Subsistence and Commercial Activities. Buffalo or bison hunting formed the primary subsistence activity of the Mandan. The women planted maize, squash, beans, and sunflowers in river-bottom garden plots, but left the crops for part of the summer while the tribe went bison hunting. Tribes that did not grow vegetables often visited the Knife River villages to trade for surplus garden products, and these trade opportunities were enhanced by the fur trade. Fur traders moved into the villages or made regular visits to them to buy furs and hides from the Mandan. The Mandan trapped and prepared furs, but they also acquired furs and hides by trading maize and items received from the traders to the nonagricultural tribes of the region. Acting as middlemen, the Mandan and Hidatsa grew rich and became targets for raids by other tribes. The decline of the fur trade was accompanied by an increased military and bureaucratic presence that provided employment opportunities for men as woodcutters, scouts, teamsters, interpreters, and agency employees. The women continued to plant their gardens.
Eventually agents of the Bureau of Indian Affairs convinced the Mandan men to turn to farming and ranching, and in the late 1880s the reservation was divided into individually owned allotments to be worked by the men. The climate makes agriculture risky, and today many Indian people prefer to lease their land to White ranchers. Some Mandan make a living as farmer-ranchers, and others work for the Bureau of Indian Affairs or tribal government, teach in the local schools, or work in nearby towns. Those Mandan who cannot find work have income from various federal, state, and tribal assistance programs.
Industrial Arts. Traditionally, the Mandan wove willow baskets, made unpainted pottery from local clays, and embroidered hides with porcupine quills and beads. These and other arts were done by people who acquired the right to do them through ceremonial purchase. The introduction of trade goods and the prohibition of ceremonies resulted in the disappearance of these arts, and recent attempts to revive them have not been successful.
Trade. Prehistorically, the Mandan villages were trade centers that attracted many different tribes and, later, White traders. Goods from the Rocky Mountain tribes were passed to the eastern Plains tribes, while items from the east went west. Even the tribes that maintained hostile relations with the Mandan were welcomed during trade fairs.
Division of Labor. Men were hunters and warriors, and the women were responsible for home and garden. The women constructed and owned the earthlodges as well as the results of their labor. Men and women could own the rights to certain skills and were paid by others wishing to learn those skills. Ownership of major medicine bundles and most ritual activities were the prerogative of the men, but women also held bundles and directed two important ceremonies. Under the influence of Indian agents, the men turned to the more mechanized forms of agriculture and ranching, and the women continued their household and social activities. In Recent times, some women have worked as teachers, nurses, and tribal employees and have been elected to tribal offices.
Land Tenure. The Mandan shared a large buffalo-hunting territory with other tribes of the region. The Fort Laramie Treaty of 1851 recognized Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara claims to 12 million acres of hunting land. In the bottomlands near the village, garden plots were marked out by the leading man of the family and cleared and worked by the women. The products of the gardens belonged to the women. In 1886 some Mandan moved across the Missouri River and established farms that were later allotted to them. In 1954 Garrison Dam flooded the bottomlands where most of the people lived and forced people to take new lands away from the Missouri River. Today, some Mandan still live on their family's allotment, but most of the reservation land has been sold to non-Indians.