The Hidatsa tribe as described in the book Buffalo Bird Woman’s Garden was a Great Plains tribe of farming people who lived in what is now North Dakota. They raised four main crops each year: sunflowers, corn, squash, and beans. Tobacco was also raised, but on a smaller scale than the others. The Hidatsa women had specific practices to plant, cultivate, harvest, prepare, and store their crops. These practices are described by Buffalo Bird Woman, as told to Gilbert L. Wilson from 1906 to 1918.
To understand some of the agricultural practices of the Hidatsa, it is first important to describe the lifestyle and practices of its people. Each family lived in an earthen lodge with a flat roof and began a garden next to it. The process of beginning a garden was a daunting task.
Gardens began small, and each year were expanded as the family needed. It was the job of the women to do the clearing of the land in order to begin a garden. In the case of Buffalo Bird Woman, her father marked their garden boundaries while her mother and two grandmothers worked at clearing the family garden near the Missouri River. Turtle, one of Buffalo Bird Woman’s grandmothers, used a digging stick, while the others used iron hoes. Grasses were cut and burned and the soil was with dug with digging sticks for the corn hills.
The beginning of the growing season was marked by the planting of sunflowers in April. They were planted along the edges of a field eight or nine paces apart. Hills were formed either by hand or with a hoe, and three seeds were placed in each hill. Although the Hidatsa harvested many different varieties of sunflowers, they all yielded a similar taste and aroma.
Harvesting of the sunflower seeds began in the fall. Once the petals covering the seeds fell off, the seeds were ready to be harvested. From that point, the harvesting of the seeds was determined by the size of the flower’s head. Larger heads would cut off, placed in a basket, and dried on the roof of the lodge. Once dry, the seeds of the larger heads were threshed by beating them face down with a stick. The smaller heads were threshed on the stalk, with the thresher bearing a basket to catch the seeds.
Sunflower seeds were roasted or parched to prepare them to be placed into other meals. One of these dishes was "four-vegetables-mixed." This dish contained beans, squash, and meal (parched corn and sunflower), all boiled together and served immediately. Another food prepared from sunflower seeds was called "Sunflower-seed-Balls." The parched sunflowers are pounded into meal, mashed into a ball, and shaken within the hands to release the oil and cement the ball together. They were carried in a small skin bag and were said to have rejuvenating qualities.
The next crop that was planted was the corn. Buffalo Bird Woman spoke of the Mandans introducing corn to the Hidatsa, who enjoyed the vegetable and began planting the seeds. The Hidatsa were known for nine different varieties of corn: hard white, soft white, hard yellow, soft yellow, gummy, blue, dark red, light red, and pink top. Each has different properties and is used for different purposes.
Corn planting began in May. As Buffalo Bird Woman’s family stored two years of seed corn, they were never lacking the seed corn to plant, even if the harvest from the year before had been poor. Using the same corn hills each year, six to eight grains were planted per hill. If necessary, seeds were soaked so that they would sprout before planting. Hills were spaced well apart in rows about four feet apart to encourage strong plants. Hoeing was done only once through the whole garden, when the corn was about three inches high. Hilling was done to cover and protect the roots.
During the growing season, watchers’ stages were erected to protect the corn. Young girls would sit together in pairs and sing to scare away the birds. The Hidatsa also believed this action would nurture the corn, similar to how a mother would nurture a child. Watchers’ stages allowed families to protect their crops from birds, young men (who would steal the green ears and roast them), and horses (fences were also erected around the field to prevent the horses from eating the corn.
The first harvesting of the green corn happened in the last week of August. Green corn could be cooked on the cob and shelled, shelled and cooked, roasted, made into a mush, made into corn bread, or dried for the winter. To dry the green corn, it was half-cooked, dried, shelled, and winnowed.
The ripe corn harvest was a major undertaking, with many young men coming to help with the husking of the corn. Larger cobs were braided. The corn was dried on the drying stage, with the smaller cobs lying on the stage and the braids hanging from it. Corn was threshed in the booth, with two or more women beating the corn with sticks. The corn then was winnowed.
There were a variety of ways that corn could be cooked. One example is "pounded-meal-mush," which consisted of pounded hard white, fats, squash, and beans. One could also roast or parch the corn. Meal could also be prepared by pounding different varieties of the corn.
The next major crops were squash and beans. Squash and beans were planted among the corn rows. Squash was planted in early June, with beans planted afterward. Squash (with the seeds sprouted) and beans were planted on the sides of the hills to prevent the rain from squashing the shoots down. Four seeds were planted in a squash hill and six in a bean hill.
After the squash was harvested, it was either cooked fresh, or an old woman would cut it with a bone knife (the bone was that of a buffalo bull’s shoulder) and place it on a spit. The spits were placed on the drying stage. The beans were threshed, dried, and winnowed.
Tobacco was also raised in a small garden. The blossoms were cut and dried in the lodge, oiled with buffalo fat, then placed in a pouch to be smoked later in a pipe. The leaves were also harvested and dried but were not oiled. They were also placed in a pouch.
The Hidatsa kept their winter stores in caches. It was the women’s job to make the cache pit. These were dug underground. They were then lined with grass and filled with winter stores. To protect the stores from being discovered or trampled by horses, they were then covered with skins, more grass, puncheons, another skin, dirt, then ashes.
Hitadsa women played a large role in the survival of their society. The women began the family gardens, and were innovative and effective in their use of tools such as the digging stick, squash knife, and antler rake. Women also perpetuated a tradition of drying, preparing, and storing their crops. They maintained a major food source for their families that sustained them (if managed well) throughout the year. Their use of best practices in planting, selecting seed, cooking, and storing vegetables is commendable. Handing down those practices throughout a family unit allowed both their livelihood and heritage to be passed through generations, preserving their native ways.