A Celebration of Women Writers

"Chapter III" 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



Remark by Maxi'diwiac

This that I am going to tell you of the planting and harvesting of our crops is out of my own experience, seen with my own eyes. In olden times, I know, my tribe used digging sticks and bone hoes for garden tools; and I have described how I saw my grandmother use them. There may be other tools or garden customs once in use in my tribe, and now forgotten; of them I cannot speak. There were families in Like-a-fishhook village less industrious than ours, and some families may have tilled their fields in ways a little different; of them, also, I can not speak. This that I now tell is as I saw my mothers do, or did myself, when I was young. My mothers were industrious women, and our family had always good crops; and I will tell now how the women of my father's family cared for their fields, as I saw them, and helped them.

Planting Sunflowers

The first seed that we planted in the spring was sunflower seed. Ice breaks on the Missouri about the first week in April; and we planted sunflower seed as soon after as the soil could be worked. Our native name for the lunar month that corresponds most nearly to April, is Mapi'-o'cë-mi'di, or Sunflower-planting-moon.

Planting was done by hoe, or the woman scooped up the soil with her hands. Three seeds were planted in a hill, at the depth of the second joint of a woman's finger. The three seeds were planted together, pressed into the loose soil by a single motion, with thumb and first two fingers. The hill was heaped up and patted firm with the palm in the same way as we did for corn.

Usually we planted sunflowers only around the edges of a field. The hills were placed eight or nine paces apart; for we never sowed sunflowers thickly. We thought a field surrounded thus by a sparce-sown row of sunflowers, had a handsome appearance.

Sometimes all three seeds sprouted and came up together; sometimes only two sprouted; sometimes one.


Of cultivated sunflowers we had several varieties, black, white, red, striped, named from the color of the seed. The varieties differed only in color; all had the same taste and smell, and were treated alike in cooking.

White sunflower seed when pounded into meal, turned dark, but I think this was caused by the parching.

Each family raised the variety they preferred. The varieties were well fixed; black seed produced black; white seed, white.

Harvesting the seed

Although our sunflower seed was the first crop to be planted in the spring. it was the last to be harvested in the fall.

For harvesting, we reckoned two kinds of flowers, or heads.

A stalk springing from seed of one of our cultivated varieties had one, sometimes two, or even three larger heads, heavy and full, bending the top of the stalk with their weight of seed. Some of these big heads had each a seed area as much as eleven inches across; and yielded each an even double handful of seed. We called the seed from these big heads mapi'-i'ti'a from mapi', sunflower, or sunflower seed, and i'ti'a, big.

Besides these larger heads, there were other and smaller heads on the stalk; and wild sunflowers bearing similar small heads grew in many places along the Missouri, and were sure to be found springing up in abandoned gardens. These smaller heads of the cultivated, and the heads of the wild, plants, were never more than five inches across; and these and their seed we called mapi'-na'ka, sunflower's child or baby sunflower.

Our sunflowers were ready for harvesting when the little petals that covered the seeds fell off, exposing the ripe seeds beneath. Also, the back of the head turned yellow; earlier in the season it would be green.

To harvest the larger heads, I put a basket on my back, and knife in hand, passed from plant to plant, cutting off each large head close to the stem; the severed heads I tossed into my basket. These heads I did not let dry on the stalk, as birds would devour the seeds.

My basket filled, I returned to the lodge, climbed the ladder to the roof, and spread the sunflower heads upon the flat part of the roof around the smoke hole, to dry. The heads were laid face downward, with the backs to the sun. When I was a girl, only three or four earth lodges in the village had peaked roofs; and these lodges were rather small. All the larger and better lodges, those of what we deemed wealthier families, were built with the top of the roof flat, like a floor. A flat roof was useful to dry things on; and when the weather was fair, the men often sat there and gossiped.

The sunflower heads were dried face downward, that the sun falling on the back of the head might dry and shrink the fiber, thus loosening the seeds. The heads were laid flat on the bare roof, without skins or other protection beneath. If a storm threatened, the unthreshed heads were gathered up and borne into the lodge; but they were left on the roof overnight, if the weather was fair.

