Heartbeat of Twin Cities: Chief Looking's Village

Heartbeat of Twin Cities: Chief Looking’s Village

Chief Looking’s Village has been an ideal area to study the Mandan Indians, as the site has been preserved very well. Dustin White photo

Dustin White

“A heart in the middle of Bismarck-Mandan, beating with the cadence of the Mandaree Singers. An older city within cities. Not a sister city. Not that, something else, perhaps a great matriarch.”

That was the manner in which Ken Rogers described Chief Looking’s Village in 2003. The site had been known for many years as Ward Village, taking its name from the early Burleigh County family who farmed northwest of Bismarck, and granted the land to the city.

However, with the Lewis and Clark Bicentennial Commemoration underway, and years of work having been done to secure the name change, the area was celebrating during a re-naming ceremony, where the site would once again become known by its original name.

The change for Chief Looking’s Village was part of a larger effort, initiated by the Bismarck-Mandan’s Sakakawea Chapter of the Lewis and Clark Trail Heritage Foundation. Looking to give these historic sites more authenticity, as well as build conversation around the history, the group was in the process of trying to restore many of the area landmarks to their original names.

For Chief Looking’s Village, it was a great success, one that was deeply appreciated.

“This is such a big occasion – we’re able to really honor the people who were here first,” Tex Hall, who was the Chairman of the Three Affiliated Tribes, said. “This is the most beautiful part of North Dakota. It is the hallowed ground of our ancestors. It is beyond words to thank those involved in making the name change.”

While the site was reverting back to its original name, the history of the area was still shrouded in mystery, at least for most in the area. Few excavations had been done at the site, with the last having been done over half a century before.

Origin legend
“Before the Indians came into the land, large round lodges stood on the east bank of the Missouri, near the mouth of Burnt Creek, the vestiges of which could still be seen today.”

It was in that vein that a Hidasta legend, concerning Chief Looking’sVillage, began. Within that village, it was said, dwelt various mysterious beings, who possessed great power in sorcery.

In one of the lodges, Long Tail and Spotted Body, two great demigods, lived with a woman, who was their wife and sister, and took care of the lodge. These three were the first of their kind in the world.

In a neighboring lodged, dwelt Big Mouth, an evil monster who had a great mouth and no head. Hating the members of Long Tail’s lodge, he discovered that the woman was about to give birth, and set off on the destruction of her offspring.

His opportunity came when Long Tail and Spotted Body left for a hunt. Entering their lodge, Big Mouth addressed the woman, saying that he was hungry.

Not wanting to deny him hospitality, she broiled him some meat. Offering the food to him on a wooden dish, the woman was told by Big Mouth that he would not be able to feast on the dish in that manner because of the way his mouth was made.

Instead, Big Mouth instructed her to lay down, and place the meat on her side, which she did. Devouring the meat, Big Mouth also tore the woman into pieces, making her appear to perish.

Big Mouth’s intention to destroy her offspring was not achieved though, and into this world they were rudely brought into, as immortals. Big Mouth seized the first boy, calling him Atutish, and threw him into the rubbish, commanding that he remain there forever. Seizing the second boy, Big Mouth named him Mahash, and threw him in a spring, with the command he remain their forever.

When Long Tail and Spotted Body returned to their home, they were horrified to find their sister slaughtered. They mourned her death, and placed her body on a scaffold. Returning home, they began to cook some meat, which aroused Atutish to cry out for food.

Finding the child, Long Tail brought him out of the rubbish, and placed him on the ground. Holding his hand above the child’s head, he made a wish that Atutish would “grow so high,” which the child instantly did.

In the days to follow, Long Tail and Spotted Body crafted a toy for Atutish, which he played with outside. Nearing the spring, he heard his brother call out. Wanting a playmate, Atutish invited Mahash to come out and play. However, when Long Tail approached, Mahash once more rushed into the spring in fear.

The next day, Long Tail devised a plan to break the spell Mahash was under. Instructing Atutish to once again invite his brother to play, Long Tail took the chance to capture Mahash.

To accomplish the breaking of the spell, Long Tail and Spotted Body put Mahash in a sweat-house, where he stayed until he was almost exhausted. They then took him out and began to whip him severely.

With each lash, they made wishes, that he would once again return to who he once was. As they progressed, Mahash suddenly cried out to Atutish: “Brother, I remember myself now. I know who I am.” He was released, and returned to the lodge.

With the twins having recovered from the attack by Big Mouth, Long Tail made bows and hunting arrows for the boys, as well as a pair of medicine arrows. Going out to hunt, the two came upon the scaffold, on which their mother corpse was laid.

Using their medicine arrows, the two boys brought their mother back to life. Jumping from the scaffold, she told her boys what had happened to her, to which they swore they would seek revenge.

Their mother tried to dissuade them, describing the power of Big Mouth’s medicine, but they paid no attention, and proceeded to plot his destruction.

