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Arikara Origins: Bears Belly

Understanding the Arikara story of creation will help us to understand Bears Belly and the Arikara in their time.
Arikara Origins: Bears Belly
Photo by Sean Sinclair / Unsplash
This is the third part of Bears Belly's story, where we take a step back and look at the Arikara creation story. Read the previous entry here. This creation story shares some similarities to other people's and religions' creation stories but maintains a uniqueness as well. Understanding the Arikara story of Origins will help us understand Bears Belly and the Arikara in their time.

The Arikara tell this story of origin.[1]

All living creatures on earth began as one, bonded together as blood and corn in Mother Earth's womb.

Neshanu Natchitak, the Arikara name for God the Creator, had grown them from seeds of corn placed below the earth for their protection. It is in this womb, a symbol of birth and beginnings, where humanity grew into existence underground, bound in the belly of the earth. Those inside desired freedom. They wanted to escape and see what life was like on the outside. How they knew there was an outside was not clear to them. They simply knew. And they only wanted out.

On the outside, on Mother Earth’s lap, Neshanu was engaged in battle with his first creation, living beings whom he nurtured but turned against him. After long striving with them and receiving nothing but rebellion from them, Neshanu decided to wipe them out. He began by planting seeds for their replacements deep below in the earth’s womb. These seeds were those above who acknowledged Neshanu and didn’t fight him, taken and transformed back into seeds underground. He replanted them to protect them from what he would do next.

Neshanu opened the waterways above and let the rushing rapids flow into the world, flooding it and drowning those who ignored him and his ways, ridding the world of the violent ones. After some time of rain and struggle, the earth on the outside grew quiet and still, water resting on the surface and no life existing.

Yet below the water, life flourished as the corn grew in darkness. Over time, frustration among this new creation began to grow, and their impatience became too much to bear. They knew Mother Earth was keeping something from them. They shared stories about the light outside, never having seen it but knowing it existed. They dreamt of freedom, walking the surface of the earth, liberated from the womb they viewed as a prison.

After the flood, all living creatures existed only in Mother Earth’s womb. At the same time, her lap remained empty, a watery landscape that Mother Earth soon remedied by shifting the waters and opening up some land as her children grew inside her belly. She would sing songs to her children and hum melodies to bring peace to their increasing restlessness. However, the rumbling inside her never ceased for long, and she knew her children would soon gain their freedom.

Some of the living beings began attempting to escape. They would move about inside, pray to their Creator, Neshanu Natchitak — The Chief Above — and grasp Mother Earth’s insides, making her uncomfortable as they searched for an exit. They explored new areas and pressed at every surface they came across to find a way out.

Soon, every living being joined together, jumping, running, and yelling in their attempt to get out. Life inside Mother Earth began to create pressure on the underside of the soil. Every creature below sought to help the other escape. And Mother Earth kept singing and humming her songs in delight and pain, delighting in her children even though they caused her struggle and grief.

Neshanu paid attention to his children and their struggle, knowing that he should soon assist. He reached into his heavenly garden of golden corn and picked an ear of it, gently placing the ear on the land Mother Earth cleared on her lap for her children and forming it into the shape of a woman, mixing it with dirt from Mother Earth and water from the heavens. Once Neshanu created this woman, who was an extension of Mother Earth, he explained to her, “You are Mother. Find your children and lead them. Protect them and care for them.”

The woman then began to search across the land, calling to her children through song. She moved eastward across the world until she reached the area where she knew her children were closest. As she settled to rest, Neshanu transformed her into corn and placed her below with her children.

Once inside, she found there was no easy way out. The children inside were frustrated and angry, all doing what they could individually to fight against the womb but not making a concerted effort to escape. So, this woman, Mother Corn, gathered her children together and began to form a plan. She called for the best diggers to help. Mouse came forward first and offered his skills. He began to dig and worked furiously until he grew exhausted. After him, Badger stepped up and continued digging until he was exhausted. Mole then came and took charge, digging until he could do so no longer.

Mouse rested while the other two dug and felt energized by their progress. Mother Corn embraced him, and he went to work again, digging energetically. He was about to give up when the tip of his nose finally opened a small window to the outside. Excited, Mouse scurried down the hole back to the rest to tell the good news.

