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A Familial War: Bears Belly

A Familial War: Bears Belly
A Profile Image of Sitting Bull

Bull Head was valuable not only because the Arikara Chief White Shield trusted him but because he knew the Chief of the Lakota Sioux and had been a part of New Dog, the same secret warrior society as Sitting Bull. With their proximities so close to one another, it wasn’t uncommon for members of one tribe to bear relationships with members of another tribe, even if those two tribes were at constant war.

As head of the band, Bull Head knew best Sitting Bull’s tactics and the rest of the New Dog warrior society. These Sioux warrior societies combined similar functions of both a police force and the national guard for the Plains Indians. Members of these warrior societies were chosen for their bravery and skill in battle, having been tried and tested and either succeeded or survived with honor against the enemy. These were the best of the best, the elite warriors of the plains tribes tasked with the greater protection of their tribe and others by keeping away foreign invaders intent on harming them, whether that be American or Indian. Members of these societies could come and go but would never be a part of two societies simultaneously. Sitting Bull had to leave New Dog to join the fight against the Arikara.

Soon after the initial enlistment of Arikara soldiers, some Lakota Sioux warriors led by Sitting Bull attacked Fort Stevenson and stole some horses. As the Arikara rode into battle after the Sioux, they could not keep up with them because their horses were too fast. Regardless, the Arikara kept chase, and two scouts, Soldier and Peter Beauchamp, came upon two Dakota warriors sitting on their horses a mile or so away atop a ridge.

During the raid, Sitting Bull accompanied another regiment of Lakota warriors who had captured a boat full of people on the river, presumably some American settlers. As Soldier and Beauchamp relayed the location of the offending Dakota, Bears Belly and the other Arikara scouts charged toward them, thinking they were facing a handful of Dakota who only stole horses. As the Arikara scouts split up to wedge the thieves together, they came across more Lakota warriors and Sitting Bull himself, though they did not know it then.

In all of the commotion, Sitting Bull set his prisoners free and joined in the battle against the Arikara, who were swiftly descending upon the Lakota. The Arikara faced the potential of a quick defeat as a much larger Lakota force outnumbering their dozen had approached to fight. Knowing the battle could be lost instantly, the Arikara warriors turned and fled as the Lakota Sioux swung toward them from two sides, hoping to box them in. Most of the Arikara escaped far enough to elude war with the Sioux, Soldier and Beauchamp among them. But in the melee, Bull Head was knocked off his horse and encircled by the attacking Dakota warriors intent on finishing off at least one Arikara.

As the rest of the Arikara scouts were scattered about the prairie land by the Sioux, Bears Belly among them, Soldier was the closest to where Bull Head had fallen and drew his rifle to attempt to shoot at the large numbers of Sioux that surrounded Bull Head, a losing proposition. However, he still felt he had to do what he could to protect Bull Head. As Soldier was about to pull the trigger, another Arikara warrior, Two Chiefs, abruptly told him to stop after having rushed over on his horse to warn Soldier. The Sioux warriors were too many for the Arikara on the field, and firing upon them would surely ignite a battle they would lose. The two Arikara scouts sat on their horses and watched the scene unfold. They saw Sitting Bull, with his headdress and unique gait, approach Bull Head while the rest of the Lakota stood still, surrounding the fallen Arikara warrior on the battleground.

Sitting Bull stopped and appeared to be saying something to Bull Head. After a moment of calm, the other Lakota warriors swarmed Bull Head, and the Arikara knew their commanding officer was dead. Saddened but alive, the Arikara scouts left, returned to the fort, and told the white soldiers of the gruesome act.

Enough time had passed by then that the seventh calvary soldiers and the Arikara warriors thought it safe to return to the battlefield to assess the damage. The Arikara joined a regiment of white soldiers who pulled behind them a wagon to reclaim Bull Head's body. As they returned to the battle scene, they saw a figure stumbling towards them, bloodied and hurt. As they moved closer, they recognized the figure as Bull Head. They hurried to him, helped him into the wagon, and quickly returned him to camp.

Once in camp receiving the care he needed, Bull Head told how he survived the encounter with the Sioux.

While lying on the ground after being knocked off his horse by Sioux warriors, several Lakota surrounded him. He thought he was as good as dead but couldn’t muster up the strength to do much else than lay in the grass. The knock on his head dazed him, and he struggled to catch his breath from falling off the horse. Bull Head couldn't see well, but through the crowd around him, another figure moved about and stood above him. The Lakota warrior opened his mouth and said, "I am Sitting Bull himself.” Scared even more at the sight of the man who Bull Head and the other Arikara warriors, along with the American soldiers, were fighting against, Bull Head knew his death was imminent.

However, either Bull Head identified himself as a previous member of New Dog or someone else from the society, maybe Sitting Bull himself, recognized Bull Head as a previous member, and a moment of grace filled the stillness as Sitting Bull then commanded that Bull Head should not be further injured, that his life should be spared. Bull Head, too dazed and confused to know what was happening at the moment, still lay motionless and silent on the ground. Sitting Bull commanded the Dakota around him to strip Bull Head of his military uniform, noting that Bull Head had some extra stripes like the commanding officers of the Cavalry. Bull Head was also stripped of his weapons. Despite the embarrassment to Bull Head, Sitting Bull ensured that Bull Head would remain alive to live and fight another day.

No other command or direction was given to Bull Head. This was purely an act of grace between two warring nations that didn’t always occur. This close connection with Sitting Bull shows that this war was between those who knew one another in one form or another. This familiarity made a war like this unique among the Arikara and the Sioux. They were often at odds with one another, but they were also Plains Indians. They knew each other well, even if they didn't know each other intimately. They were each intertwined with one another.

After news of this encounter spread across the camp and throughout the scouts, they knew that this grace wouldn’t continue. The Arikara campaign with the Seventh Cavalry made them deeper enemies in the Sioux’s eyes. Not only were their enemies fighting against them, which the Sioux expected, but their enemies were fighting alongside the colonial enemy of all Indian peoples in the West.

However, the purpose of this campaign for the Arikara was simple: handicap the Dakota so that the Arikara could live without fear of constant attack by them. The Seventh Cavalry had a different goal, one they kept from their scouts. Soon, Bears Belly and the other enlisted scouts were to be deployed into the Black Hills and be tasked with watching the Indians in the area to quell any disobedience among them in their land. The U.S. military wanted to see the Dakota handicapped as much as the Arikara, but the United States had a larger goal behind the campaign: Gold.

This post is part of a larger story on the historical figure Bears Belly. You can find all the other articles here.