When the heads had dried about four days, the seeds were threshed out; and I would fetch in from the garden another supply of heads to dry and thresh.


To thresh the heads, a skin was spread and the heads laid on it face downward, and beaten with a stick. Threshing might be on the ground, or on the flat roof, as might be convenient.

An average threshing filled a good sized basket, with enough seed left over to make a small package.

Harvesting the Mapi'-na'ka

The smaller heads of the cultivated plants were sometimes gathered, dried, and threshed, as were the larger heads; but if the season was getting late and frost had fallen, and the seeds were getting loose in their pods, I more often threshed these smaller heads and those of the wild plants directly from the stalk.

For this I bore a carrying basket, swinging it around over my breast instead of my back; and going about the garden or into the places where the wild plants grew, I held the basket under these smaller, or baby sunflower heads, and beating them smartly with a stick, threshed the seeds into the basket. It took me about half a day to thresh a basket half full. The seeds I took home to dry, before sacking them.

The seeds from the baby sunflowers of both wild and cultivated plants were sacked together. The seeds of the large heads were sacked separately; and in the spring, when we came to plant, our seed was always taken from the sack containing the harvest of the larger heads.

In my father's family, we usually stored away two, sometimes three sacks of dried sunflower seed for winter use. Sacks were made of skins, perhaps fourteen inches high and eight inches in diameter, on an average.

Sunflower harvest came after we had threshed our corn; and corn threshing was in the first part of October.

Effect of Frost

Because they were gathered later, the seeds of baby sunflowers were looked upon as a kind of second crop; and as I have said, they were kept apart from the earlier harvest, because seed for planting was selected from the larger and earlier gathered heads. Gathered thus late, this second crop was nearly always touched by the frost, even before the seeds were threshed from the stalks.

This frosting of the seeds had an effect upon them that we rather esteemed. We made a kind of oily meal from sunflower seed, by pounding them in a corn mortar; but meal made from seed that had been frosted, seemed more oily than that from seed gathered before frost fell. The freezing of the seeds seemed to bring the oil out of the crushed kernels.

This was well known to us. The large heads, left on the roof over night, were sometimes caught by the frost; and meal made from their seed was more oily than that from unfrosted seed. Sometimes we took the threshed seed out of doors and let it get frosted, so as to bring out this oiliness. Frosting the seeds did not kill them.

The oiliness brought out by the frosting was more apparent in the seeds of baby sunflowers than in seeds of the larger heads. Seeds of the latter seemed never to have as much oil in them as seeds of the baby sunflowers.

Parching the Seed

To make sunflower meal the seeds were first roasted, or parched. This was done in a clay pot, for iron pots were scarce in my tribe when I was young. The clay pot in use in my father's family was about a foot high and eight or nine inches in diameter, as you see from measurements I make with my hands.

This pot I set on the lodge fire, working it down into the coals with a rocking motion, and raked coals around it; the mouth I tipped slightly toward me. I threw into the pot two or three double-handfuls of the seeds and as they parched, I stirred them with a little stick, to keep them from burning. Now and then I took out a seed and bit it; if the kernel was soft and gummy, I knew the parching was not done; but when it bit dry and crisp, I knew the seeds were cooked and I dipped them out with a horn spoon into a wooden bowl.

Again I threw into the pot two or three double-handfuls of seed to parch; and so, until I had enough.

As the pot grew quite hot I was careful not to touch it with my hands. The parching done, I lifted the pot out, first throwing over it a piece of old tent cover to protect my two hands.

Parching the seeds caused them to crack open somewhat.

The parched seeds were pounded in the corn mortar to make meal. Pounding sunflower seeds took longer, and was harder work, than pounding corn.


Sunflower meal was used in making a dish that we called do'patsa-makihi'kĕ, or four-vegetables-mixed; from do'patsa, four things; and makihi'kĕ, mixed or put together. Four-vegetables-mixed we thought our very best dish.