Everyone was equally excited that a way out had been found. Mole ran up the tunnel to see if it was true. As he found his way through the dirt, Mole noticed a pinhole light above, which grew larger as he ran toward it. The light enveloped him as he burst his head through. None of the children had seen the light since they were transformed into seeds. As a result, Mole became blinded by the intense sunlight and retreated into the hole where he knew it was safe, returning to Mother and the others.

Seeing that Mole made it outside, Badger then went to explore the hole and made it bigger as he climbed out of the womb and stood on the land. The sun was bright and hot. His fur covered his eyes to protect them, but the sun’s heat scorched the fur on his legs and face, darkening them. He turned around and ran back to the group below to tell them what happened.

There was now a way out. Mother Corn gathered the children below and told them, “Come, we will make the hole big enough for all of us to leave.” They found the hole that led out and began to work together to make it bigger so all of them could escape. They dug and dug, and Mother Earth above groaned in pain, her voice no longer forming beautiful melodies but painful laments and sorrowful moans. The children inside would tire and stop for a while, giving Mother Earth some reprieve from the pain, but then they would continue to dig just as ferociously as before, not letting Mother Earth fully catch her breath.

Light began to trickle in as they progressed closer to their exit. Their eyes began to capture the light and adapt slowly but effectively as they neared freedom. At every stop along the way, they looked around and saw new things, saw each other in this transformative light, revealing the differences in themselves from one another. They were no longer corn but distinct living creatures. Excitedly, they never stopped for long as freedom lay just ahead.

The pains grew so intense for Mother Earth that she could no longer bear them. She began to shake and quiver, her womb shaking inside her. The elements within, the rocks, the stalactites, the stalagmites, and the children who brought her so much pain struggled to maintain their balance and direction. But there were enough of them that they all decided to give one final push from within, and Mother Corn herself leading the way out. They saw the light ahead. They knew they were coming ever so close to their freedom. So the children pushed forward with Mother Corn ahead of them while the womb quaked around them, and Mother Earth screamed outside of them as Mother Corn exited up to her shoulders. She then forced her way out of the womb with a fierce yell, bringing her to her waist. Still struggling, she began thinking of the children below her and fought to get out to her knees. She was the largest of the living beings below, so the children started to pour out of the womb once she freed her knees and stood upon the dry ground above.

Some children held their arms to their eyes, trying to shade the sunlight from them so they could see fully. Other children had different protection for their eyes. As they exited, they could see their complete transformations. Some came out and found they could fly. Others made their escape and discovered they walked on two legs, while some of their brothers and sisters walked on four. But it took too long for every child to escape, and Mother’s womb began to collapse around the last living beings inside her. Many escaped, but some were caught inside. Badger and Gopher and others like them were caught in the landslide. They now make their home inside the earth but eventually find their way out again to play and enjoy their freedom on Mother’s lap.

After the quake, vegetation and plant life began forming and growing out of Mother Earth’s soil. New life sprung up all around Mother’s lap, and she delighted in her children who ran freely before her. The children were also ecstatic at their freedom and marveled at this new world as they adjusted to new life. However, Mole never left Mother Earth’s womb again, choosing to live inside her, sorry that he ever attempted to leave in the first place and losing his sight as a result. There were others, too, who were afraid to leave and now never make their way out of her belly. It was much safer, they all thought, in Mother’s womb.

Mother Earth had succumbed to the pain and birthed her children. Despite the pain, she was happy as she knew she could no longer contain them. She wanted to keep them close; now, they were free and roamed across her lap. So she watched over them and cared for them, allowing vegetation to grow and provide for them. She loved her children despite the pain they caused her, and she was sorrowful knowing that she would now have to let them experience the pain of life in the same way she had.

Soon, suffering and pain would reach this new creation. Sickness and Death were hiding amongst them, betrayers sleeping among the children.

Mother Corn, who had led the children out of the womb, laughed and played with them as they explored their new home. Finally, a voice from above called out to them, “Children, follow the sun as it sets to the land Mother Corn, and I have prepared for you. Mother will show the way.” So the children gathered around the woman before them who led them out of the womb and stood beautifully in their midst. “Come, let’s go home,” she said.

Read the first installment here. Remember to subscribe for free to keep up with Bears Belly's story as we continue over the coming weeks. Read the continuation of the Arikara creation story here.

  1. This is one version of the Arikara creation story that includes all of the main characters and acts. Other Arikara stories will vary in description, action, and detail. The attempt here was to tell as uniform a story as possible while acknowledging the inability to include every detail, as some versions appear to contradict elements of others. ↩︎