Tuesday, June 2, 2009


Picture a woman working in rich dark soil in a garden featuring corn, pumpkins and sunflowers along the Missouri River near Bismarck, ND, on a hot summer day. A boat draws up to the bank and a couple of people step onto the shore with a catch of fish. Frolicking nearby are several children and their dogs.

Have you got that image fixed in your mind? Great! Now revise it to picture, instead of a motorboat, a bowl-shaped bent willow boat covered with buffalo hide. Picture the people, not as whites, but as Indians - Mandan Indians, to be specific.

"MANDAN VILLAGE " - George Catlin

I, who feel such a bond with the Ancient Celts of Britain that I have begun to study them in earnest, found myself wondering why I had been ignoring an indigenous people who at one time lived almost next door to me and who bear such similarities to the Celts.

So I began to learn about the Mandans of the Upper Missouri, Heart and Knife Rivers of North Dakota, and discovered a people who are just as fascinating to me as the Celts. And as quickly as I learned to admire the Mandans, I had to mourn them, for they have, as a pure race, been wiped off the face of the earth.

DANCE" - Karl Bodmer

The Mandans were a sedentary tribe, as opposed to nomadic Indians like the Dakota (Sioux). (In this post I will be using the term Indian exclusively, since the term Native American was not substituted - for purposes of political correctness - until the late 20th Century). They lived and farmed in the extremely fertile river bottom lands, only traveling and setting up tipis when hunting the buffalo.

They were also different from the Sioux and many other Indians in that they were a friendly, peaceful lot, always eager to offer the peace pipe and trade goods to strangers. (However, although they were never the first to start a conflict, they were always prepared for war and fiercely defended their villages when attacked.)

Lewis and Clark and their crew encountered such hospitality from the Mandans that they decided to overwinter with them in 1804-1805, building an encampment called Fort Mandan, named in honor of the tribe.

MANDAN CHIEF" - Karl Bodmer

The Mandans lived in dome-shaped earthen and timber lodges, usually perched on a high bluff overlooking a river. Villages consisted of about 40 lodges, with each lodge being home to about 10 people. They grew the aforementioned sunflowers, corn and pumpkins, plus other gourds, beans, squash and tobacco.

They traded those crops (especially the corn), their excellent Knife River flint, buffalo robes and other furs for horses, guns, knives, blankets, tools, cooking implements, beads and cloth. They first traded with other Indian tribes, and then also with white trappers and traders. They became experienced middlemen in a trade system that reached north to Canada and south to Mexico and extended to both coasts.

But far and above agriculture and trade, the buffalo (properly, bison) was the key to the Mandans' daily life. The buffalo provided food, clothing, tools and more. Indeed, the Mandans used every part of the buffalo. Every year, they held a very important "Calling the Buffalo" ceremony, a ritual dance meant to draw the buffalo close enough to be killed.

Another extremely important ceremony was the four-day Okipa, a variation on the Sun Dance held by many Plains Indians. It featured gruesome self-torture ordeals through which the young warriors proved their courage and gained the approval of the spirits. Only men were allowed to attend this event. However, the Mandan women held their own dance, Ptihn-Tak-Ochata, The Dance of the White Buffalo Cow Society. The leading woman wore a robe made of the sacred white buffalo hide, and each woman wore a hat made from it.


INDIAN" - Karl Bodmer

During the hunt, the Mandans took only what buffalo they could use, unlike the whites who slaughtered thousands of buffalo and left the carcasses to rot on the plains. After the hunt, it was the women of the tribe - along with dogs pulling travois - who had to pack out everything and then prepare the hides and process the rest of the animal. But at least at home, the women's position was better, for they were the mistresses of the fields. The crops - and the lodges - belonged to them, and were passed down through the female line.

After their gardening, cooking and multiple other domestic chores were done, the women quilled or embroidered beautiful patterns on their clothing. They had also learned to fire decorative clay beads, and made beautiful clay pots. The men hunted and learned fighting skills. Painter George Catlin noted that the men had plenty of leisure time to play games and sports.

Women usually wore long deerskin dresses belted at the waist. Their fancy dresses featured elk teeth, cowrie shells and embroidery. Men wore buckskin tunics, breech cloths and leggings. Ceremonial men's clothing was highly decorated with beading, porcupine quills and feathers. The chiefs wore eagle feather war bonnets, but instead of the feathers spreading out in the usual fan shape, they were fashioned so as to cascade down the wearer's back. Both men and women wore moccasins, and buffalo hide robes in the winter.

