Indian Acres | Prairie Public Broadcasting

Indian Acres

Aug 22, 2020


If you are unfamiliar with the classic of first farmers on the northern plains, Buffalo Bird Woman’s Garden, pick up a copy. I am making it the first core text for my college course, The North American Plains. For two reasons.


First, because it serves to rebalance our buffalo-nickel stereotypes about Plains Indians. The narrative of Maxi'diwiac, Buffalo Bird Woman, speaks for the village farming peoples of the plains, their rich culture, their matriarchal society, their agrarian values.


Second, because the book is about farming and takes us into the intimate relationship with nature essential to Hidatsa culture, something we may see lacking in modern agricultural practice on the prairies.


The preacher-anthropologist who set down Maxi'diwiac’s narrative, Gilbert L. Wilson, calls what she describes “agriculture,” bless his heart, rather than labeling it “horticulture,” as do other anthropologists, thereby consigning it to the neverland of women’s work. I got to wondering, just how much land did Hidatsa women cultivate? I found answers in Chapter IV, the corn chapter, in which Buffalo Bird Woman lays out the geometry of Hidatsa fields and introduces the term, “Indian acres.”


Her description is of farming as practiced at Like-a-fishhook village, near Fort Berthold, in the late nineteenth century. By this time the Hidatsa had iron tools, but still did all field labor by hand. Here are some facts she gives us.


The largest field ever owned in my father’s family was the one I have said my grandmother Turtle helped clear, at Like-a-fishhook village.


The field was nearly rectangular in shape; at the time of its greatest size, its length was about equal to the distance from this spot to yonder fence--one hundred and eighty yards; and its width ninety yards.


So how many English acres is this? An English acre comprises 43,560ft2. The field is 540’ by 270’.


(540 x 270) / 43,560 = 3.35 English acres under cultivation


More than a garden. This is a field, and a matter of agriculture. I think it is a little larger than this initial estimate, however, for we read further:


. . . nine rows of corn, running lengthwise with the field, made one na’xu, or Indian acre, as we usually translate it. There were ten of these na’xus, or Indian acres. . . . a row of squashes separated each na’xu from its neighbor.


Lacking data to calculate width of row for other crops, concentrate calculations on corn, with this helpful detail: “rows were about four feet apart.” So, how large was a na’xu, an Indian acre? A na’xu comprised nine rows of corn 540’ long spaced 4’.


(540 x 9 x 4) / 43,560 = .45 English acres in a na’xu


.45 x 10 = 4.50 English acres in the field


I add a conservative estimate of one acre - it was probably more, given the habits of squash - for other crops in the field, and conclude that this one field of ten Indian acres comprised more than five English acres. It fed the family and produced marketable surplus. First farmers, good farmers.

-Tom Isern