On the west bank of the Missouri, just north of Huff, a butte cuts into the landscape. Causing the road to swerve, many have taken in the beauty of the Eagle Nose Butte.
Traveling along the highway, it is easy to pass it by without much thought. It stands bare, and while it may capture one’s sight for a moment, it quickly is swept by.
More than a century ago, a group of explorers did take notice. On Oct. 19, 1804, Meriwether Lewis, and William Clark, came upon the butte. They were informed, by an Arikara Chief, that within the hollows of the chain of hills that the butte was located, dwelled the “Callemet Bird,” the golden eagle.
Upon the hill top, Lewis and Clark saw an old, fortified village. Now abandoned, the village, they were told, was once occupied by the Mandan. It was here that the duo saw their first ruins of the Mandan nation.
Nearly three decades later, in 1833, as Prince Maximilian of Wied traveled through the area, his company reached the same “beautiful hill chain.” Taking in the sites, Maximilian saw a troop of swans, beaver paths, and with just a brief mention, the ruins of a trading house.
Eagle Nose Butte’s story goes back to a time when the Mandans lived further east, near a lake. It was at this time that they met a chief by the name of Maniga.
Maniga was a chief who caused great troubles for the Mandans, who would cross the lake in order to collect valuable shells.
Explaining to Alfred Bowers, Scattercorn said that whenever the Mandan attempted to do such, Maniga would order these visitors to consume large quantities of “food, water, tobacco, and women,” often causing the death of those Mandans who made the journey.
Intervening, Lone Man, along with several men who had bottomless appetites, crossed the lake, and tricked Maniga. Becoming angry, Maniga promised to visit the Mandan, in the form of a flood.
It was at this point that the Mandan are said to have split up. While the Awigaxa Mandans traveled west to the mountains, another group stopped at Eagle Nose Butte.
Upon the hill, which they picked for its high ground, they built a village, that they hoped would be high enough as not to be destroyed by the impending flood. Some have said that it was none other than Good Furred Robe, the Mandan hero who is said to have led the tribe out of the earth, who constructed the settlement.
As the flood came, frightened, the Mandan inhabitants called out to Lone Man, who built a plank corral around the town. It would succeed in holding back the deluge.
This corral would later be re-created, as a sacred shrine, and placed in the ceremonial plaza of every Mandan village. Ring planks would represent the corral, while a cedar post inside symbolized Lone Man himself.
The corral, and ceder inside it, became a representation of security. But that security came with a price: responsibility.
Each year, an annual performance of the Okipa, a long, costly, difficult rite, where participants would endure great pain while also reenacting their history, was required.
For the Mandans, it was considered a worthy tradeoff. The Okipa would become to be seen as not only a ceremony that provided protection, but also helped to reinforce their tribal identity. It was said to have given them luck, which lasted “until the smallpox was brought by the white men.”
A continued history
Eventually, the founders of the village on top of Eagle Nose Butte left. However, the remains would survive.
In 1781, a smallpox epidemic struck the Mandan people. While many would perish, those who survived found a new strength.
A decade and a half after Lewis and Clark came across Eagle Nose Butte, the first ruins of the Mandan people they witnessed, a new village was rebuilt.
Homesick, and longing for the days when large villages, with throngs of individuals, lined the Missouri, a group of traditional Mandans migrated south, back to their ancient homeland, at the heart of the world.
The move came in 1820, after a murder had disrupted tribal life. Those who chose to leave were, as Alfred Bowers learned, “survivors of the west-side heart River villages,” survivors of the earlier smallpox epidemic.
The site they chose, upon Eagle Nose Butte, had become the customary Village of those who Quarrel, a residence for dissenters. Being a birthplace of the Okipa, it also showed a deep connection to sacred geography.
Life at the site would have been difficult. Cut off from rest of the Mandan villages, the old timers, as they were survivors of the 1781 epidemic, were vulnerable. If the Lakota would attack, those settled in the village would have no hope of assistance.
For the next three years they remained at this village. Eventually they were persuaded to return from their isolation. The family of the murdered victim invited them back.
Just a decade later, on June 15, 1833, Maximilian would come upon this village, and the “beautiful hill chain.” Seeing the ruins, he remarked, “this was a very fine site …”
Eagle Nose Butte would also hold other significances for area tribes. Standing as an important part of not only the Mandan history, it held a special significance for the Hidatsa as well.
It would also become the birth place of the Little River Woman Society.
Eventually, for the Arikara, it also became a gathering place for those scouts hired by George Custer.