“Buffalo Bird Woman” is an account of a woman’s typical life as a member of the Hidatsa Native American tribe in North Dakota in the mid nineteenth century. It was originally published in the works of ethnographer Gilbert L. Wilson, a progressive Christian. Wilson published his documentation the way of life of the Hidatsa people in Waheenee: An Indian Girl’s Story Told by Herself to Gilbert L. Wilson (1921) and Agriculture of the Hidatsa Indians: An Indian Interpretation (1917). He maintained a long working relationship with a woman named Buffalo Bird Woman (1839), whose son Goodbird translated between Buffalo Bird Woman and Wilson so she could describe herself and her community’s lifestyle (Kilcup, 1). One of the most important parts of Buffalo Bird Woman’s account is the way she describes the movement of labor and resources among the Hidatsa people, so I set out to understand more about women’s relationship to their labor and services in this community, as it seemed completely at odds with typical Western traditions of female behavior.
In Buffalo Bird Woman, Buffalo Bird Woman describes her life in the village which was inhabited by the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Akira Nations and situated along the Missouri river in North Dakota (https://www.mhanation.com/). One of the most striking elements of her descriptions is the degree to which women participated in typical labor processes and commerce–spheres historically hostile and even prohibited to Western women. Starting from a young age, girls were taught to “chop wood, hoe in the garden and embroider beadwork” (Kilcut, 115). The first task in that list is especially surprising, given that chopping would is typically thought of as work performed only by men in American society even today. It was so normal of Hidatsa women however, that their mothers found it necessary to teach it to them at a young age. Another place in which Buffalo Bird Woman’s account took me aback was when she clarified that “picking June berries was woman’s work, but the men helped break the branches” (Kilcut, 119). The division of labor sounds fairly equal and amicable for this particular task, with men and women each contributing to the acquisition of an important resource. Not only did women work, but their labor was rewarded and acknowledged, such as “if a girl as a worker and tanned hundreds of hides her aunt might give her an honor mark”–a handmade, beaded and embroidered belt given only for special occasions and accomplishments (Kilcut, 122).
I became interested in the trade and labor practices of the Hidatsa tribe because of how frequently Buffalo Bird Woman referred to goods and services women provided and even seemed to control. Unlike in the Western tradition, Hidatsa women’s goods and services seemed to be not exchanged only among women but were readily accepted throughout the village as an important service. As it turns out, the Hidatsa nation’s village was a major trade hub before Americans and the Lakota Nations encroached and isolated their village during a smallpox outbreak in the early 18th century (Women in BullBoats, 451). Before these invasions, the Hidatsa people grew corn, tobacco, squash and beans, which they exchanged for all sorts of goods, such as horses and meat products (PBS) Buffalo Bird woman, for example, purchases a horse from a member of the Crows in exchange for corn (Kilcut, 115). She does not describe any involvement or discussion with her father or husband in this transaction, which demonstrates a degree of control over her finances unusual for the Hidatsa women’s American counterparts in the nineteenth century. This appears to have been common practice. In fact, women regularly mounted horses with their husbands to conduct joint hunting expedition in order to kill bulls to make bullboats (Women in Bull Boats, 452).
These bullboats were some of the most impressive innovations by the Hidatsa women. Bullboats were a type of boat which consisted of bull or bison hides fashioned around a willow frame and they were almost exclusively produced by women (Women in Bullboats, 454). Because of their role as the primary producers of bullboats, Hidatsa women were also their community’s navigation experts and were entrusted to paddle boats while their husband sat in the back of the boat to balance its weight (Kilcup, 117). In addition to assisting their husbands, Hidatsa women regularly conducted their own outings with other women down the Missouri River to acquire goods for the village, such as firearms, meat, and fuel. They also took travelers down the river for cash as a transportation service (Women in Bullboats, 457).
Buffalo Bird Woman’s description of harvesting June berries was also indicative of Hidatsa women’s significant control over resources and labor. She says, “Picking June berries was woman’s work, but the men helped break the branches. A husband would break branches and bear them to his wife, who took charge of them thereafter” (Kilcut, 119). June berries were an important foodstuff to the Hidatsa, as they picked very many in the summer and stored them for winter (Kilcut, 119). They were mainly used as a seasoning or flavorful addition to meals and were a major staple of the Hidatsa diet (Crow and Hidatsa Women, 21).
A photograph of June berries
An easy to miss aspect of Buffalo Bird Woman was the model of labor and resource acquisition alluded to by Buffalo Bird Woman. It appeared to be fairly evenly divided and cooperative—while women and men did perform different jobs in their communities, there appeared to be a lack of separation such that men and women regularly worked alongside each other. In addition, women appeared to perform their labor fairly independently and with their own expertise. Such system is different from the Western model, where women’s labor was normally unpaid and exclusively domestic if her household could afford a single income.
- Kilcup, Karen L. Native American Womens Writing: c. 1800-1924, an Anthology. Blackwell Publishers, 2000, https://ares.library.jhu.edu/ares/ares.dll?Action=10&Type=10&Value=639529.
- “MHA Nation.” MHA Nation, http://www.mhanation.com/.
- Steinke, Christopher. “Women in Bullboats: Indigenous Women Navigate the Upper Missouri River.” Ethnohistory, Duke University Press, 1 Oct. 2017, read.dukeupress.edu/ethnohistory/article-abstract/64/4/449/133031/Women-in-Bullboats-Indigenous-Women-Navigate-the?redirectedFrom=fulltext.
- Capehart, Lucy E. Crow and Hidatsa Women: The Influence of Economics The University of Montana, scholarworks.umt.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=6636&context=etd.
- Ochterski, Jim. “A Photograph of June Berries.” Flickr, https://www.flickr.com/photos/43200296@N08/12506614763/.
- “Photograph of a Bull Boat.” Flickr, https://www.flickr.com/photos/internetarchivebookimages/14593970537