STANTON, N.D. – The Hidatsa Indians had farmed, fished, hunted and prospered along the upper Missouri River and lower Knife River for more than 300 years before Meriwether Lewis, William Clark and their band of explorers arrived in the fall of 1804.
Yet, perhaps unfairly, the Hidatsa connection to the Corps of Discovery has provided these peaceful native peoples with their greatest claim to fame.
“This is the historical homelands for the tribe of Hidatsa Native Americans,” says Darian Kath, an interpretation specialist for the Knife River Indian Villages National Historic Site, a remote, windswept 1,758-acre plot of considerable historical significance about 1 mile from Stanton and about 60 miles north of Bismarck. “For anybody who is interested in Native American history this would be a key stop for them.”
The remote site, which Kath admits few visitors find by accident, includes a modern visitors center filled with artifacts, replicas and hands-on exhibits of Hidatsa life. I was particularly impressed with the bull boathoe made from the shoulder bone of a bison, and a collection of bone and stone fleshers (scrapers used to remove flesh and hair from hides). In skilled hands a flesher could be used to skin and butcher a deer in 30 minutes. A bison took about twice as long.
A reconstructed earthlodge is a short walk from the visitors center and while it is open year-round, programs and guided tours are limited to the summer season.
The site also has about 12 miles of trails. The Two River Trail follows the Knife River and the North Forest Trail leads to the Missouri River at the property’s northern border. Both trails open on original village sites, where earthlodges once stood. The Awatixa Xi’e Village is nearest the visitor center. Just north of that site is the Awatixa Village. The Hidatsa Village, the largest of the sites, is on the North Forest Trail.
During the fall of 1804, French Canadian trapper Toussaint Charbonneau and one of his wives, Sacagawea, were living in the Awatixa Village. Sacagawea, who was probably 15 or 16 years old at the time, was a member of the Lemhi Shoshone tribe as a child but had been captured by a Hidatsa raiding party about six years earlier and taken to the Hidatsa homeland.
Lewis and Clark built their winter camp nearby, close to the Mandan Indian village. The Mandan and Hidatsa were friendly, and members of both tribes regularly visited the strangers.
“Lewis and Clark knew they would be spending the winter near these villages,” Kath explains. “But during the winter, or more likely late that fall, a fellow came over and meets with them to see if they would need an interpreter for the Hidatsa language. And that was Toussaint Charbonneau. And at the time he had with him his very young Shoshone wife, Sacagawea.”
Lewis and Clark hired Charbonneau, but his interpreter skills proved lacking and he failed to impress either man. His teenage wife, however, who bore her first child that winter and carried the infant on the journey with the Corps to the Pacific and back to the Hidatsa Village, proved to be a valuable resource to the explorers.
“They resided in a village about three-quarters of a mile from here,” Kath concludes. “So, this is the site where you have one of the most famous female figures in American history residing both before and after the Lewis and Clark expedition.”
If you go
The Knife River Indian Villages National Historic Site is open year-round. It’s located on North Dakota County Road 37, off Highway 200, about 25 miles west of Washburn. Highway 200 flanks the upper Missouri River and is a delightful drive.
For more information visit nps.gov/knri or call 701-745-3300. Camping and other accommodations are available at Cross Ranch State Park, located about 30 miles from the Knife River site and downriver from Washburn. Details about Cross Ranch are at parkrec.nd.gov/cross-ranch-state-park.
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