5 min read

We Are All Related: Bears Belly

We Are All Related: Bears Belly
Photo by Nastya Dulhiier / Unsplash

Silence blanketed the ceremony until one woman began to wail loudly inside the lodge once the Kúnúh medicine man told the creation story, ending with Sickness and Death’s arrival. Others joined in wailing once she broke the silence. Tears and sadness flowed, pouring from within the earth lodge to the yard outside. As waves of mourning washed over the ceremony, the Kúnúh medicine man stood silent momentarily, letting the people weep for Bears Belly. He then said, “Everything has a beginning and an end. The sun rises, and it sets. Life bursts forward in Spring and steeps towards the ground in the Fall. Sickness and Death complete the cycle, but Mother Earth and Neshanu help with health and life. So, it is how life began on the Earth. This is the story of how living beings are to treat one another, how every living thing is related to one another as children of Mother Earth, and how all life must be respected.” 

After a while longer, the medicine man shouted, “Nawa,” to silence the crowd. A familiar hush fell as tears stifled and noses cleared. The pipe keeper brought the sacred pipe to the medicine man, who grabbed a small mussel shell from the holy bundle and scooped water out of the wooden bowl beside him. He poured the water into the pipe’s bowl and blew through its stem, cleaning out any ashes and debris. He did this several times before grabbing another long piece of sweet grass and running it through the pipe. He disassembled the pipe, examining it for any more debris, and then placed it back on the wood blocks near the altar. He then called for all of the other pipes that the men brought to the ceremony and who had smoked alongside him, taking each and cleaning it out with the water from the bowl, being replenished as needed by the apprentice at his side, each man returning to his place after his pipe was cleansed. 

The sacred pipe, used by Bears Belly in many ceremonies, was carried around the fire in the center of the room and then brought to the Kúnúh medicine man, who took it and lit the tobacco inside. As the tobacco inside the sacred pipe lit red with fire, the medicine man held it high above his head and offered smoke in motions to the four quarters, the earth below, and the sky above. The pipe’s mouthpiece held outwards, the medicine man faced northeast, towards the sunrise, then southeast towards the wind, to the southwest honoring thunder, and then to the northwest where the night was. He offered the sacred pipe to Mother Earth at his feet and then upwards to Neshanu Natchitak—the Chief Above.

The sacred pipe was then passed around the medicine lodge to everyone inside, men and women. Each smoked communally as they passed the pipe along the line, sharing in Bears Belly’s life and ceremony as a form of honor and communion. As the pipe was held to their mouths by the assistant, each person pulled a puff of smoke and washed the ephemeral vapor down their body when they exhaled as a way to smudge themselves, blessing each one who partook. Once everyone had an opportunity to smoke from the pipe, the apprentice placed it on the altar near the sacred bundle. 

A female mourner was brought up to the sacred bundle and faced the fireplace in the center of the room. The Kúnúh medicine man leaned over and grabbed the ear of corn, which sat in a wooden bowl filled with water, symbolizing Mother Corn herself, and brushed the ear down the woman’s left side, followed by doing the same on her back and front. The woman was then given the ear of corn and told to suck out the water from it, taking the provision from Mother Corn herself to help with the healing process of losing Bears Belly. If the woman began crying during this process, the apprentice wiped away the tears from her face and stood close as protection and consolation. Once this woman completed her part in the ceremony, others stepped forward to do the same thing: to honor Bears Belly and look to Mother Corn for help dealing with sickness and death. 

Once all mourners sought help from Mother Corn, the rest of the water was offered by pouring a bit at each of the four corner posts of the medicine lodge in the same order as the medicine man offered the pipe. He drank the rest, including sucking out whatever water was left on the ear of corn that all others drank from and concluded by placing everything back inside the medicine bundle. The assistant came in with a cooked cut of meat and put a piece at the four posts of the lodge in the same order as the smoke offering. The medicine man then ordered that all of the pipes brought to the ceremony be placed before him once more to be blessed, and he gave words of encouragement to the people who came to honor Bears Belly. 

“Brothers and sisters,” the Kúnúh medicine man began, “As our creation story tells us, we are all related. We come from the same corn planted in the earth below, in Mother’s womb, along with our animal relatives. So we cannot hate one another. We must be kind to each other. Considerate. All of us have struggles we must bear. We all have grief that fills our hearts. Take care of one another. Help each other. Don’t ignore the pain in your brother or sister. Be helpful. And forgive each other. Do not hold grudges. Everyone is to be hospitable and sympathetic, giving to those in need, whether for clothes, shelter, or food. We all need help at times and can give help at times. Do not hate; it contradicts how Neshanu wants us to live.” The pipes were blessed with smoke from the fire below, filled once more with tobacco, and passed through the medicine man’s hands as he held them for a moment in the sweet grass smoke and then back to his assistant, who gave them back to the men. “Look to your Creator for help. Do not attempt to do things on your own,” the Kúnúh medicine man finished with a final urge to his people to honor their God Neshanu

With this, the ceremony ended, and the people gathered outside for the feast prepared to commemorate the life of Bears Belly. More people outside gave honor and encouragement to each other as the whole community shared a meal and remembered the life of a man who cared for and protected them. Funny stories were told. Heartfelt stories were told. Triumph and the human experience flooded out among the people as they remembered a man who meant so much to them as a medicine man, a brother, a father, a husband, and an Arikara. Through their stories, Bears Belly would live on, proving that even after the successful attacks from sickness and death, a life well-lived is eternal. 

The world Bears Belly was born into differed in many aspects but was the same as the one Neshanu formed for them. However, with so much distance between their creation and now, the people began to separate and develop their own bands, creating many more superfluous differences between themselves and prioritizing one group over another. This led to Sickness and Death creating more havoc among the people. Their goal would be complete if they could get people to hate one another—the eradication of their once siblings would be fulfilled. However, Neshanu kept watch, and Mother Corn kept protecting them. Bears Belly honored both with his life.

This is the continuation of the series on Bears Belly. Read the previous entry here. Find the table of contents here. Read the next entry here.