Hidatsa - Economy

Subsistence and Commercial Activities. The Hidatsa were horticulturists, raising maize, beans, squash, and sunflowers using swidden techniques in fertile alluvial bottomlands. Hunting was of equal importance, with major game animals consisting of bison, elk, pronghorn, mule deer, and white-tailed deer. The Hidatsa were able to produce and store surpluses of vegetable crops, which were valuable trade commodities in a widespread Plains intertribal trade system. By the mid-1800s, the Hidatsa began to experience economic hardship as a result of several factors: the military ascendancy of nomadic pastoralist tribes such as the Lakota and Yanktonai Sioux, depopulation from epidemic diseases, and changing fortunes of the fur trade. Beginning with the Reservation era in the 1860s, the Hidatsa incorporated ranching and commercial farming of wheat and other grains into their economy while maintaining subsistence horticulture. The disappearance of bison from North Dakota relegated the hunting of deer and other game to secondary importance. Today, the Hidatsa continue to work as ranchers and Commercial farmers, while commercial/industrial enterprises, government employment, and public assistance augment their economy. As of 1975, however, their unemployment rate stood at approximately 50 percent.

Industrial Arts. Aboriginal crafts included pottery, basket making and mat weaving, porcupine quillwork, and painted representational art applied to tanned hides, robes, clothing, and containers. After European contact, the Hidatsa incorporated bead manufacture and beadwork as crafts, which, along with quillwork and quiltmaking, are currently practiced.

Trade. In precontact times the Hidatsa carried on an important trade with nomadic tribes, exchanging maize and other garden produce for dried meat and leather products. Historic trade in horses and European technology such as firearms, iron hoes, metal arrowpoints, and beads was superimposed onto this precontact intertribal trade system. Hidatsa villages served as trading centers where numerous tribes would come to exchange goods. The trade in horses was especially lucrative as the Hidatsa amassed short-term surpluses in horses, which served as capital for barter.

Division of Labor. Prior to the reservation period, Hidatsa women were primarily responsible for farming, including clearing fields, harvesting, and processing vegetables. Women also constructed the earthlodges, with men assisting in heavy labor. Women made pottery and baskets, butchered game animals and processed hides into clothes, tipi covers, robes, and other accoutrements. They also engaged in beadwork and quillwork. Men hunted, fished, conducted warfare, trapped eagles, and conducted religious rituals. The alteration of the Hidatsa economy during the reservation period resulted in men becoming storekeepers, farmers, ranchers, and ministers.

Land Tenure. In aboriginal times, hunting and timberbearing lands were theoretically open to all within the Hidatsa tribe, although each village does appear to have had favored areas that were open to other villages by request. Ownership of garden lands was vested in local clan segments, with individual extended family households exercising rights of usufruct on lands they cultivated. With the advent of the reservation system, Hidatsa lands reverted to tribal ownership under the control and supervision of the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA). During the 1880s, tribal lands were allotted by the BIA to individuals. Today, Hidatsa land on the Fort Berthold Reservation is owned by individuals as well as the tribe.

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