During the harvest season, as we watch combines working in the golden fields or trucks driving the dusty highways laden with wheat, barley or sugarbeets, we are reminded of North Dakota’s strong agricultural industry. Indeed, in the minds of many, agriculture is perhaps synonymous with the state. Yet, however important the role of agricultural exports in North Dakota’s economy today, for thousands of years one of our area’s principle exports was not food but weapons.
Knife River Flint, a coffee-colored glassy quartz that is easily chipped and pecked into a variety of shapes and sizes, provided a perfect substance from which people could form the knifes, axes, spears and arrows necessary to not only hunt food, but to protect oneself in an attack. But Knife River Flint was used for more than weaponry. The stone’s easily predictable chipping pattern made it ideal for a variety of tools, including scrapers, wood chisels, awls and drills. Blanks, pieces not yet shaped, were also traded to those living greater distances from the quarries.
Readily found near the confluence of the Missouri and Knife rivers, in what are now Dunn and Mercer counties of west-central North Dakota, Knife River Flint was eagerly sought by numerous American Indian groups and was a principle trade item for the Mandan and Hidatsa tribes who lived near the main deposits. The trading system in which these upper plains tribes operated stretched across the North American continent. Besides their access to the highly sought after Knife River Flint, the central location of the upper plains tribes meant their villages were at the hub of this trade network. Groups from hundreds of miles away would travel to the Mandan and Hidatsa villages in what is now North Dakota to trade buffalo robes from the prairies, spruce-polls from the Black Hills or conch shells from the Gulf Coast. Trade occurred throughout the year, but for many on the Northern Plains, the main trading season started in the late summer, on a day just like today.
This continental trading network thrived for centuries, yet as European diseases wiped out the principle trading communities, and the introduction of guns and iron made Knife River Flint weapons and tools obsolete, the trade of this ancient weapons material dried up.
Today, Knife River flint has made something of a comeback. Art collectors and history enthusiasts alike seek weapons and objects made from the material for personal and public collections. And the flint, in its raw form, is once again eagerly sought by those who work to make their own tools and objects, people who seek to relive the tradition of those who lived hundreds of years ago.
Dakota Datebook written by Lane Sunwall
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Regional Learning Project, “Intertribal Trade” http://www.trailtribes.org/kniferiver/intertribal-trade.htm (accessed August 20, 2008).