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To Wipe Away Their Tears: Bears Belly

To Wipe Away Their Tears: Bears Belly
"Mandan Earthlodge 01" by SnoShuu is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
This is the second installment of Bears Belly story. Read the previous installment here.

Libbie Custer’s Death

The news of Bears Belly’s movement from one life into another struck the heart of the country because his obituary came at the same time as Elizabeth (Libbie) Custer’s obituary, Lt. Col. George Custer’s wife. 

Libbie Custer never forgave the Sioux for what they did to her husband, murdering him in the prairie. When Custer took his last breath, Libbie waited anxiously at a nearby American military fort for news of her husband and his Seventh Cavalry’s success and for what she hoped was an eventual return to normalcy in civilized America that didn’t involve fighting the Indians. Instead, she received news that brought her to her knees and whisked her back east—alone and widowed—where she wrote books about her husband and the first-hand accounts of her time traveling across the flatland prairie wilderness with him and those savage Indians, profiting what she could from her stories that served to enhance her husband’s legend.

George Armstrong Custer’s legacy was under attack at the time due to questions and investigations surrounding Custer’s decision-making at Little Bighorn, which cost not only his life but a couple hundred of his men’s, including some of his own family. Libbie’s stories helped to encourage support and love for her husband at the expense of the Indians who killed him. She was buried next to her husband—his bones previously exhumed from the makeshift shallow grave in Indian territory where he died—in the cemetery at West Point Military Academy.

Around that same time—with the possibility of his death occurring a few years earlier than Libbie’s—Bears Belly received less fanfare from the same America that gave Libbie a decorated soldier’s honor because of her husband. Bears Belly did receive a military funeral, which he would have seen as an honor, proud of his work with the United States military as a scout mostly spent with Libbie’s husband. But in addition to the military honor, Bears Belly received a traditional funeral ceremony to commemorate his life as an Arikara, of which he would have been vastly more proud. 

The ceremony, often explained by the Arikara as a way to comfort mourners and “wipe away their tears,” was performed by medicine men—individuals who devoted their lives to the Creator, Neshanu Natchitak⁠1—who received special instructions and supernatural abilities from him as God’s favor on the Arikara people for their healing and prospering.

To Wipe Away Their Tears

In an earth lodge supported with cedar logs and covering an earthen floor on the Fort Berthold reservation in North Dakota, a group of Arikara assembled to honor Bears Belly, who was himself a medicine man and one who performed this type of ceremony for many others in previous years. Now, his once apprentices performed this honor for their mentor. 

A sacred medicine bundle, consisting of a large buffalo skin rolled up with many consecrated items inside, was placed near an altar-like area on the west side of the earth lodge by the medicine man tasked with caring for it. Each sacred bundle contained similar elements within but was altogether unique to the revelation given to the bundle holder and the fraternity in which it resided. Bears Belly belonged to the Kúnúh (Bear) fraternity, one of nine medicine fraternities of the Arikara. The medicine man placed the bundle beyond the fireplace in the center of the room and opposite the entrance so that it was within the line of sight when visitors entered. These sacred bundles, one each per medicine fraternity, were given to the Arikara directly by Neshanu to help facilitate ceremonies like this. Only medicine men who belonged to the specific fraternity that received the medicine bundle could touch them.

The earth lodge held a few dozen people comfortably, so many stayed outside. Everyone inside sat or stood along the walls around the lodge, avoiding the western wall where the altar and sacred bundle lay. All of the men in attendance had their pipes filled with tobacco by a Kúnúh medicine man before the ceremony started. The mood was one of reverence and respect for the man who had moved on and for the Creator Neshanu, who was believed to be in their midst overseeing everything.

The ceremony began in silence as a Kúnúh medicine man shoveled out some burning coals from the fire in the middle of the lodge and poured them out on the earthen floor before the sacred bundle and altar on the westside wall. He then crushed dried sweet grass in his hands and dropped the handfuls of broken grass onto the red coals at his feet. He continued doing this as the braid of sweet grass, about a foot long to begin with, shortened until nothing was left. As a sweet-smelling smoke filled the air of the lodge, the medicine man and an apprentice smudged themselves by placing their hands over the smoke, palms down, then drawing the purifying smoke towards themselves before man and God to bring honor to the Arikara and to Bears Belly. 

The Kúnúh medicine man leading the ceremony then smudged the medicine bundle,  allowing the smoke to wash over it while holding it high above the fire. As the medicine man returned the sacred bundle to the floor near the altar, he knelt down and carefully opened it, revealing skins from several animals—including the human skin of those who gave themselves to Neshanu—and herbs and plant life along with some sacred objects such as a pipe crafted from divine revelation from the Creator. 

The hush in the lodge was louder than the ceremonial movements. The medicine man prayed quietly before the open bundle. No one else moved until he placed a wooden bowl beside the altar. A pipe, disassembled within the bundle, was put together and placed before the altar on a couple of pieces of wood. The apprentice then brought water to fill the bowl. The Kúnúh medicine man stood and placed something in his mouth, chewing it animatedly as he picked up the bowl and held it up with both hands supporting it underneath as he looked up towards the sky with gratitude. He then turned and held it above the fire, allowing the sweet grass-infused smoke to wash over it, and held it above the sacred bundle one last time. 

He knelt again and spat the elements from his mouth into the bowl, using his fingers to clear out the rest of the medicine from his mouth to ensure as much as possible made it into the bowl. The apprentice then brought a small twig brush to his mentor, who stirred the concoction in the bowl, grabbing more elements from the sacred bundle—an ear of corn and some dried plants—and placed those near the bowl. Another man, the cook, brought a butchered cut of meat, most likely deer, to the front and made some cuts in front of everyone. The Kúnúh medicine man and his apprentice then brought the sacred pipe to the pipe keeper, who filled it with tobacco and lit it as every man in the room lit theirs in unison.

While all this happened inside, a large fire was prepared in the yard of the earth lodge. The apprentice filled a metal container half with water as the cook gently placed each cut inside it. The cook returned outside and set the metal container on the fire to cook the meat while everyone watching was free to offer gifts to the altar—blankets, money, and whatever else they deemed a fitting tribute to Bears Belly before Neshanu. These gifts were later distributed among Bears Belly’s family and some of the older people in attendance who needed them. 

Still, no one spoke until the Kúnúh medicine man finally opened his mouth and began to tell a story of origins. As people stood inside and outside the earth lodge to honor Bears Belly, the medicine man began to tell the story of the Arikara people, beginning with their creation. 

Read the next installment, Arikara Origins, here.

1 Neshanu Natchitak is the Creator deity among the Arikara Indians. Translated into English as “Chief Above,” the Arikara always spoke the full name when referencing the deity in their language. Neshanu itself means “Chief” and was used to reference human Arikara chiefs as well, so Natchitak was used to distinguish the Creator above from earthly chiefs. When English became the primary language of the Arikara, Neshanu alone was used to reference the Creator.