A Celebration of Women Writers

"Chapter VI" by Maxi'diwiac (Buffalo Bird Woman) of the Hidatsa Indian Tribe (ca.1839-1932)
From: Buffalo Bird Woman's Garden Recounted by Maxi'diwiac (Buffalo Bird Woman) of the Hidatsa Indian Tribe (ca.1839-1932) Originally published as Agriculture of the Hidatsa Indians: An Indian Interpretation by Gilbert Livingstone Wilson (1868-1930). Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 1917. (Ph. D. Thesis).

Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom



Planting Beans

Bean planting followed immediately after squash planting.

Beans were planted in hills the size and shape of squash hills, or about seven by fourteen inches; but if made in open ground the hills were not placed so far apart in the row. Squash hills, like corn hills, stood about four feet apart in the row, measuring from center to center; but bean hills might be placed two feet or less in the row.

Beans, however, were very commonly planted not in open ground, but between our rows of corn; the hills were arranged as shown in diagram (figure 8, page 25).

Corn hills, I have said, stood four feet, or a little less in the row, and the rows were about four feet apart, 1 when corn was planted by itself. But if beans were to be planted between, the corn rows were placed a little farther apart, to make room for the bean hills.

Putting in the Seeds

To make a hill for beans, I broke up and loosened the soil with my hoe, scraping away the dry top soil; the hill I then made of the soft, slightly moist under-soil. The hill, as suggested by the measurements, was rather elongated.

I took beans, three in each hand, held in thumb and first two fingers, and buried them in a side of the hill, two inches deep, by a simultaneous thrust of each hand, as I stooped over; the two groups of seeds were six inches apart.

I have heard that some families planted four seeds in each group, instead of three; but I always put in three seeds and think that the better way. Figure 24 will explain the two ways of planting.

Figure 24

I am not sure that I know just why we planted beans always in the side of the hill; I have said we planted squash thus because the sprouted seeds were tender and the soil in the side of the hill did not bake hard after a rain. Also, we were careful not to make our bean hills too large, as the heavy rains turned the soft soil into mud which beat down over the vines, killing them.

Hoeing and Cultivating

These subjects I have sufficiently described, I think, when I told you how we hoed and cultivated corn.


Threshing was in the fall, after the beans had ripened and the pods were dead and dried. Sometimes, when the weather had been favorable, the bean vines were quite dry and could be threshed the same day they were gathered. But if the weather was a little damp, or if, as was usually the case, the vines were still a little green, they had to be dried a day or two before they could be threshed.

To prepare for this labor, I went out into the field and pulled up all the corn stalks in a space four or five yards in diameter; this was for a drying place. I pulled up the vines of one bean hill and transferred them to my left hand, where I held them by the roots; I gathered another bunch of bean vines in my right hand, as many as I could conveniently carry; and I took these vines, borne in my two hands, to the drying place, and laid them on the ground, roots up, spreading them out a little. I thus worked until I had pulled up all the vines that grew near the drying place.

I made several such drying places, as the need required; and on them I put all the bean vines to dry.

At the end of about three days, when the vines were dry I took out into the field half of an old tent cover and laid it on the ground in an open space made by clearing away the corn stalks. This tent cover, so laid, was to be my threshing floor.

We never laid this tent cover at the edge of the field on the grass, because in threshing the vines, some of the beans would fly up and fall outside the tent cover, on the ground. We always picked these stray beans up carefully, after threshing. This could not be done if we threshed on the grass.

My threshing floor ready, I took up some of the dry vines and laid them on the tent cover in a heap, about three feet high. I got upon this heap with my moccasined feet and smartly trampled it, now and then standing on one foot, while I shuffled and scraped the other over the dry vines; this was done to shake the beans loose from their pods.

When the vines were pretty well trampled I pushed them over two or three feet to one side of the tent cover; and having fetched fresh vines, I made another heap about three feet high, which also I trampled and pushed aside. When I had trampled three or four heaps in this manner I was ready to beat them.

We preferred to tread out our beans thus, because beating them with a stick made the seeds fly out in all directions upon the ground; when the vines were trampled, this would not happen. However, after the treading was over, there were always a few unopened pods still clinging to the vines; and to free the beans from these pods, we beat the vines at the end of every three or four treadings.

This beating I did with a stick, about the size of the stick used as a flail in threshing corn.

I always threshed my beans on a windy day if possible, so that I might winnow them immediately after the threshing. If the wind died down, I covered over the threshed beans and waited until the wind came up again. A small carrying basket or a wooden bowl, was used to winnow with.

