advertisement

If you have ever have wanted to visit an authentic Native American prairie village, you should get yourself up to western North Dakota and visit the Knife River Indian Villages National Historic Site. Lewis and Clark were here on their epic adventure in this part of the Missouri River Valley, but the ecosystem has changed mightily as a result of the Garrison Dam being built on the Missouri.

The tribes living here, the Mandan and the Hidatsa, were so hospitable that the expedition was able to build Fort Mandan across the river. Here, Lewis and Clark hired a French trapper living among the Hidatsa. His young wife, Sacagawea (a Shoshone Indian captured and traded to the Hidatsa), took her infant son and traveled west with the expedition, signifying to other tribes along the route that the Americans were peaceful in intent. Incredibly, when the group reached a certain Shoshone village, she recognized the chief as her brother. This enabled the expedition to purchase Shoshone horses for crossing the Rocky Mountains. Without her, historians agree, the entire expedition may have engendered quite a different result than the peaceful one they did.

To get here, you fly into Bismarck (60 minutes southeast) or Minot (90 minutes northeast), both in North Dakota. If you have your own small plane, you can fly into Hazen, only 15 miles from the park. The nearest town is Stanton, half a mile to the south of the park.

The national historic site (or park, for short) is fairly big, with 1758 acres. Once, the villages here were considered one of the main trading centers in North America, historians tell us.

Highlights

Start off at the Visitor Center, with its splendid eagle head blocks motif, get maps and inquire about Ranger tours or any events taking place.

Most impressive within the site is The Earth Lodge, typical of Hidatsa homes. Because they were successful in agriculture, the tribe was not nomadic, constructing as many as 120 earthlodges on the broad ledges above both the Missouri and Knife rivers. The dwellings were owned and maintained by the women of the tribe, incidentally, who were the main force building them, acting as supervisors and wood cutters, the men helping only with the most difficult work, such as raising the four central posts and the crossbeams. (The men were rewarded with a big dinner afterwards.)

Over the inner layer of split logs and matting, the entire structure was covered in a thick layer of cut sod. Each was between 30 and 60 feet in diameter and 10 to 15 feet high. The lodge took about seven to ten days to build and would last about ten years, historians say. Sweat lodges built nearby (and smaller) were also important to the Hidatsa, being used for both ceremonial and practical purposes.

The earthlodge you now see was constructed in 1995 and is 40 feet in diameter and though made with traditional materials, boasts a concrete foundation, electricity and a Plexiglas dome over the hole in the center of the top. It's already lasted more than the usual ten years as a result.

There's currently a dig going on, and you may find an archeologist on site if you are lucky. Ask at the Visitor Center for more information.

Events

The biggest event all year is the Northern Plains Culture Fest, held the last full weekend in July, activities including archeology talks, flint knapping, bead working, porcupine quill work, brain tanning of hides, blacksmith trade items, Northern Plains dances, Indian flute music, Sahnish and Three Affiliated Tribes cultural demonstrations, and programs for children. In 2010, the 29th annual event was held on July 24 and 25 from 10 AM to 4 PM daily. Dates for 2011 have not yet been fixed, though should be the last July weekend, as customary.

Other annual events include a Bird Walk in May, as well as a Spring Outdoor Photography Workshop, and observance of National Junior Ranger Day in April.

There's also a Kids Camp for three full weeks in July, where children 6-12 can learn about arts and crafts, conservation, tipi raising, earthlodge building and canoeing. To register, call Cindy or Craig at tel. 701/745-3300.

Flora & Fauna

Don't be afraid of the bull snakes you might see, as they are harmless. Living here are white-tailed deer, coyote, porcupine, skunk, beaver and more. Birds include wild turkey, pheasant, Canada geese and mourning doves, as well as bald eagles, red-tailed hawks, kestrels and northern harriers

Hours & Fees

The park is open daily, year round. There is no admission fee. It's open from 8am daily, except for Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's days, and closes at 6pm in summer, 4:30pm in winter.

Park Rules

You can't camp here, but can do so in nearby cities and state parks within a 30-mile radius. You can picnic at the shelter near the Visitor Center, however.

Facts of Life

A few of the fascinating bits of information you'll learn while here: Plains Indian baby boys were given their first bows and arrows when they first could walk, and were started in riding horses when they were four or five.

The Hidatsa tribe utilized as much of the bison as they could, the meat and hides of course for food and clothing, but also dung, which could be used for fuel or even baby powder. All tribes used the buffalo's long hair to braid multiples strands into ropes.

Visitors

There were 29,390 visitors here in 2009.

Contacts

The official website of the site is www.nps.gov/knri, phone tel. 701/745-3300.