.

After all the crops had been harvested, a portion of each crop was dried out and placed in underground caches. The storage of crop surpluses ensured a steady food supply throughout the year.

In the nineteenth century, the Indian agriculturalists of the Upper Missouri possessed a set of values and engaged in modes of production that not only met their needs for food, but also enhanced their environmental awareness, strengthened their ties to community, and empowered the women who did the work.

Of course, the world of the Upper Missouri’s female agriculturalists is gone, obliterated by the constructs and impersonal modes of production of modernity. And sadly, in that world’s passing, humanity lost a deep connection to the prairies and plains, to one another, and to the Missouri River.

Endnotes 

[1] Alexander P. Maximilian, Early Western Travels, 1748-1846, Volume XXIII, Part II of Maximilian, Prince of Wied’s Travels in the Interior of North America, 1832-1834, ed., Reuben Gold Thwaites, (Cleveland, Ohio: The Arthur H. Clark Company, 1906), 274. Maximilian Journal, 274.

[2] Ibid., 271.

[3] John Bradbury, Early Western Travels, 1748-1846, Volume V, Bradbury’s Travels in the Interior of America, 1809-1811, ed., Reuben Gold Thwaites, The Arthur H. Clark Company (1904; reprint, Carlisle, Massachusetts: Applewood Books, 175, Unknown Publication Date).

[4] Maximilian, Prince of Wied’s Travels, 241.

[5] Henry A. Boller, edited by Milo Milton Quaife, Among the Indians: Four Years on the Upper Missouri, 1858-1862, (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1972), 118.

[6] Maximilian, Prince of Wied’s Travels, 241.

[7] Bradbury, Travels in the Interior of America, 175.

[8] Gilbert L. Wilson, Buffalo Bird Woman’s Garden: Agriculture of the Hidatsa Indians, (St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 1987), 34.

[9] George Catlin, Letters and Notes on the North American Indians, (North Dighton, Massachusetts: JG Press, 1995), 212-213.

Above photograph courtesy of the State Historical Society of North Dakota, Bismarck, ND.

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