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8.4-8.5.11 Sitting Rabbit's map (Detail)

Hand-painted map on canvas by a Native American (Mandan) man, done at the request of the State Historical Society of North Dakota. Shows the route of the Missouri River across the state - with tributary streams, Mandan village sites, images of hunters chasing bison, and other details.
Sitting Rabbit

Sitting Rabbit, Sitting Rabbit's map, 1905; State Historical Society of North Dakota

Sitting Rabbit — also known as Little Owl — was a Mandan Indian man who lived on the Fort Berthold Reservation in North Dakota during the early twentieth century. In 1906 – 1907, he was hired by the State Historical Society of North Dakota to produce a map of traditional Mandan and Hidatsa Indian village sites along the Missouri River. This was the same territory through which Lewis and Clark had traveled a century before. The historical society secretary provided Sitting Rabbit with a US federal government map of the Missouri River produced during the 1890s, as a starting point for his work. This map, painted on canvas, traces the route of the Missouri River across the state of North Dakota, from the confluence of the Yellowstone and Missouri rivers in the west to where the Missouri crosses into South Dakota — a distance of over 300 miles. 


What details do you notice on the map, especially in terms of the drawings the artist included?

What does this map tell us about the Plains Indian way of life?

Please look back at Sources 9 and 10, which are both Western (Euro-American) maps of North America. In what ways is Sitting Rabbit’s map different in artistic style, content (which details are included), and scale (how space/distance are depicted)? 

What might these differences reveal about Native American versus Euro-American worldviews?


As noted in the student section, Sitting Rabbit’s map of the Missouri River was commissioned by the State Historical Society of North Dakota. The secretary of that organization, Orin G. Libby — who had recently arrived in the state to assume a teaching position at the University of North Dakota — undertook a campaign to document the state’s Indian as well as Euro-American history. He met Sitting Rabbit while visiting the Fort Berthold Reservation, searching for living Indians willing to depict traditional Plains Indian ways of life pictorially. Libby paid Sitting Rabbit for his maps and furnished him with canvas and drawing materials, plus an early-1890s Missouri River Commission map (produced by the federal government) to use as a starting point for his work. The fact that Sitting Rabbit’s map was proposed and funded by a white scholar — however benign his intentions — makes it not completely an “original” Native American artifact. 


Because Sitting Rabbit’s map depicts such a large swath of territory, and the Missouri River takes such a twisting course in the state, he rendered the map in 11 separate sections. This is why this sample appears to be “chopped” just to the right of center. In addition to the wonderful visual depictions that students will notice — hunters pursuing bison, earthen lodges / village sites, human and animal figures, tributary streams named — the original map contains almost 40 notations, nearly all in the Hidatsa language. Most importantly, Sitting Rabbit’s map represents one Native American means of portraying the world, with very different conceptions of space — and relationships between physical features/locations — than Western maps (Sources 9 and 10). 


Ask students what worldviews — or what priorities or concerns in actually making the maps — may underlie each type of map. Also make clear to students that maps are never completely “objective,” nor an absolute form of truth. These maps (Sources 9, 10, and 11) each have cultural biases and context behind them. For example, detailed maps such as those produced by Lewis and Clark (Source 10) assisted other white explorers, fur trappers, and would-be settlers in exploring and claiming Native American land, sometimes violently. 


This is a black-and-white map (hand-painted on canvas), done by a Mandan Indian man, Sitting Rabbit, in 1906-07. It depicts the route of the Missouri River across the state with tributary streams and Native American village sites shown, plus images of Native hunters chasing herds of bison, a man with feather headdress, and a bird with outstretched wings. The map also includes traditional earthen lodges, Mandan dwellings. This map was based upon a Western-style map, one produced by the U.S. government’s Missouri River Commission during the 1890s. But in character, it is essentially a Native American map / work of art.