After the beans were winnowed, they were dried one more day, either on a tent cover in the garden, or at home on a skin placed on the ground near the drying stage. At the end of this day's drying, they were ready to be packed in sacks.

Our bean harvests varied a good deal from year to year; in my father's family, from as little as half a sack, to as much as three barrels. The biggest harvest our family ever put up, that I remember, was equivalent to about three barrelfuls. Of course we did not use barrels in those days.

Bean threshing never lasted long; it was work that could be done rapidly.

Gathering up the vines, threshing, and winnowing took about a day and a half; the actual threshing lasted only about half a day. But this does not take into account the time the vines and the threshed beans lay drying.

I remember that one year, when our crop was of good size, for the whole work of threshing and labor of getting our bean crop in, I spent but three days. In this time I had gathered up the vines, threshed them, and winnowed the threshed beans.

However, the time necessary for these labors varied much with the crop, the weather, and the greenness of the vines.


There were five varieties of beans in common use in my tribe, as follows:

Ama'ca ci'pica Black bean
Ama'ca hi'ci Red bean
Ama'ca pu'xi Spotted bean
Ama'ca ita' wina'ki matu'hica Shield-figured bean
Ama'ca atạ'ki White bean

These varieties we planted, each by itself; and each kind, again, was kept separate in threshing; also, only beans of the same variety were put in one bag for storing. Black, red, white, shield-figured, spotted, each had a separate bag.

Besides the foregoing varieties, there were some families who raised a variety of yellow beans. I once planted some seed of this variety, but did not find that they bred very true to color; I do not know if this was because I did not get very good seed.

I do not think these yellow beans were in use in my tribe in very old times. Whether they were imported to us by white men, or, as seems likely, were brought from other tribes, I do not know.

The white beans now raised in this part of the reservation, seed of which you have purchased, is from white man's stock. The seed was brought to us, I think, when I was a little girl, or about sixty years ago. But we Hidatsas and Mandans had white beans before this. The two strains are easily distinguished. In the white man's variety, the eye is a little sunken in the seed. In the native white beans, the eye is on a level with the body of the bean.

Selecting Seed Beans

In the spring, when I came to plant beans, I was very careful to select seed for the following points: seed should be fully ripe; seed should be of full color; seed should be plump, and of good size.

If the red was not a deep red, or the black a deep black, I knew the seed was not fully ripe, and I would reject it. So also of the white, the spotted, and the shield-figured.

Did I learn from white men thus to select seed? (Laughing heartily.) No, this custom comes down to us from very old times. We were always taught to select seed thus, in my tribe.

White men do not seem to know very much about raising beans. Our school teacher last year raised beans in a field near the school-house; and when harvest time came, he tried to pluck the pods directly into a basket, without treading or threshing the vines. I think it would take him a very long time to harvest his beans in that manner.

Cooking and Uses

Of the several varieties, I like to eat black beans best. Especially I like to use black beans in making mä'dạkạpa. However, all the other kinds were good. 2

I have already described to you some of the dishes we made, and still make, with beans. Following are some messes I have not described:

Ama'ca Di'hĕ, or Beans-Boiled. The beans were boiled in a clay pot with a piece of buffalo fat, or some bone grease. If the beans were dried beans, they were boiled a little longer than squash is boiled–a half hour or more. Spring salt, or other seasoning, was not used.

Green beans, shelled from the pod, were sometimes prepared thus boiled with buffalo fat or bone grease; but green beans did not have to be boiled quite as long as dried beans.

Green Beans Boiled in the Pod. Green beans in the pod we boiled and ate as a vegetable from the time they came in until fall; but we did not plant beans, as we did corn, to make them come in late in the season, that we might then eat them green.

Green beans in the pod were boiled in a clay pot, with a little fat thrown in. Pods and seeds were eaten together.

But a green bean pod has in it two little strings that are not very good to eat. At meal time the boiled pod was taken up in the fingers and carried to the eater's mouth. At one end of the pod is always a kind of little hook; the unbroken pod was taken into the mouth with this little hook forward, between the teeth; and the eater, seizing the little hook between thumb and finger, drew it out of his mouth with the two little strings that were always attached to the hook.

Green Corn and Beans. Pounded green shelled corn was often boiled with green beans, shelled from the pod.

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1 Measuring from center of corn hill to center of next corn hill.–G. L. W.

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2 "I have raised white beans mostly of late years because it is easier to sell them to white men. This summer, however (1913), I planted several acres also to other kinds of our Hidatsa beans, red, black, spotted.

"I find that the black beans have yielded best, next the red, then the spotted, last of all the white. I have observed before that this is true; that black beans yield the most."–WOLF CHIEF


Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom