July 23, 2015

Arikara (Sahnish) Historical Overview


There is but one supreme being of power and wisdom, the Chief Above (Neshanu Natchitak). He rules the world. But he gave Mother Corn authority over all things on earth. Neshanu Natchitak is above all, but he made Mother Corn intermediary with human beings on earth.

Reverence and gratitude are due from mankind to Nishanu Natchitak for all the good things which we have, and to Mother Corn, through whose mediation we enjoy all these benefits.
–Albert Simpson, Arikara

For Arikaras, the Mother Corn Ceremony, a ritual which centered on the theme of world renewal, linked the universe, through Mother Corn (represented by a cedar tree), to the keepers of sacred bundles and their kin.

Each of the twelve Arikara village bands that lived along the Missouri River in what is now South Dakota had a sacred bundle associated with the Mother Corn rites. Bundles, whether personal or group, provided an object-based connection with powers that, though beyond the realm of daily life, were needed to exist in the everyday world.

In matters of daily life, Mother Corn instructed the people in the right ways of living in the world, instilling in them respect for plants and animals, and imparting knowledge of the arts and of housing construction. Through this knowledge, ceremonial lodges become symbolic of the structure of the world.

The Arikaras, who refer to themselves as the Sahnish people, lived for centuries in earth-lodge dwellings in semisedentary horticultural communities. The central earth-lodge or holy lodge was a ceremonial structure that mirrored Arikara cosmology and in which various bundle rites were performed.

Though the ancestors of the Arikaras originated in present-day eastern Texas and adjacent portions of present-day Oklahoma, Arkansas, and Louisiana, their knowledge of earth-lodge construction and maize agriculture developed during their later residence in the central Great Plains, primarily Nebraska.

Arikaras are closely related to Skiri Pawnees from whom they split while both groups were settled along the Loup River in present-day Nebraska. Both groups share linguistic features of the Caddoan language family.

Archaeological and oral historical information indicates the Arikaras migrated northward along the Missouri River until they reached what is now South Dakota. By the time European travelers encountered them, they had already suffered major population losses from smallpox epidemics (which ravaged many native villages throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries).

The remaining Arikaras continued northward along the Missouri and eventually settled south of Mandan and Hidatsa villages north of present-day Bismarck, North Dakota, where they maintained an active trade of agricultural products with other Plains groups.

Despite the devastation of disease and subsequent population losses, the earth-lodge villages of the Arikaras, Mandans, and Hidatsas remained a central destination for Euro-Americans in their increasing westward expansion.

A major smallpox epidemic decimated all three riparian settlements in 1837, however, and by 1856, the remaining Arikaras had joined with Mandans and Hidatsas at Like-A-Fishhook Village.

The Fort Berthold Reservation in North Dakota was established by executive order in 1891, at which time the Arikaras were forced to resettle there along with the Mandans and the Hidatsas.

The first cession of Arikara lands by treaty took place in 1851 at Fort Laramie. The treaty negotiated there designated more than twelve million acres of reservation land between the Yellowstone and Missouri Rivers.

Through subsequent treaty abrogations, the indigenous land base of the Mandans, Hidatsas, and Arikaras was reduced to 640,000 acres by 1910. Cultural adjustments in the early reservation period included the reversal of some gender-based occupations; for example, men were taught Euro-American techniques of farming, thereafter encroaching on what was traditionally women’s domain.

By 1920, Arikaras were successfully competing in the farming and ranching economies in North Dakota, especially in what is now the White Shield District of Fort Berthold, where they benefited from the agriculturally rich land.

Under the 1934 Indian Reorganization Act, the Arikara Nation merged into a single political body with the Hidatsa and the Mandan Nations, collectively known as the Three Affiliated Tribes.

No synopsis of Arikara cultural history would be complete without emphasizing the devastating effects of the construction of the 1951 Garrison Dam, built in a post-World War II development effort to harness hydroelectric power on the Missouri River.

The benefits of this project remain few for Fort Berthold people. The Garrison Dam fragmented the reservation land base and divided communities along geopolitical boundaries. While Arikaras live throughout the Fort Berthold Reservation, the most concentrated tribal community remains at White Shield, near early reservation settlements and cultural sites.

Among these important sites is the Old Scouts Cemetery, where the famous Arikara scouts who fought with General George Custer and their descendants mark a place of remembrance in Arikara history.

Arikara political and social life mirrors the cosmological ordering of the Arikara world, which in pre-reservation times was tightly structured and hierarchical. Chieftainships were hereditary and sanctioned by ritual authority. Today, the relationships between cosmology, tribal leadership, and social organization are influenced by hereditary class positions and kinship ties that link individuals to extant ceremonial offices.

The importance of renewal ceremonies in reaffirming kinship relations is evidenced at various points in the life cycle, such as when a child receives an Arikara name, and in the funerary rites known as the After-Feed which mark a person’s passage to the next world.

Despite Arikara population losses resulting from smallpox epidemics, Euro-American conquest, and the dispossession of native lands, ritual life continues to be practiced with modified regularity among contemporary Arikaras, most of whom identify with the Awahu band and trace their ancestry to the Arikara chief, Sitting Bear.

While some Arikara elders refer to tribal genealogical associations as “clans,” these groupings do not parallel the clan constructs of Mandans and Hidatsas, with whom many Arikaras have intermarried.

All three tribes ascribe to classificatory ways of reckoning generational kin, with continuing bias toward matrilineality and matrifocality. Today, the White Shield District is home to a range of community organizations and programs that celebrate Arikara culture. Among these is the annual powwow, the White Shield Celebration.

The Dead Grass Society Singers, the resident drum group for White Shield, actively maintains and creates Arikara songs, which are integral to Arikara traditions.

In addition, through the efforts of the Sahnish Cultural Society and Fort Berthold Community College, the Arikara language has been incorporated into the community-based educational curriculum.

Through these and other efforts, the Sahnish people are working toward cultural survival and community empowerment.


Melvin R. Gilmore, Indian Notes 3 The Arikara Genesis and Its Teachings. (1926): 188-193; Douglas R. Parks, Traditional Narratives of the Arikara Indians 4 Vols. (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1991); J. Daniel Rogers and Tressa L. Berman, Objects of Change. The Archaeology and History of Arikara Contact with Europeans (Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1990).

Three Affiliated Tribes
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