Lewis and Clark Describe the Hospitality of the Mandan Indians
Lewis and Clarke refer to the usages of the tribes of the Missouri, which were precisely the same as those of the Iroquois. "It is the custom of all the nations on the Missouri," they remark, "to offer every white man food and refreshments when he first enters their tents". [Footnote: Travels, etc., London edition, 1814, p. 649.]
This was simply applying their rules of hospitality among themselves to their white visitors.
About 1837-1838 George Catlin wintered at the Mandan Village, on the Upper Missouri. He was an accurate and intelligent observer, and his work on the "Manners and Customs of the North American Indians" is a valuable contribution to American ethnography. The principal Mandan village, which then contained fifty houses and fifteen hundred people, was surrounded with a palisade. It was well situated for game, but they did not depend exclusively upon this source of subsistence. They cultivated maize, squashes, pumpkins, and tobacco in garden beds, and gathered wild berries and a species of turnip on the prairies. "Buffalo meat, however," says Mr. Catlin, "is the great staple and staff of life in this country, and seldom, if ever, fails to afford them an abundant means of subsistence."
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"During the summer and fall months they use the meat fresh, and cook it in a great variety of ways—by roasting, broiling, boiling, stewing, smoking, &c., and, by boiling the ribs and joints with the marrow in them, make a delicious soup, which is universally used and in vast quantities. The Mandans, I find, have no regular or stated times for their meals, but generally eat about twice in the twenty-four hours. The pot is always boiling over the fire, and any one who is hungry, either from the household or from any other part of the village, has a right to order it taken off and to fall too, eating as he pleases. Such is an unvarying custom among the North American Indians, and I very much doubt whether the civilized world have in their institutions any system which can properly be called more humane and charitable. Every man, woman, or child in Indian communities is allowed to enter any one's lodge, and even that of the chief of the nation, and eat when they are hungry, provided misfortune or necessity has drawn them to it. Even so can the poorest and most worthless drone of the nation, if he is too lazy to hunt or to supply himself; he can walk into any lodge, and every one will share with him as long as there is anything to eat. He, however, who thus begs when he is able to hunt, pays dear for his meat, for he is stigmatized with the disgraceful epithet of poltroon and beggar." [Footnote: Manners and Customs of the North American Indians, Hazard's edition, 1857, i, 200.] Mr. Catlin puts the case rather strongly when he turns the free hospitality of the household into a right of the guest to entertainment independently of their consent. It serves to show that the provisions of the household, which as he elsewhere states, consisted of from twenty to forty persons, were used in common, and that each household shared their provisions in the exercise of hospitality with any inhabitant of the village who came to the house hungry, and with strangers from other tribes as well. Moreover, he speaks of this hospitality as universal amongst the Indian tribes. It is an important statement, because few men in the early period of intercourse with the western tribes have traveled so extensively among them.