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Menoken Indian Village State Historic Site


It was this date in 1937 that the State Historical Society of North Dakota acquired the Menoken Indian Village. Located a few miles east of Bismarck, the village was home to roughly 200 people and consisted of approximately 30 oval-shaped earth lodges as well as an elaborate fortification system. North Dakota is home to numerous American Indian fortified villages, and most are considerably larger than the one at Menoken. But the village is nonetheless notable for its age and its impressive and elaborate defensive design.

Combining clever placement with cutting-edge defenses, the Menoken village represented the best in 13th century upper plains fortifications. Ideally situated, the Menoken village's northern and western flanks were protected by steep embankments, difficult for any would-be intruder to scale. To the south and east of the village, residents constructed an imposing palisade using timber from groves surrounding nearby Apple Creek. Protecting an enclosure roughly one and a half acres, the village's defensive wall, including its four bastions, was constructed from 700 to 800 posts, each about six to eight inches in diameter, and was itself surrounded by a sizeable dry-moat five feet deep and over twenty feet wide. It was a substantial defensive system that could repel all but the most hardened attackers.

When the Menoken site was first rediscovered in 1936, archeologists mistakenly believed the village to be no more than a few hundred years old; most likely the former home of one of North Dakota's modern tribes; the Mandan, Hidatsa or Arikara. The mistaken identity continued through the 1960s when the site was designated a National Historic Landmark because of its perceived connection to the first contact between Euro-American explorers and American Indians of present-day North Dakota. However, recent radiocarbon dating has revealed that the site is much older than 18th or 19th century; dating instead to roughly 1100 AD and predating the communities of the Mandan, Hidatsa or Arikara. Although the residents of Menoken were likely the ancestors of at least one of these modern tribes, the Menoken village was actually constructed by a now extinct society, the Late Plains Woodland people.

Generally, permanent villages, complex defensive structures and the social organization required to build them are associated with sedentary farming communities. However, the Late Plains Woodland people were not farmers, they were instead hunter-gatherers. Bucking the stereotype reserved for hunter-gatherer cultures, Late Plains Woodland people boasted a relatively advanced society. Besides mastering the complex social organization needed to construct fortified villages, they were part of an elaborate trading network that spanned the continent—trading for obsidian from present-day Yellowstone National Park, copper from the Michigan peninsula and shells from as far away as the Gulf of Mexico.

The Woodland people have now disappeared from the Dakota plains, however their memory remains—preserved in the ruins they left behind; clues that beckon us to more deeply explore their secrets.

Dakota Datebook written by Lane Sunwall


State Historical Society of North Dakota, "State Historical Society of North Dakota Strategic Long Range Plan" http://www.nd.gov/hist/LRPlan.htm (accessed January 19, 2009).

________, "Menoken Indian Village State Historic Site", State Historical Society of North Dakota http://history.nd.gov/historicsites/menoken/index.html (accessed).