To make this dish, enough for a family of five, I did as follows:

I put a clay pot with water on the fire.

Into the pot I threw one double-handful of beans. This was a fixed quantity; I put in just one double-handful whether the family to be served was large or small; for a larger quantity of beans in this dish was apt to make gas on one's stomach.

When we dried squash in the fall we strung the slices upon strings of twisted grass, each seven Indian fathoms long; an Indian fathom is the distance between a woman's two hands outstretched on either side. From one of these seven-fathom strings I cut a piece as long as from my elbow to the tip of my thumb; the two ends of the severed piece I tied together, making a ring; and this I dropped into the pot with the beans.

When the squash slices were well cooked I lifted them out of the pot by the grass string into a wooden bowl. With a horn spoon I chopped and mashed the cooked squash slices into a mass, which I now returned to the pot with the beans. The grass string I threw away.

To the mess I now added four or five double-handfuls of mixed meal, of pounded parched sunflower seed and pounded parched corn. The whole was boiled for a few minutes more, and was ready for serving.

I have already told how we parched sunflower seed; and that I used two or three double-handfuls of seed to a parching. I used two parchings of sunflower seed for one mess of four-vegetables-mixed. I also used two parchings of corn; but I put more corn into the pot at a parching than I did of sunflower seed.

Pounding the parched corn and sunflower seed reduced their bulk so that the four parchings, two of sunflower seed and two of corn, made but four or five double-handfuls of the mixed meal.

Four-vegetables-mixed was eaten freshly cooked; and the mixed corn-and-sunflower meal was made fresh for it each time. A little alkali salt might be added for seasoning, but even this was not usual. No other seasoning was used. Meat was not boiled with the mess, as the sunflower seed gave sufficient oil to furnish fat.

Four-vegetables-mixed was a winter food; and the squash used in its making was dried, sliced squash, never green, fresh squash.

The clay pot used for boiling this and other dishes was about the size of an iron dinner pot, or even larger. For a large family, the pot might be as much as thirteen or fourteen inches high. I have described that in use in my father's family.

When a mess of four-vegetables-mixed was cooked, I did not remove the pot from the coals, but dipped out the vegetables with a mountain-sheep horn spoon, into wooden bowls (figure 6.)

Figure 6

Drawn from specimens in author's collection.

Sunflower-seed Balls

Sunflower meal of the parched seeds was also used to make sunflower seed balls; these were important articles of diet in olden times, and had a particular use.

For sunflower-seed balls I parched the seeds in a pot in the usual way, put them in a corn mortar and pounded them. When they were reduced to a fine meal I reached into the mortar and took out a handful of the meal, squeezing it in the fingers and palm of my right hand. This squeezing it made it into a kind of lump or ball.

This ball I enclosed in the two palms and gently shook it. The shaking brought out the oil of the seeds, cementing the particles of the meal and making the lump firm. I have said that frosted seeds gave out more oil than unfrosted; and that baby sunflower seeds gave out more oil than seeds from the big heads.

In olden times every warrior carried a bag of soft skin at his left side, supported by a thong over his right shoulder; in this bag he kept needles, sinews, awl, soft tanned skin for making patches for moccasins, gun caps, and the like. The warrior's powder horn hung on the outside of this bag.

In the bottom of this soft-skin bag the warrior commonly carried one of these sunflower-seed balls, wrapped in a piece of buffalo-heart skin. When worn with fatigue or overcome with sleep and weariness, the warrior took out his sunflower-seed ball, and nibbled at it to refresh himself. It was amazing what effect nibbling at the sunflower-seed ball had. If the warrior was weary, he began to feel fresh again; if sleepy, he grew wakeful.

Sometimes the warrior kept his sunflower-seed ball in his flint case that hung always at his belt over his right hip.

It was quite a general custom in my tribe for a warrior or hunter to carry one of these sunflower-seed balls.

We called the sunflower-seed ball mapi', the same name as for sunflower.

Sunflower meal, parched and pounded as described, was often mixed with corn balls, to which it gave an agreeable smell, as well as a pleasant taste.


Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom