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Boyhood and The Arikara Lifestyle: Bears Belly

While growing up in the tumultuous era of disease that the Arikara faced, Bears Belly lived the life of an average Arikara child. Bears Belly, as a baby, would have been suspended in the rafters of the earth lodge, wrapped in buffalo and calfskin, observing his family below. Arikara babies were not strapped to a board but rather supported by tightly wrapped calfskin inside the buffalo hide. They were hung from cedar planks for protection and to keep them out of the way. This allowed them to always be within sight and out of reach of their siblings.

Bears Belly was allowed to crawl around and play with the other children and animals in the village as he grew older. Once he could walk, he was no longer suspended above the others and was able to run free. The Arikara men wore deerskin leggings and moccasins and wore various animal hides as shirts or jackets, depending on the weather. During warmer seasons, they wore a simple loin cloth. However, with the influence of American settlers, the Arikara began to cover themselves more modestly. Young children like Bears Belly ran naked until they reached puberty and then wear a loin cloth. Arikara women wore full buckskin garments, including a skirt that reached their ankles and boot-length moccasins that covered their feet and lower legs. Bears Belly’s hair would have grown long and, when long enough, been braided with a part in the middle and two braids extending on either side wrapped in buffalo fur or otter skin. Many Arikara boys and men often had their hair cut short in the front and the sides of their heads shaved, receding their hairlines but allowing their braids to run long. Many adult males wore clamshell earrings, opting for blue clamshells to accessorize their appearance. The Arikara did not mark their bodies with ink, instead allowing their scars to tell their stories.

Like the Mandan, the Arikara focused on agriculture, growing their own varieties of corn, squash, beans, and tobacco that Neshanu blessed them with. However, the Arikara were also good hunters and brave warriors. Their abilities in fishing and hunting were well known, and their fierceness in battle was a match for the often troublesome Dakota tribes, particularly the Lakota Sioux, and the settler forces that dotted the territory that the Arikara called home for centuries. The tasks for each were broken up by gender, with the women in charge of agriculture and the men in charge of hunting and war.

Many Arikara homes with children had a buffalo skull placed above the entrance of their house. In the medicine lodge, a buffalo skull is placed on the northwest post as a symbol of God’s protection over the children of the Arikara, protecting and guiding them as they grew into adults and out of their most vulnerable years. The buffalo was given to the Arikara by Neshanu as a provision and protection: “You are to enter the world and protect these children until adulthood.” Therefore, when children are grown enough, they are presented to their Creator in the medicine lodge to receive a blessing that introduces them to their buffalo protector.

Occasionally, a group of children was presented before the buffalo, having been washed with water as a symbol of cleansing and covered in new clothes. A white duck feather with red bristles is placed in each child’s hair as a symbol of their purification as children and as a symbol that the Sun would serve them the truth, along with a light to help them see. The duck is also important to the Arikara as a symbol of the water used to cleanse and nourish. Though they are children, the necessity of being cleansed before Neshanu is necessary. It reveals to everyone that they are set apart for their Creator and to walk in holiness according to his words. Each child’s face is painted with red paint that is also painted on the buffalo skull before them to help introduce one to another and so that the buffalo could recognize those whom Neshanu commanded him to protect; a way to point out the children of God.

The eagle represents the heavens, along with the mythic creature the Thunder Bird, so each child is placed in a version of a nest made of sweetgrass as their home, giving them protection and provision by others such as Neshanu himself, the medicine lodge, and the families observing the ceremony. Each piece of sweetgrass is laid out in a particular direction, similar to the directions the medicine man offers the pipe in a funeral ceremony, honoring the sun, wind, thunder, and night along with honoring Mother Corn and Creator God. As a child, Bears Belly was one of the children who received these protections. Bear’s Belly later performed this ceremony for many children as an adult and medicine man.

As the children lay in their nest, a medicine man brings a pipe already filled with tobacco and lit to open a doorway for Mother Corn to come and see her children. Bears Belly would first recount a story that proved his heart and courage in protecting the Arikara people, typically a story from his time fighting with the Seventh Cavalry and Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer against the Sioux. Bears Belly fought the Sioux to protect his people from the continued assault the Sioux brought upon them. He proved that he was aligned with Mother Corn, Neshanu, and the buffalo itself by telling this story, marking him as a protector of his people and one who had devoted his life to his Creator. This allowed him to call upon any of the Arikara’s protectors to come and protect his people, including the children that sat before him. In telling the story, Bears Belly was relaying that others will protect the children as they are young and vulnerable, fighting for them and providing nourishment in hopes that the children wouldn’t see war or have harm visited upon them until they themselves became protectors. The children were known and seen by God after this ceremony, allowing them to walk in Neshanu’s protection.

An ear of corn was brought out wrapped in a cat skin of some sort, taken as a symbol of the fierceness and protection of the feline for her offspring and covering Mother Corn, who acted the same way for her children as a fierce protector but gentle caregiver. The Arikara took special care of their children. As a group with a large familial environment and not knowing the modern nuclear family structure, each Arikara family spreads far and wide. Aunts and uncles are mothers and fathers. Great-aunts and great-uncles are grandmas and grandpas. Cousins are siblings, brothers and sisters. As such, the ceremony for protection, with sponsors for each child, is done with the understanding that any Arikara is in charge of protecting the tribe’s children because those children are theirs as much as that child’s immediate family.

From a very early age, Arikara children are taught to honor and respect their God as they honor and respect their elders in the tribe. Neshanu and Mother Corn are introduced as a concept and a reality to the children early on, infusing everything these children learn about life as an Arikara. The spiritual life encompasses every part of the Arikara’s reality. Bears Belly knew early on that to love God meant to love his people. He fought for them both physically and spiritually to receive the protection and care they needed to survive and, hopefully, be protected from greater warfare or harm. The purpose of the many ceremonies was to teach that a Creator God was available to protect them and help them in this life. In everything, the Arikara was to acknowledge Neshanu, Mother Corn, and their animal relatives for the necessary help instead of trying to accomplish things on their own. The Arikara creation story makes that clear. Everything the Arikara did was spiritual.

This article is the continuation of a larger series on Bears Belly. Find the rest of the articles here.