Maxidiwiac (Buffalo Bird Woman)

Photo published in “Buffalo Bird Woman’s Garden” by Maxi’diwiac (Buffalo Bird Woman) (ca.1839-1932) of the Hidatsa Indian Tribe; edited by Gilbert Livingstone Wilson, Ph.D (1868-1930). Originally published as “Agriculture of the Hidatsa Indians: An Indian Interpretation,” Minneapolis: The University of Minnesota (Studies in the Social Sciences, #9), 1917.

Native American (Hidatsa), Autoethnography

Maxidiwiac (Buffalo Bird Woman)

(ca 1839-1932)

Maxidiwiac, also known as Buffalo Bird Woman, was born to Want-to-be-a-Woman and Small Ankle, members of the Hidatsa community, in an earth lodge beside the Knife River around 1839, decades before North Dakota became a state. Speaking to anthropologist Gilbert L. Wilson through an interpreter, her son, Edward Goodbird, Maxidiwiac and Wilson co-created texts, which Wilson published. Wilson explains their collaboration in Agriculture, “the writer claims no credit beyond arranging the material and putting the interpreter’s Indian-English translation into proper idiom. Bits of Indian philosophy and shrewd or humorous observations found in the narrative are not the writer’s, but the informant’s, and are as they fell from her lips. The writer has sincerely endeavored to add to the narrative essentially nothing of his own.” Waheenee, the title of another of their co-creations, was not her name, but a name Wilson invented, thinking Maxidiwiac too difficult for this book’s intended young adult audience.

The Hidatsa brought plants with them when they came to this world. Until she was in her mid-forties, when she and her people were forced out of their village and onto allotments, cultivating, harvesting, and processing plants were at the center of Maxidiwiac’s life, as it had been for her ancestors and fellow community members. In Agriculture, Maxidiwiac describes a myriad of topics, including ancient stories, family accounts of ancestors, planting techniques, cultural teachings, songs, and culinary recipes, all intricately connected to gardening.  

Through her stories, readers hear about great changes to gardening, food, and life after the Hidatsa were evicted from their earth lodge village and forced onto the Fort Berthold reservation, including changes in what they were allowed to plant. She wrote in Agriculture

“…seeds were issued to us, of watermelons, big squashes, onions, turnips, and other vegetables. Some of these we tried to eat, but did not like them very well; even the turnips and big squashes, we thought not so good as our own squashes and our wild prairie turnips. Moreover, we did not know how to dry these new vegetables for winter; so we often did not trouble even to harvest them.”

Maxidiwiac also explains the connection between song and Hidatsa gardening. Women and girls sat in the center of their gardens, on platforms constructed under trees, watched gardens and sang gardening songs. She includes some of the stories of the songs’ origins in Agriculture. Maxidiwiac’s narrative offers insight into traditional Hidatsa women’s lives, epistemology, and resistive gardening practices in stark contrast to the transition to the colonizing and assimilationist experiences on the reservation. 

Among Maxidiwiac’s publications of interest to folklorists are:

Agriculture of the Hidatsa Indians: An Indian Interpretation (1979); also known as Buffalo Bird Woman’s Garden: Agriculture of the Hidatsa Indians

Wendy Makoons Geniusz

(coming soon)