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A Brewing Unrest: Bears Belly

A Brewing Unrest: Bears Belly
Arikara Warriors

The Sahnish (Arikara), Nueta (Mandan), and Hiraacá (Hidatsa) – recognized federally today as The Three Affiliated Tribes – had plenty of run-ins with the Lakota before these representatives came along. Two large groups of Indians living in the same land were the making for many skirmishes as they fought for control or rite-of-passage in the Great Plains land surrounding the Missouri River, an essential and valuable asset for life at the time. The Three Affiliated Tribes controlled the northern Missouri River until their numbers dwindled further than before — the reason they banded together in the first place was that disease and war with the Dakota Sioux had diminished their respective tribes — when a smallpox epidemic tore through the tribe. A century before Bear’s Belly emerged into this world, the Arikara and other tribes near them experienced a strong and terrible smallpox pandemic in their tribal lands. Estimates guess that around three-quarters of these tribes, including the Arikara, were decimated by the disease. Weakened and ill, the Three Affiliated Tribes could no longer keep the Sioux from their lands and receded into areas surrounding modern-day Lake Sakakawea on the Missouri River.

Bears Belly was alive for the latter half of this history, born in 1847 at Fort Clark in North Dakota, only four years before the Treaty of Fort Laramie was signed, which gave the eight prominent plains tribes in the area freedom within their large boundaries to continue life as free men in tandem with Americans who wanted to settle in areas around their land. According to the treaty, the land was meant for the sole use of the Indians who resided in it and would not be claimed by the United States government. This bought peace for a while, but, like all promises to the Indians, it would be broken just three years later when a group of American soldiers invaded Indian territory to arrest some Indians believed to have stolen a cow. And just eight years after the signing, things got worse when miners out for gold found it on Indian land. The Lakota were explicitly given the Black Hills as they claimed it as their ancestral homelands despite the protests of the nearby Arapaho, who believed they inhabited the area first. Gold was found in the hills, which tells the story well enough.

The Lakota had issues with many of their surrounding tribes, the Arikara notwithstanding. In 1864, a decade before the fateful battle of Little Big Horn, Chief White Shield of the Arikara proclaimed, “We, the Arikara, have been driven from our country on the other side of the Missouri River by the Sioux.” This led to further degradation of the Arikara way of life brought on mainly by another Native nation. The encroaching Americans were to bring more trouble as well. However, in the eyes of the Arikara at the end of the 1800s, the Dakota, particularly the Lakota Sioux, was their most significant threat to survival. Add to this threat the fact that many American soldiers were deliberately killing off thousands of Buffalo at a time as a disciplinary act of punishment aimed at the Indians, and you are left with a trifecta — illness, war, lack of food — of issues that threatened many tribal people.

Some months passed since the representatives visited the three affiliated tribes, and soon, soldiers began arriving by steamboat to build a new fort within Mandan, Arikara, and Hidatsa territory. Fort Stevenson was built three miles north of present-day Garrison, North Dakota, on the shoreline of Lake Sakakawea, a manufactured lake that expands over 178 miles of prairie land. This is the second largest man-made lake in the United States, following Lake Oahe in South Dakota, which beats out Lake Sakakawea by an additional 53 miles. Both are reservoirs that feed from and into the Missouri River. Settlements grew in 1866, with all soldiers and military leaders living in tents during the early years of the fort. The settled location for the new fort, on prime land near the lake, wasn't within the boundaries first agreed upon at the conference when the Sioux attacked a few months before. The Three Affiliated Tribes were then guaranteed, after stating some misgivings toward the military assuming control of whatever areas they wanted on treaty land, that the fort was temporary, and that the land still belonged to the tribes. Building of the new fort began in earnest in the spring of 1876, and so did progress in the battle with the Sioux.

Bull Head, an Arikara and member of White Shield's police force, was brought to the fort and put in charge of the Arikara enlistment into the military. He would later be put in charge of the scouts, wearing three stripes on his uniform arms and black trouser stripes. Two other members of the police force, Red Dog and Tall Bear, were given enough provisions of bacon, a front quarter of beef, coffee, and sugar for a feast in the village to entice more Arikara warriors to enlist as scouts. Arriving back at Fort Berthold and the village there, the two Arikara wasted no time recruiting and began to round up some men, many from the police force that White Shield founded at the earlier behest of the U.S. government. Fourteen men rallied to the feast, drawn by provisions and honor, no matter the late hour that saw some of them roused from sleep to join. Bears Belly wasn't a part of this initial feast, but he joined with a group of sixteen other men to form an initial enlistment of 31 Arikara warriors. "We will fare like other soldiers, food, pay, and lodging, and we go with this understanding." The group agreed upon the terms of their enlistment and walked, while a few rode horses over 100 miles to Fort Stevenson with their bows to offer as friends of the U.S. military.

When Bears Belly and the rest arrived at the fort, they were greeted by F.F. Gerard, the Cavalry officer in charge of Arikara enlistment, and given rations and tents. They were told to wait until the next day to be examined as soldiers and pointed to an area outside the fort where they could set up their tents and sleep. As morning came, the Indians left their camp and went to see Officer Gerard. A military doctor accompanied Gerard and had all the Arikara enlistees strip down to their breechcloths for examination. "Only strong men are needed," they were told, "for the hard work to come." The doctor walked to each one, lined up as they were, and examined them from head to toe, pulling on their arms and testing their joints and muscle strength. Every Arikara passed inspection and was given Western clothes to assimilate them into the military. Each warrior received a hat with a feather, long underwear, shoes, flannel shirts, and a blue cape, the natural accessory of the Calvary. In addition, their bows were replaced with long rifles (45s-70s), then later replaced with shorter guns that used magazine cartridges. Finally, the Arikara scouts were given one horse for the 31 of them to use. Some Arikara brought their own horses and were allowed that comfort.

The Arikara were now members of the United States military for six months, allowing for re-enlistment after their term ended. After a day of inspection and gathering resources from the government, the Arikara returned to their camp and enjoyed the first glimpse of life as paid military men. They had rations of crackers, salt, flour, bacon, sugar, tobacco, tea, beans, and other similar staples. Fresh beef would occasionally be provided for them to cook at their camps, along with a camp stove, tin plates, and large cups. Bears Belly and the other Arikara would keep their distance from the other soldiers, mainly because they stayed where they were put, but also to avoid potential trouble. Their camp would always be on the outskirts of the leading military encampment, potentially as a protection for the military. If the Dakota chose to fight, the first ones they would come upon would be the Arikara. Later, they would be allowed to camp near Lt. Col. Custer himself and find that the proximity afforded them time with the “Boy General” they would otherwise not have had. For now, Bears Belly and the other scouts were adapting to life as military men. They earned $16 monthly, $28 if they had a horse to provide for, paid out in full every two months they served. Bears Belly was 19 years old when he and the others enlisted in the military.

This entry is part of a larger series on Bears Belly. Find the other articles here.