Waiting on concrete on the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation in northwestern North Dakota during the construction of a ceremonial earth lodge.

Mix was hauled by Watford Ready-Mix to feed the Hughes Concrete Pumping Schwing 32 XG.

Finished ceremonial earth lodge is the largest of its kind ever built and serves as a museum for the site which also has six typical family earth lodges. (photo courtesy of Vonnie Lonechief.)

Traditional Native American Ways Meet Modern Pumping Methods on Earth Lodge Project

It was just another day on the job last year when Mitch Hughes packed up some back-up parts, did a walk around of his boom pump and headed out 75 miles for a slab pour. As the owner of Hughes Concrete Pumping in Williston, ND, Mitch is used to travelling as far as 200 miles one-way for a pumping job. On this day however, Hughes would also travel back in time to help construct an ancient structure popular with the Mandan, Hidasta and Arikara native American nations who migrated to the area more than 1,100 years ago.

“There are no mechanical shops out there so I always bring along a few spare parts, plus the machine can be operated with manual controls if the remote was damaged, “explained Hughes, who also has some history in the area as the third generation of Hughes involved in concrete in northwest North Dakota. The job site was located on the shores of Lake Sakakawea, the largest man-made lake within one state with 609 square miles of water and more shoreline than the coast of California. “I get a lot of referrals from ready-mix producers in the area and this one came from Watford City Ready-Mix,” explained Hughes, “Otherwise I had never been to the site which is in the middle of nowhere.”

The project was to pour the circular slab for a museum that would be constructed in the traditional ways of an earth lodge which typically housed multiple Indian families throughout the centuries. While the new ceremonial earth lodge would be constructed with some modern features like in-floor heating, the balance would be built authentically with lodge poles for main support and smaller tree trunks for spars. Ironically, the final covering of the igloo shaped structure would be mud – but not the kind commonly referred to by concrete pumpers.

Hughes doesn’t mind travelling for work, “It gets exposure for the pump and inevitably results in a new job.” This project was located near New Town which is on the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation. The museum is part of a rebuilding and cultural renewal effort by the Three Affiliated Tribes. The site recreates a village consisting of six family sized earth lodges and the large ceremonial earth lodge. In addition, a garden area and horse corrals have been built to add to the authenticity. The park is open to the public and located west of New Town at the Earth Lodge Village Site. The family earth lodges are roughly 40-feet in diameter, while the ceremonial earth lodge is 90-feet in diameter, the largest such structure in the world.

Once on-site, “It was a typical pump job,” according to Hughes, “With the exception of the hot water lines which were embedded in the slab.” One set-up for the company’s 2005 Schwing 32 XG with 106-feet of boom reach was all that was needed to reach the entire pour area. The four inch slab consumed approximately 55 cubic yards of a 3500 psi mix delivered at a five-inch slump by Watford City Ready-Mix which has a portable plant located in New Town, about twenty-miles from the site. The forming included rings to anchor the four tree trunks which would provide the super structure for the earth lodge. “The job took around four hours with the care that they took with the water lines and the supply of ready-mix,” explained Hughes, “It was neat to be a part of the construction of this historical building and the pump never missed a beat.”

“It’s a credit to the early designers and builders of these structures that they were so energy efficient,” explained Hughes, “A central chimney was constructed from animal bones and mud during the finishing of an earth lodge and a central fire pit was dug into the floor of the original structures which then required very little heat to keep the native Americans warm during the harsh North Dakota winters.”

As Hughes drove back to his shop in Williston, the nostalgia of early construction methods gave way to thoughts of his concrete pumping business. “We pump grain elevators, fertilizer plants and gas plants for the oil business in North Dakota,” he explained, “And we have an upcoming 8,000 yard grout job using our Schwing BPA 450 to pump 200-feet underground filling voids created by area coal mining. We’ve been two years in the pumping business and we are growing.”


Project: Ceremonial Earth Lodge, Fort Berthold Indian Reservation, North Dakota
Owner: The Mandan, Hidasta and Arikara Native American nations
General Contractor: Traditional Construction, New Town, ND
Concrete Pumping Contractor: Hughes Concrete Pumping, Williston, ND
Equipment: Schwing 32 XG concrete pump with placing boom