In the last few years I have written 25 Venture Bound columns about American Indians. This reflects not only my interest in American Indians, but in the work of state and federal governments in recreating sites and opening archaeological digs as tourist attractions.
In 2006 I visited the Mitchell Prehistoric Indian Village in South Dakota, a national historic landmark. The only such landmark open to the public in the state, it was constructed to provide access to both tourists and archeologists.
When I think of Great Plains Indians, I usually think of the Sioux and Cheyenne, nomads with their herds of horses, living by following the bison and fighting with the U.S. army and each other.
But before the Spanish left horses to run free and multiply, enabling many tribes to become mobile, other lifestyles were the norm and they continued well into the time of the white man’s arrival.
The Mitchell site is a 1,000-year-old village with copious artifacts casting light on how the prehistoric peoples in the area survived. Similar to the Woodland Indians of Ohio and Mounds people of Cahokia, Ill., these were an agricultural people, growing corn, beans, squash and sunflowers.
Their main protein came from bison, and the number of bones dug from their trash piles indicates they were effective hunters. How they did it is a mystery to me, since they didn’t use a bow and arrow, but used a throwing stick, or atlatl, to launch a spear.
Several deer-shaped targets were set up behind the visitors’ center, and atlatl and spears were provided along with instructions. I hit one deer in seven tries, but how I would have gotten close enough to throw even one is beyond me.
Our guide was upbeat about the atlatl’s possibilities: "It is important to keep your eyes on the target while throwing because the spear will naturally go to the spot you are looking." Ha!
That the locals were successful hunters of bison is shown by the list we were given of 75 specific uses for portions of the bison. For example, the horns could be used for cups, headdresses, fire carriers, ladles, rattles, scoops, spoons and toys.
The village was on the migration route of the bison, so the walking marketplace came to them twice a year. A deep ditch surrounded the village, supposedly to prevent the vast herds of bison from simply trampling the lodges into dust.
Inside the visitors’ center, a lodge has been reconstructed using authentic materials: wooden poles for the framework, earth for the walls, and branches and grass for the roof. The village had 70 of these 20-foot by 40-foot lodges, each housing 10 to 20 people. These villages were always near a river that provided water for their crops and trees for their lodges and firewood for cooking. The lodges were often on a rise overlooking the river to avoid flooding during the spring thaw.
Over time, their crops tended to exhaust the soil and their use of wood depleted the surrounding trees. When they had used up the local resources, they would move on.
It is suspected that this group became the Arikara, a tribe closely related to the Mandan of North Dakota who became famous when Lewis and Clark wintered with them in 1804.
The village was protected by a tall wall of logs. This certainly indicates they had some enemies they needed protection against. If they were like the Indians of the area when the white man arrived, there was constant fighting between tribes. It was by proving that he was a great warrior that a man could establish rank in his community. That many died trying to earn status through their bravery is indicated by the three- or two-to-one ratio of women to men in most villages on the Great Plains.
What makes this site different from others I have visited is the $2 million Thomsen Center Archeodome. This large round concrete building is directly over the prime sites that are being excavated. As their brochure indicates, "The 10,000-square-foot facility is truly multipurpose, allowing archeologists to work on-site throughout the year, conduct research with visiting specialists and provide learning experiences to students and the tourist public."
A film introduces you to the site and a guide takes you through the visitors’ center, around the grounds and through the Archeodome. Our guide, another one of those older guys who has found a new career in retirement, was excellent.
For more information, visit the Web site at www.mitchellindianvillage.org.