8 min read

A Young Apprentice: Bears Belly

A Young Apprentice: Bears Belly
Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota | Flickr: steve_h

As Bears Belly matured, he likely acquired hunting and fishing skills to contribute to the tribe's sustenance. He would have accompanied the hunters, serving as their assistant by carrying their weapons and supplies. Additionally, he would have prepared meals for the hunters during their breaks. This experience allowed Bears Belly to observe and learn hunting techniques, such as setting traps and tracking prey. As an assistant, he played a crucial role in the hunt by helping the hunter make offerings and perform necessary ceremonies. Since all life is related, the hunter had to ensure he was right with the Creator Neshanu and hunted out of a good and humble heart. To do otherwise, or to take an abusive action towards life, would mean that God looked down with disfavor and acted accordingly towards one's own life.

Hunting and Fishing With Respect

The Arikara people deeply respect hunting, viewing it as an honor and a sacred duty. Before beginning a hunt, they offer thanks to Neshanu, the forest, and God for their ability to hunt and for the provision that each animal will give to the tribe. The Arikara understand that all life is connected, and taking an animal's life is seen as taking the life of a brother or sister. Therefore, they approach hunting with honor and respect, thanking the animal for its sacrifice and the forest for its assistance. This gratitude extends to their spiritual life, as the Arikara people live with a deep appreciation for all that is given to them.

Fishing was no different. Every act the Arikara took to find food was also bound up in ceremonial use. As a young apprentice, Bears Belly helped other Arikara men who created fish traps and set them in the nearby river. Similar to assisting their hunting, boys like Bears Belly helped the fishermen set the trap, wait for a catch, and perform ceremonial acts between events.

Each fish trap was made as a large circular trap, purposefully resembling the earth lodges in which the Arikara lived and performed their ceremonies, with four posts structurally holding its shape and one detachable gate. Sandbar willow sticks were sharpened and attached to the four posts so these traps could be stuck solidly into the riverbed. A cottonwood sapling with its leaves still attached was placed in the center to resemble the fireplace of an earth lodge. Bait was placed on each of the four posts, with the sapling in the trap’s center. The Arikara used meat infested with maggots as an advanced fishing tactic. Once the trap was placed, the movement of the river would dislodge the maggots at various intervals, sending them as extensions of the bait into the river. Once the fish were attracted, they would then be led into the trap where the rotten meat and more maggots were, entering through the door that was made specifically to both catch the fish and release the larvae that floated inside, allowing the fish an entrance but not an easy exit.

Honoring the Creator and All Life

Each action taken with the fish trap had a ceremonial aspect to it. The creation of the traps had to be done by a medicine man with the know-how of the trap's operation and the ritualistic understanding of how to fish correctly. The creator of the fish trap had to abstain from women in the days leading up to the catch and focus on the task at hand. He could neither doubt nor worry about his present task or anything else. His mind had to be clear. His heart had to be humble. He had to create the trap without any anger or fear. He couldn't have any malice in his heart for another living being. The fisherman had to bear no offense to create a trap that God would bless.

The goal was to honor the Creator and abide by his will. The sub-goal was to provide for the fisherman and his tribe. If one did not have Neshanu's will, the hunt or fish would not go prosperously, as it was only in God’s will that the Arikara survived and thrived. They knew that as a way of life. Neshanu’s words that they should not hate or have anger towards one another lived within them. The hunting and fishing ceremonies helped remind each Arikara man how to respect life and not to abuse those skills used to harm or kill. Through these ceremonies, the Arikara were taught how not to take matters into their own hands when driven by anger.

"You are all related," Neshanu said when the children left Mother's womb. As hunters and fishermen, the Arikara had to be mindful of that. They couldn't take their prey disrespectfully. This brother or sister gave its life to them and their tribe. The fish give their life for the survival of the tribe. The deer give their life. The rabbits give their life. Humans give their lives and decompose in the ground, helping the vegetation grow and feed the same fish, deer, and rabbits. All are related and support one another. A mindset like this helps steer humanity away from abuse towards each other to care and love for all living creatures on this earth.

Each fish trapper and hunter had to envision this cycle in their preparations. They had to approach Neshanu with ritualistic ceremonies to reveal their heart and seek their Creator's provision and favor. Offerings were given to God and the river for giving up its own. In the origins story, the waters swallowed up some of the children of Mother Earth. The waters were another entity, another being. Not the same as the children of the earth, but something to be respected. The forest was the same. Yet all things remained under the Creator’s purview. So, the Arikara sometimes offered tobacco and cloth to the river, handmade or bought from white traders. Other times, the Arikara would offer larger items like moccasins or more valuable items like jewelry, depending on their need and desperation for food.

