Around 1840, members of the Hidastsa-Mandan community along the Missouri River, their numbers decimated by an epidemic of smallpox, journeyed north to re-establish themselves at Like-a-Fishhook Village, named for its location at a bend of the river. The community accommodated new elements such as a trading post and a steamboat landing. But Like-a-Fishhook was to be their final experience of an age-old tribal society based on farming and the buffalo hunt. Coming events would include the arrival of government soldiers and Christian missionaries, the institution of the reservation system, allotments, boarding schools, the Grass Dance, and other elements of cultural renaissance.
The Way to Independence tells this story through the words and artifacts of one family: the dignified and conservative Buffalo Bird Woman, her handsome and ambitious brother Wolf Chief, and her dutiful son Goodbird. Their stories were recorded in the early 20th century by Gilbert L. Wilson, a researcher who collected what the Hidatsa wanted to tell him rather than what anthropological theory dictated. Their memories reveal how individual Native people coped with radical change without surrendering to it. In doing so, they found their way to a new kind of independence.