Knowing the manner in which Big Mouth fed, by turning towards his victims, opening his great mouth, and drawing a big breath, which instantly made whatever he sought to fall into his mouth, the two boys heated boulders in a fire.

Carrying the stones to the top of Big Mouth’s lodge, they imitated a flock of blackbirds, which eventually angered Big Mouth. Turning his mouth, he opened it wide, and began drawing in a breath.

Stepping aside, the boys hurled the stones into the lodge, which were swallowed by Big Mouth. Rushing to his water jars, Big Mouth took immense gulps, but the steam produced from the water hitting the hot boulders, make Big Mouth swell up, until he burst and died.

Having succeeded the two boys went on to destroy all of the bad spirits on earth and in heaven. There on they lived in peace, and in time, moved away.

Chief Looking
While one can garner, at the very least, the idea that Chief Looking’sVillage had been occupied sometime in the distant path by some ancient peoples, the most recent site, as we know it today, gained its name from the chief of the village.

Chief Looking, who was considered a powerful and smart chief, led his tribe of Mandans for many years.

Not much is known about this particular chief; however, one story that has been recorded details the manner in which he received the name “Looking.”

Sitting by the hour, Chief Looking would look at his son. Seldom letting him out of his sight, the boy would grow up into manhood, always under the watchful eye of his father.

Not allowing his son to go off to war, in fear that he would be killed, Chief Looking would be stricken worry, after awakening from a nap, and finding that his son was gone.

The chief, following his son, set out on the war path. He would eventually come to the spot where a great battle had been fought. It was there that Chief Looking found the body of his slain son.

Mourning by the side of his son, Chief Looking’s began hearing voices, and looking around, saw the spirit of his son come and enter into the lifeless body.

Getting up, the son spoke with his father, and told him all about heaven and its wonders.

Chief Looking’s would go on to bury his son’s body, along with items that his son’s spirit had requested. From that time on, it was said that Chief Looking spent most of his time looking out at the valley where he had last seen his son.

A short settlement
Even though little is known about Chief Looking, a few details have been discovered concerning his village.

Settled a hundred years after the village at Huff, inhabitation at the site began around 1550 C.E. For the Mandan, it was a time of transition, from living in rectangular homes, to circular earth lodges, such as seen at On-A-Slant Village.

While the village seemed to thrive, it was only for a brief moment. Only a generation would pass before the site was abandoned. 

The reason for the sudden abandonment is not known. However, suggestions have been made. 

Even though the Mandan people were seen as peaceful, it is clear that they were also plagued by warfare. While the Mandan generally did not seek out war, they were prepared to to protect themselves when the need arose. 

The case was no different at Chief Looking’s Village, which was heavily fortified. Surrounded by cliffs on one side, and a man made ditch on the other, attempts to attack the village would have been difficult. 

Adding to the difficulty would have been a palisade wall, that surrounded the village, along with exceptionally large bastions, some of the largest in the area, which added to the city’s defense. 

The Mandan were also likely targets for attacks, as they often had a surplus of food stored. In times of drought or famine, Mandan villages would be seen as ideal areas to attack. 

At the same time, the Mandan were relatively new to the area. Only recently arriving in the state, having followed the Missouri River north ward, they could have also been seen as a threat. 

Yet, who this threat may have come from is also unknown. While, in later years, the Lakota would become the Mandan’s primary enemy, they would not arrive in the area for around another century. It may have been that the Mandan were protecting themselves from other Mandan villages, or even a tribe we are unaware of, as their history was not effectively recorded.

Whatever may have been the threat, Mark Mitchell, research director for the PaleoCultural Research Group, who recently finished excavations at Chief Looking’s Village, said that fairly intense warfare was common; the bastions being a symbol of that.

However, even though the Mandan would abandon the village, Mitchell said they didn’t go far.

“They either joined other villages, or made a new one,” Mitchell said. “The various clans were a part of all of the villages around here, so they could have joined family elsewhere.”

Into the present
With the abandonment of Chief Looking’s Village, the site would lay dormant for nearly four centuries.

The Ward family, early pioneers in Burleigh County, would eventually purchase the land. However, while they farmed the surrounding area, the plow never touched the former village, leaving it a unique site for later archeologist.

It would take another century for Chief Looking’s Village to really be studied. While George Will would do minor excavations in 1905, and 1919, and the CCC would do work at the site in 1934, which included the construction of three earth lodges, it wouldn’t be until 2008 that the site began to be really looked at again.

With the research that the PRCG began, as well as renewed interest in the history of the Mandan people, a common theme has once again been offered. That theme, as Ken Rogers put it into word in 2003, is that Native people, the Mandan, are not extinct. “They are still here. They have persevered.”

In 2015 and 2016, PRCG came back to Chief Looking’s Village to study the area. In our next issue, we will look at a few of their findings, that help shine light on the Mandan people.