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Lewis & Clark: For Educators: Teaching Units & Lesson Plans Lewis & Clark: The National Bicentennial Exhibition Exhibition Locations
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Teaching Units & Lesson Plans

Using Primary Sources


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Lesson Plan 2: Sisterhood


Students will:

  • investigate primary sources
  • identify ways that Mandan and Hidatsa women held power in their society



White Buffalo Cow Society headdress


Dance of the Mandan Women


Object Analysis Guide (PDF)


The purpose of this lesson is to give students the opportunity to see another aspect of Mandan women at the time of Lewis and Clark. Where lesson 1 focuses on economic power, this lesson provides information on a different aspect of Indian women's power, "sisterhood."

Have the class brainstorm ways that women currently support one another. What all-women organizations exist today? Ideas students may come up with include: Girl Scouts, AAUW, League of Women Voters, NOW, religious groups, women's sports teams, sororities, and others. Ask why these organizations exist. Try to identify a purpose for each group: social, fundraising, political, professional, education, etc.


The White Buffalo Cow Society (Mandan/Hidatsa) was a women's society associated with the winter movement of buffalo. The Society danced in winter to draw the buffalo close and sustain the tribe. It belonged to women past the age of menopause and traced its origin to the buffalo, who left a child of their own with the Mandan tribe as a promise of their return. Each winter they came back in the shape of women to visit their child and dance. When the White Buffalo Society re-enacted this event, they brought the blizzards that drove the buffalo into the valleys for shelter, where they were hunted. The dance was held during the shortest days of the year. When word went out that the ceremony was about to commence, the whole village went quiet. Dogs were taken into the lodge, hunting was prohibited, and women cut no wood. Such was the power of the White Buffalo women that even mentioning the society during the wrong time of year could bring on an early frost. Without the buffalo, the tribe knew that they would starve; without the White Buffalo Cow Society to lure the animals near, they understood that there would be no buffalo.

The object is a headdress of the White Buffalo Cow Society. It is made from white buffalo hide, magpie feathers, owl feathers, and dyed eagle down. When the women held their ceremony, the headbands were smoked in the fumes from wild peppermint stems.


  1. Using the list generated by the opening activity, review the purposes identified for each group.
  2. Project the image of the White Buffalo Cow Society headdress. Have students follow the Object Analysis Worksheet asking such questions as: What is this object? What materials do you think it is made from? Who might have made it? How might it have been used? Who might have used it? Do we have anything like it today?
  3. Have students share their conclusions with the class.
  4. Project the image of the painting Dance of the Mandan Women by Karl Bodmer.
    • How does this painting provide new information related to the original object?
    • Where do you see the object in this picture?
    • How does this picture help explain the object?
    • Look at the painting. What is your impression of the women in the painting? What are they doing? What are they wearing? Why do you think they are dressed like this? What age are they?
  5. Read the class the following excerpts from Lewis and Clark: Across the Divide:

    "Sisterhood was another source of power for Indian women, but it was one Lewis and Clark never learned about. On the Plains, men and women had separate social and religious organizations. ...In the Mandan and Hidatsa villages membership was more general. There, societies were organized by age. People did not join as individuals; all the girls of a similar age got together to purchase the songs, regalia, and ceremonials of the society from the next generation above them. With their age-mates, women moved up the scale all through their lives: from the little girls' Skunk Society to the River Society or Enemy Society, to the prestigious Goose and White Buffalo Cow societies. Members of a woman's society called each other 'sister,' and called the women of the next older society 'mother.' Members provided mutual support through life."

    "Each society had powers and obligations related to a different aspect of life. The younger women's societies brought their village success in war by performing celebrations for the return of a war party. The Goose society looked over the crops by holding springtime rites that insured good harvests. In summer they danced to ward off drought and grasshoppers. The White Buffalo Cow Society danced in the winter to draw the buffalo close and sustain the tribe. Although the societies were not sacred, they had great powers, and women derived prestige and social standing from them."

  6. How is the White Buffalo Cow Society an example of the way in which Indian women held power in their society? Why didn't Lewis and Clark see this?


Ask the question, "In what ways do women today exercise control over various aspects of society?"


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