On this date in 1938, three Hidatsa men were celebrating the rescue of important relics that they believed would end the drought, dust and depression that were ravaging the North Dakota prairies. One of these men was Arthur Mandan, who, later that year, became the first chairman of the Three Affiliated Tribes. The other two men were 75-year-old Drags Wolf and 84-year-old Foolish Bear, both of the Hidatsa Water Buster Clan.
An important aspect of Native American oral traditions involves sacred bundles of relics that help storytellers remember the tribes’ stories and histories. According to newspaper reports from the 1930s, certain members of the Hidatsa’s Water Buster Clan were responsible for praying for rain and also for safeguarding a sacred medicine bundle that contained two ancient human skulls wrapped in a buffalo robe. The skulls represented two huge eagles that had turned into human beings; they were Thunder Birds, sky spirits that could send rain.
At some point, the keeper of the bundle, Small Ankle, unexpectedly died without passing along his knowledge of the rituals and ceremonies needed for bringing rain. Small Ankle’s son, Wolf Chief, wasn’t eligible to take over, because he wasn’t a member of the Water Buster Clan – membership is passed down through the mother. Wolf Chief was also a converted Christian. Still, he had physical possession of the bundle and sold it to a Presbyterian missionary for $30. Later, in 1927, the Heye Foundation in New York bought it for its American Indian museum.
When the drought and dust of the Great Depression hit the prairies, the Water Buster Clan believed it was because the medicine bundle hadn’t been properly kept. So, in 1933 they began the very difficult task of raising $400 to send a delegation to New York to get the bundle back. Unfortunately, the Heye Foundation wasn’t willing to part with it, even when the elders offered them $250 for just the two skulls. A letter from the Foundation illustrates its insensitivity: “Do you think a copy of (the bundle) would be acceptable?” they asked. “Some of the older members of the clan might be able to work ‘medicine’ on it. If that won’t be acceptable, would it be possible for you to use photographs? It might be possible that they would rub the original over the copy of the photographs and that might have some effect with the old timers.”
The Water Busters’ spokesman was Arthur Mandan. He wasn’t a member of the Clan, but he was on the tribal business council and was known for his powers of persuasion. His children say that Mandan went so far as to get the issue before Congress, but it was when the newspapers picked up the story that the Foundation finally consented to trade the bundle for an equal artifact.
The clan hastily put together a roughed up stone hammer and a sun-bleached bison horn stuffed with sage. In New York, Drags Wolf, Foolish Bear and Mandan were given the red-carpet treatment, including a dinner at the home of Joseph Kennedy and a meeting with President Franklin Roosevelt. On January 23rd, 1938, the exchange was taking place at the museum when a staff member began to open the medicine bundle for the press. Foolish Bear and Drags Wolf rushed forward to shield the contents from photographers and headed home.
When the medicine bundle was safely back in North Dakota, the Hidatsa celebrated through the night. They say the clouds burned red for a day and a night, and in the spring, the rains came back and turned the prairies green again. Today, 67 years later, the Water Buster Clan still commemorates the return of the skulls, and appointed members of the clan still take responsibility for the medicine bundle and what it stands for.