The Arikara, also sometimes referred to as the Arikaree or Rees, are the northernmost fragment of the Caddoan language group. The earliest known habitat of this linguistic group is thought to be within the southern drainage area of the Mississippi but some think possibly the southwestern parts of the United States. In any case it is apparent that the wanderings of the Arikara have covered a vast range of territory. The Arikara are an offshoot of the Pawnee Nation, and more directly the Skidi band of that tribe. The dialect of the Arikara and the Skidi is slightly different from the other three bands of the Pawnee. While the Skidi stayed in the Loup River area of present Nebraska the Arikara split off and journeyed further to the north in the Dakotas. According to Spanish accounts the separation occurred about 1734, following an extended intratribal war. Their numerous village remains have been located along the Missouri River from near the mouth of the Platte to the Knife River area of North Dakota.
The Arikara lived in numerous earth lodge villages and had a large population with some estimates as high as 25,000 people separated into as many as ten sub-divisions. A series of devastating smallpox epidemics in the late 1700s decimated the tribe so much so that by October 1804 and the arrival of Lewis and Clark, only a small percentage of the original population remained. One deserted earth lodge village after another greeted the expedition as it neared the Arikara homeland. All the expedition found were three villages all located on a three-mile-long island at the mouth of the Grand River. The total population was reduced to roughly 2,600 individuals.
The Arikara women were farmers with their major crops being corn, beans, squash, tobacco, watermelon, and pumpkins. Often the gardens supplied a surplus which was traded to the nomadic tribes such as the Kiowa and the Cheyenne when they weren’t at war. Hunting was also a major supplier of food and the men hunted bison, elk, deer, and antelope.
The tribal enemies of the Arikara were many and included the Comanche, Kiowa, Cheyenne, and the different Lakota (Sioux) tribes. At times they were at peace with the Mandan and Hidasta, but more often were at war. The Arikara were well aware of where the smallpox came from and they declared war on all whites. In 1823 they attacked and killed a large group of white traders which induced the United States to send a large expedition north from Ft. Leavenworth to retaliate. The Lakota joined and the Arikara were attacked in their fortified village and had to escape under the cover of darkness. They then went to live in the south with the Skidi Pawnee until they were forced to leave and they move back north. Further disease and warfare caused them to combine with the remnants of the Mandan and Hidasta. The Fort Berthold Reservation was created in 1880 for all three tribes and most Arikara still reside in North Dakota.
Author: Kansas Historical Society
Author information: The Kansas Historical Society is a state agency charged with actively safeguarding and sharing the state's history.
Date Created: December 2011
Date Modified: December 2015
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