"FOUR BEARS" - George Catlin

The Mandans had some very interesting cultural traits, including a creation myth which said that some of their ancestors climbed to the earth's surface on a grapevine from their underground home beside a subterranean river. They liked the buffalo and fruit of the plains so much that they decided to stay above ground. Their great mythical hero was the Lone Man, and a sacred cedar post representing him was always placed in a central plaza among their lodges.

Tribes were divided into clans, each clan possessing a bundle that held objects believed to hold sacred powers bestowed by the spirits. Those holding the bundles were also considered to have sacred powers and thus were considered the priests or leaders of the clan and tribe.

The Mandans' first recorded contact with Europeans was with the French Canadian explorer Pierre (Sieur) de la Verendrye in 1758. Other notable contacts were with artists who recorded the Mandan way of life, including Catlin, an American, and the Swiss painter Karl Bodmer. Both artists painted the great Mandan chief Four Bears (Mato-Tope or Mah-To-Toh-Pe). Each lived among the Mandan for a time in the 1830s and amassed a pictorial history of their daily life and ceremonies.

"FOUR BEARS" - Karl Bodmer

The Mandans' greatest difference from other Indians was in their physical appearance. Some members of the tribe were described as being "nearly" or "almost" white ("half white" according to William Clark) because they had European features; had light skin; hazel, grey or blue eyes and sported fair hair - either blonde and as fine as silk or a light silvery grey no matter the person's age.

Catlin, who found the Mandans distinctly different from all the other Indian tribes he had studied, wrote that "A stranger in the Mandan village is first struck with the different shades of complexions, and various colors of hair which he sees in a crowd about him, and is almost disposed to exclaim that these are not Indians." The Mandans, he said, had "a most pleasing symmetry and proportion of their features."

Along with others, Catlin believed that the Mandan were the "Welsh Indians" of folklore, descendants of Prince Madoc ab Owain Gwynedd of Wales! Supposedly, Prince Madoc and his followers immigrated to America from Wales in 1170. The Welsh settlers, the story goes, headed west and eventually arrived in North Dakota where they were assimilated into the aboriginal culture, giving the Mandans their European appearance. It was also reported that the Mandan language was very similar to Welsh!

Another explanation set forth for what was sometimes described as the Mandans' somewhat "Nordic" appearance is that they had contact with the Vikings during their Pre-Columbian foray into the New World. Some Scandinavian scholars have found remarkable similarities between Mandan lodges and dwellings used by Nordic Greenlanders.

Both theories have been generally discredited. Lewis and Clark and John Evans, a Welshman sent to search for Madoc's descendants, separately concluded that Welsh-speaking aboriginal peoples did not exist.

But if not Welsh or Scandinavian, "then who?", asks Charles W. Moore in "The Mystery of the Mandans". What is the answer to all their differences? How did they come to be in possesion of myths - not exclusively Christian myths - shared by people from the four corners of the earth, such as a deluge story, the fall from grace of a primal mother and a virgin birth of a child who later performed miracles?

"The Mandan mystery may never be solved," concluded Moore. Or as Catlin put it, the Mandan lived "just long enough to be imperfectly known."

George Catlin

In the 1750s, when the Mandan were living in nine villages along the Heart River, they numbered about 3600 people. After suffering epidemics of white men's diseases like smallpox, typhoid and whooping cough, and repeated attacks by the stronger Sioux and Assiniboin, the Mandans were forced, on several occasions, to move ever farther north up the Missouri. By the time Lewis and Clark arrived, they numbered only about 1600.

The friendliness, hospitality and trusting nature of the Mandans, in my opinion, led to their downfall. The first, smaller epidemics had been brought by white traders. A catastrophic major smallpox epidemic in 1837-38 again arrived with the white man, via a steamboat from St. Louis. The terrible scourge, to which they had no immunity, killed 90% of the population, leaving only about 125 Mandans alive!

The few survivors moved to Fort Berthold for protection and were assimilated into other two tribes, the Hidatsas and Arikaras. They are now known as The Three Affiliated Tribes, and many live on the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation which was created "for them" in 1870.

To add insult to injury, the Garrison Dam, built in the 1950s, flooded some of the most fertile agricultural land in the world, and many Mandan settlements were inundated.

(age 12, with grey hair) - George Catlin

The last full-blooded Mandan Indian died in 1971, and their language barely survives. By the 1992 there were just six Mandan speakers left on earth. However, there are those who are trying to preserve the language, as well as the heritage seeds of the early-maturing corn and other crops hybridized by the Mandans.

Four Bears, the Mandans' famous chief, had always considered white men to be his lifelong friends and brothers. But although he had in his words "loved the white man", at the end of his life - with his people dropping at his feet like flies - he reviled the whites. Their smallpox, he said, left his face so rotten that after death even the wolves would run away from him. The whites, he said, were "black-hearted dogs" for repaying a hundred of years of kindness with such a horrible pestilence.

