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Enlisting As A Scout: Bears Belly

Enlisting As A Scout: Bears Belly
Former Arikara scouts in the U.S. Army: Red Star (left), Boy Chief (center) and Red Bear (right) | Wikipedia

“This young man sits in front of you and will endure great suffering. Look upon him with favor, you and Neshanu, and give him a long and prosperous life.” The old Indian who spoke these words turned away from a buffalo skull and towards a teenaged Bears Belly sitting naked on the ground.

The old medicine man used a large knife to cut a slice of skin from the teenager’s chest. He then turned around and offered the skin as an offering and devotion to the buffalo skull and for the peace and prosperity it bestowed on those who show it and their Creator respect.

The old earth lodge was cool and damp as a group of Indian men watched the ceremony from within. Old songs and chants given to the Arikara directly from Neshanu filled the lodge. This ceremony marked a change in Bears Belly. He was no longer a boy, pulled along wherever his mother was. He was no longer an assistant to the hunters and fishermen of the Arikara.

Now, he was a man. And he was ready to protect his people. The charge was given. A practical matter stood before him. Join the American military so that the Arikara may prosper. Fight and defeat the Dakota Sioux, who had caused so much pain and hardship for the Arikara over the years. Only then would peace emerge for Bears Belly and his family.

Bears Belly took up the mantle of protector and warrior by enlisting as a scout with the American Military. Neshanu had overseen his devotion and given him favor in this duty.

The Arikara had moved to North Dakota near Fort Berthold in 1862 after leaving the old Mandan village near Fort Clark. Around four years later, a steamboat arrived to visit them, bringing three representatives from the American government who sat with the leaders of the now-established three affiliated tribes of the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara. After dwindling numbers due to sickness and war with the Sioux, the Arikara left their isolation and joined the Mandan and Hidatsa in affiliation for support and safety. Many leaders from the three tribes visited with the United States representatives.

The three Chiefs from the tribes in attendance were White Shield (Arikara), Crow's Breast (Hidatsa), and Red Cow (Mandan). The U.S. representatives laid out their ask; they wanted the three tribes to relinquish some of their land given through treaty so that the American government could set up a fort on their reservation. This was to help "protect" the three tribes from the Sioux who roamed just south of them.

Over the years, the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara tribes were diminished through disease and further dwindled by constant war, particularly with the Lakota, who were one of three Sioux factions within a larger grouping that was known as the Dakota Sioux. Now living together for protection and viability, the three tribes still didn't particularly care for the Lakota and sought an end to the Dakota attacks through any means necessary. The United States government came floating up the river and carrying just the solution to meet their needs.

The United States government was preparing for a more significant battle. Having split much of the land in the northern prairies among the various Indian tribes through treaties, the settler state was now hearing stories of gold being found in the Black Hills. In this land, the Lakota Sioux now lived and enjoyed freedom from the settlers under treaty terms. However, American gold seekers rushed into the land and stirred up fights with the Lakota Sioux, who legally controlled the area. Some white lives were lost in the battles, but the U.S. government became more interested in the possibility of gold. How could they regain the land with the gold when they knew a particularly fierce tribe lived in that specific region and was protected by a lawful treaty?

The plan was to connect with the three affiliated tribes north of the Black Hills. These tribes had many negative interactions with the Lakota, so it wasn't an out-of-the-blue ask to team up to fight all of the Dakota. The government knew they could get these tribes to side with them in a fight with the Sioux reasonably quickly.

The Lakota made no attempts to curry favor among the three affiliated tribes at the time, marking them lifelong enemies. As the U.S. representatives met with the chiefs from the three affiliated tribes, loud yelling drifted in from outside the medicine lodge they all sat in. An attack from the Dakota was occurring at that moment on the three affiliated tribes’ village.

Did the Lakota know the steamboat arrived and dropped off potential government officials, of whom they lacked respect and trust? Did the U.S. military stage the fight to bolster their ask? Or was this another of the Lakota’s random attacks on the three affiliated tribes?

Regardless of the reasoning, the village was under attack as the leaders discussed the terms of their partnership. Most of the Indian men left to fight, leaving some older Indians in the medicine lodge with the U.S. representatives while the battle ensued. The U.S. officials could hear the skirmish outside the earth lodge walls but couldn’t see much of what was happening. One of the American commissioners who joined the U.S. representatives left the lodge and scrambled to the top. He looked upon the battle below him and prayed to his God that the three affiliated tribes would win the fight. White Shield saw him praying above the medicine lodge and approved.

The battle lasted all day in the grueling, muggy heat of North Dakota, with the three affiliated tribes killing five Dakota soldiers, one of whom wore a war bonnet. This highly prestigious regalia represented many successes in battles. A war bonnet also represented one who led military excursions, similar to a military general or other leaders. So the kill was an important one.

When the chiefs and warriors rejoined the U.S. representatives, White Shield told the story about the white man who prayed for their victory, how he helped them defeat the Sioux, and contributed their success to the man's prayers. He was thereafter seen as a holy man among them, and his story spread throughout the camp as White Shield and Son-of-the-Star shared the story with others in the village of the white holy man who had prayed for their success in battle. White Shield was the Arikara Chief, and Son-of-the-Star was the head of the Arikara police force, created by the Arikara at the behest of the United States government to police themselves and to prevent any hostile act from a tribal member towards a white settler.

According to the Arikara scout Sitting Bear: “there were many whites spread far and wide, working in wood camps, on boats, etc., and the Dakotas massacred them. The Arikara and the whites suffered the same fate.” The Arikara sided with the whites to help defend them and defend themselves against the Sioux, who were becoming more than a nuisance to the Arikara. Both sides understood one another well enough, and a bond formed between them. Neither side wanted the Lakota Sioux to prosper in their continued attacks on Indians and white men. This skirmish solidified the bonds between the three affiliated tribes and the United States government, who now knew each other shared the same goal.

Sitting Bear summarized the meeting: “Thus, the United States representatives were eyewitnesses to our difficulties and troubles."

This article is part of a larger series on Bears Belly. Check out the other articles in this story here.