The Practice and Generosity of Arikara Fishermen

The Catfish, prevalent in the Missouri River, could sting the fishermen, causing pain but not death. However, the danger of the river’s cold was always something the fishermen had to consider, even during the summer months. They offered items to the river for general favor so that the river wouldn't swallow them up like it did their relatives centuries ago. The northern plains can be a harsh environment with little protection from the cold. When the fishermen staked their traps, they entered wearing only a breechcloth. Their assistant, at one time a young Bears Belly, would wait on the riverbank, often preparing a fire and food and helping out in any other way needed. Respect was paramount.

Once the trap was set and the fisherman returned to the river bank, he would sit and warm himself by the fire and eat the meal his assistant had prepared. Bears Belly would have assisted fishermen like this. Once the fisherman warmed up and ate, he would retreat to an overlook and watch his trap throughout the night. The assistant was also to stay awake in case he was needed. The fisherman sat and meditatively watched for when the river was to provide for him. Mosquitos were often a significant annoyance, but the fisherman would enter a trance-like state while waiting. The senses grew as the light waned. After dinner, the fire was put out, and both sat silently, waiting. The fish trap makes a unique sound with the movement of the wood inside it when fish enter. No matter the other wildlife that scurried around the fisherman, he remained steadfastly focused on his trap.

Mice and other relatives come and go, but the fisherman has a duty to his tribe. The fisherman could hear movement in his trap throughout the night but would continue to wait. His assistant sat and listened, too, observing all he would be called upon to do in the future. The fisherman knew the sound of when the trap was full enough to pull out and wouldn’t act until that happened. So he continued to sit throughout the night, wrapped in a blanket, mosquito-ravaged, open to the elements, but focused nonetheless. He had to know when to pull the trap out. Too many fish would likely break the wood posts and door hinges, releasing them back into the river. Remove the trap with too few fish and waste potential good fishing. So the fisherman waited until he felt an urging from Neshanu that it was time to reap his favor.

When it was time to remove the fish, the fisherman respectfully thanked the river, quietly stepped into the waters, sometimes in the dark, and removed the bait. The assistant helped take the bait and set them on the riverbank. They then removed the fish held within a basket that fit inside the trap. The fisherman would hand the fish to his assistant, who put them in a previously prepared hole in the ground to keep them in one place and to prevent them from returning to the river. Over and over, depending on how many fish were in the trap, the fisherman and assistant cleared out the catch of all fish and put them on dry land. The fisherman then replaced the bait, stepped a little further out into the river, and faced upstream, an act the Arikara do as respect for the river and the children that live inside it. Since their migration from the time of creation, the Arikara had moved parallel to the prairie rivers. They always faced upstream, looked out towards what was ahead, and acknowledged the power of the river and the favor of God in their lives. To face downstream would be disrespectful.

The assistant and the fisherman would spend time inspecting their catch. The largest fish caught is cooked and eaten as soon as possible as a thanksgiving ritual to Neshanu and to nourish the fishermen. They would then continue fishing as long as they needed or felt they could. Once morning light broke the horizon, they would pack up the trap and the fish and head back to the village with their catch. As they moved throughout the village, the fishermen handed out portions of their catch to their family and friends, to all those who helped gather resources for the fishing or helped in any other ways, and then to all those who needed it, keeping some for themselves, too. In this way, they gave back to their tribe, ensuring everyone was cared for and fed.

Many fishermen would fish the river throughout the summer until the end of August, when the waters became too cold to bear. A trap was used all summer until the end of the fishing season. At the end of the fishing season, the trap was closed and tied up so no fish could enter it again, and it was thrown into the river to be swept downstream and returned to the earth. In this way, the Arikara said thank you for the provision the river has given them by not looking back or hoarding what is so easily provided for them by Neshanu and Mother's lap. The Arikara sent what was given to them downstream while looking upstream for their next provision and favor from their Creator.

Life is unrelenting in the face of death, and Sickness and Death still roam the earth. The life that Bears Belly was born into bore the hallmarks of all three from the start. He was born into a family that had lost many others in the years before his birth and even in the century leading up to his first breath. This was war, though on multiple levels. There was the war that all living people faced at some point in their lives against others just like them, and then there was a war against illness and death. The smallpox attack proved too strong for the Arikara, and many perished. The story doesn't end there, however, due to the resilience of the Arikara people. This story is only beginning. But war does not end. Instead, war is ever-living.

This article is part of a larger work on Bears Belly. You can find the other articles listed on the main Bears Belly page. Read the previous article here.