The Corn Dance Feast of the Women was based on mythological concepts and offered as thanks for crops. Elderly women hung dried meat on poles and then performed a dance. Younger women fed them meat and received grains of corn to eat in return. The dried meat would be left on the poles until harvest time. The Hidatsas also learned the Sun Dance. There were a number of other religious societies. Hidatsas undertook vision quests from an early age.
The tribe contained several bands, including the Hidatsas proper: the Awatixas and the Awaxawis. Villages were ruled by a council, a chief, and a war chief. Descent was matrilineal, and the extended family was the primary economic unit. Land was held by groups of related families, which were in turn organized into larger groups, with formal leadership usually provided by older men. Within villages, each larger group was divided into two divisions; this organization played a key role in village leadership as well as games and other competition. The Hidatsas also recognized about seven clans.
Women controlled the gardens and were in charge of harvest distribution to their families. The White Buffalo Society, which featured dancing to lure buffalo to the hunters, was open only to women. Age-graded men's societies had mainly military functions. Each group had its own dances, songs, and regalia, which were acquired by the youngest group and purchased en masse from the next higher group, the buyers displacing the sellers as the latter also "moved up."
Social rank was hereditary to some degree. "Joking relatives," whose fathers were in the same clan, teased or upbraided each other for deviating from normative conduct. This mechanism was very effective for maintaining social customs and proper behavior. Food, weapons, and personal items were placed on scaffolds along with corpses. Mourners cut their hair. When chiefs died, all lodge fires were extinguished.
From around 1700 on, the people lived in permanent villages on bluffs overlooking the upper Missouri River. Groups of people erected circular, dome-shaped earth lodges about forty feet in diameter. Each housed two to three families or up to about forty people. Cooking took place inside in the winter and outside in the summer. Cook kettles were suspended on poles over central fires. People also used smaller earth lodges in the winter, when they took refuge in forests. Skin teepees were used while traveling or hunting.
Women cooperated in growing corn, beans, squash, pumpkins, and sunflowers. They stored corn in earth caches, lined with logs and grass and covered with grass. Corn was boiled and eaten fresh or shelled and dried for the winter, when it was pounded and eaten as meal with other vegetables and meat. Squash was cut into strips and sun dried. Crops were harvested in the midsummer and especially in early fall. Old men grew a small tobacco crop. Tobacco was sacred and some ritual surrounded its cultivation, harvesting, and use. Only elderly men generally smoked, in pipes and for ceremonial purposes. Buffalo and other meat was acquired primarily through trade, although men did hunt buffalo and other animals. After the people acquired horses, they tracked the buffalo farther onto the plains, into present-day South Dakota and Montana.
Many material items, such as agricultural implements (bone hoes and rakes) and horn utensils and tools were made of buffalo and elk parts. Mortars, pestles, and digging sticks were made of wood. Women made twilled plaited baskets and pottery. Especially before they acquired horses, people used tumplines and chest straps for carrying burdens on their backs.
People felled and burned trees to enrich the soil for growing. Garden plots were left fallow after about three years of cultivation. Cache pits (for crop storage) were about eight feet deep, two or three feet wide at the top, and perhaps twice as wide at the bottom. Women placed ears of corn around the outside and shelled corn and squash in the center. They covered the pits with ashes, dirt, and grass. Entry was via a ladder.
Painted rawhide trunks or boxes, more typical of Woodland tribes, were about fifteen inches square and ten inches high. The people also painted parfleches and built seven-hole flageolets (flutes) from box elder wood with the pith removed. They also made music with rattles, rasps (notched wood), hand drums, or tambourines and by singing.
Village people traded agricultural products with nomads for meat and other animal products. Trade occupied an important position in Hidatsas' lives. Serviceable boats were made of buffalo hides stretched over circular willow frames. Hidatsas tended to rely more on dogs than horses to pull their travois. Women made clothing from skins and furs, particularly white weasel and ermine. Buffalo hide blankets were the main cold weather item. Traditional enemies included the Dakotas and Shoshones, whereas the Hidatsas were often allied with the Mandans.
Siouan people may have lived originally along the lower Mississippi River, slowly migrating north through Tennessee and Kentucky and into Ohio. Some then went east across the Appalachian Mountains, but most continued northwest. Originally one people, the Hidatsa-Crows were perhaps the first Siouan group to leave the Ohio country. They moved to northern Illinois, through western Minnesota, and into the Red River Valley.
For at least 400 years, beginning around the twelfth or thirteenth century, they grew gardens and hunted buffalo south of Lake Winnipeg. Finally, pressured by newly armed bands of Ojibwas and Crees, the group moved southwest to Devil's Lake in the midsixteenth century. They then moved again toward the upper Missouri River, where they continued to hunt and grow corn, encouraged by receiving seeds and acquiring new techniques from the Mandans.
In the late seventeenth century, the Crows struck out on their own, leaving the Hidatsas behind. At this time, the latter associated with other agricultural tribes such as the Mandans and Arikaras. Non-Indians also traded regularly at Hidatsa villages, exchanging items of non-Native manufacture for furs. Early non-Indian explorers, such as Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, also lived among the Hidatsas. The people lost a significant percentage of their population in the late eighteenth century through warfare, primarily with the Dakotas, as well as from smallpox epidemics. By about 1800 they had been reduced to a few villages along the Knife River.
The smallpox epidemic of 1837 devastated the tribe; surviving Hidatsas and Mandans regrouped by 1845 into a single village called Like-a-Fishhook, located near Fort Berthold, North Dakota. They were joined there by the Arikaras in 1862. The Fort Berthold Reservation was created in 1871 for Hidatsas, Mandans, and Arikaras. Although the 1851 Fort Laramie Treaty recognized the tribes' claims to 12 million acres, the original reservation consisted of 8 million acres; by 1886 it had been reduced to about a million acres.
Like-a-Fishhook was an important regional commercial center until the 1880s, when most people left it to establish communities along the Missouri River. The Hidatsas lived on both sides of the river, in Lucky Mound, Shell Creek, and Independence. During the 1950s, against the tribes' vehement opposition, the United States built the Garrison Dam on the Missouri. The resulting Lake Sakakawea covered much of their land, farms, and homes. This event destroyed the tribes' economic base and severely damaged its social structure.