If you grew up around North Dakota, you’ve heard of the Mandan tribe, and you might even be a member. What you may not know, is that the last full-blooded Mandan was Mattie Grinnell, who lived to be 108 years old. She died on this date in 1975. She passed in Twin Buttes in the home of her daughter, Rose Fournier. Living over a century, Grinnell saw many changes in her time.
Mattie was born with the name Many Roads in 1874 in Like-A-Fish-Hook Village on the Fort Berthold reservation. Her parents were Bad Bull and Lead Bull. She started formal education but only completed four years before her father fell ill and she had to help around home. She would later joke in old age that if she had gone to school for twelve years, she would be in the White House.
At 19 she married John Nagel, a German immigrant farmer who fought in the Civil War under the Third Regiment of the Missouri Volunteer Calvary. They had four children before Nagel died in 1904, which allowed her to claim possibly the last Civil War Widow’s pension in 1971. Three years after Nagel died, she married Charles Grinnell and they stayed together until their divorce in 1935.
Mattie Grinnell was always active. She would tend a garden in Twin Buttes every summer and took pride in it being, “the cleanest garden around Twin Buttes." She was also very politically active and despised the Vietnam War, praying every day for peace in the world. In 1968 she marched in the Poor People’s March, demonstrating her vitality at age 101. Grinnell explained, "I still use Indian medicine. That's why I'm over 100." She knew ceremonies, dances, legends, and according to her, she was the only one who could prepare corn balls and sun-dried meat for tribal ceremonies. She always believed her people should use more of their traditional knowledge.
An article from 1972 in North Dakota Horizons described Grinnell as a "face of nobility, proud, lined with the passing of 105 winters and the pains of her people, regal, shadowed with the timeless despair of the reservations, but calm and stoic in quiet acceptance of burdens."
May her memory live on.
Dakota Datebook by Lucid Thomas