Today, I'm hoping, Four Bears might be smiling a bit as his people exact some revenge on the whites, making money hand over fist at their casino in New Town, ironically (to me) called Four Bears Casino and Lodge.

MANDANS" - George Catlin

There is so much to admire and learn from these people who lived so lightly on the earth. The Mandan culture can be studied at On-A-Slant village at Fort Abraham Lincoln State Park south of Mandan, at the Double Ditch Historical Site just north of Bismarck, the Lewis & Clark Interpretive Center at Washburn, the Fort Clark Trading Post Historical Site near Washburn and the Knife River Indian Villages at Stanton.

As I stand in one of the cool, empty reconstructed earth lodges at On-A-Slant, I think about those people so like the Celts, and just as misunderstood. Both lived in settled, agrarian lives but were falsely accused of being savage roving barbarians.

Both were so closely connected to Mother Earth, nature and the turning of the year. Both were very spiritual, and believed that all living things had supernatural powers. The Celt knew that when he died he would pass over to the Otherworld. The Mandan hoped that at death he would traverse the subterannean lake and return to his ancestors' original home in the Underground.


Both groups wore vibrant clothing, were fond of ornamentation and decoration and were proud of their appearance. Both painted their bodies for war (the Mandan, however, did not use tatooing as extensively as the Celts.) Both tribes traded goods coming from a large area of the world. The Celts were famous as inventors and the Mandans, according to Catlin, were very skilled in the arts of manufacturing. Both had strong oral storytelling traditions. Both were well versed in the use of native plants for food, medicines, dyes, etc.

Both were given their names by others: the word Keltoi comes from the Greeks, but they called themselves the Pretani. The Mandans were named by the Sioux, but called themselves Numakiki (people). Both were assimilated into other cultures (the Celts were absorbed by the British Romans/Anglo Saxons) and Christianized, their belief systems and societies destroyed.

But how could these things I say be true? How could any Indian - how could any Celt - be so attractive, so intelligent, so well off, so civilized, so interesting?

Catlin was among those who, in the 19th century, held the view of Indians as "noble savages", and I think he believed the Mandan to be the among the noblest of all. He was fond of these "extremely courteous and civilized" people," who were "interesting and pleasing in appearance and manners".


"Their fate is sealed, their doom is fixed," was Catlin's all-too-accurate premonition for the Mandans, of whom he said "a better, more honest, hospitable and kind people, as a community, are not to be found in this world."

"Not to be found in this world," laments Charles W. Moore. "We can only be profoundly saddened by the tragedy of their passing."

Yes, indeed, we all should be profoundly saddened.



Sue Simpson said...

WOW Julie! Always interesting, always informative and always a pleasure to read. You should write a book!

Love and brightest blessings,
Sue xxx

Such a Wondrous Place this Faery Space said...

I knew this would be a great blog to follow! Excellent dear. Blessings.

Anonymous said...

Fascinating as always, i'm probably a mix of Celt, pict and anglosaxon. It is sad cultures and races are lost, people don't like those that are different.

JoAnn ( Scene Through My Eyes) said...

Amazing research - thanks for all the history - I could read your stuff forever.

gma said...

Ancient cultures around the world honored the changing seasons,signs and symbols from animals,and were very knowledgable about herbs and plants. They respected earth. What interests me here is the creation myth is similar to that of Arizona natives.
I wonder if indigenous people on
other continents have stories
of emerging from underground water.
Or is this about the womb?

Rowan said...

This is such an interesting post Julie, like you I have long had an interest in and have been aware of the similarities between the Celts and the American Indian tribes. I hadn't heard of the Mandan people, their story is a sad one and the world is poorer for their loss. They needn't necessarily have had contact with white Christian people to have deluge and virgin birth myths, these are both common in many ancient cultures and religions. The deluge myth especially is worldwide and appears in China, India, Australia, ancient Greece etc. As I said, a great post - keep them coming:)

Julie said...


Thank you so much for the information. I was not aware that the deluge myth was so widespread. I will change my post accordingly.


Janet said...

You are a WRITER!!! This is a fantastic post, filled with information and history and it shows your love of the Mandan people. I agree with Sue....you should write a book.

Shopgirl said...

I loved reading this. We often put aside what we cannot deal with because it was wrong. I am what I call a Irish Indian. My great grandmother on my fathers side is Flathead, and on my mothers side is cherokee from My Grandfather who was born in the Oklamhoma Territory, and left with his little brother as a child.
It is so good of you to share this with us, sometimes we forget.
Your, Mary