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Four Bearskins Over the Sacred Lodge

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On this date in 1921, members of the Arikara tribe got back to work after spending three days honoring Mother Corn. The Bismarck Tribune reported, “... they could be seen at work in haying and harvesting, and in cooking and drying for winter their green corn.” This had been a rare opportunity for the Arikara to practice their religion openly.

Practicing American Indian religions was illegal at the time, but the federal government provided special authorization to accommodate a visiting delegation of ethnologists. One thing these ethnologists discovered was what “Four Bears” meant in Arikara religion.

Arikara elder Alfred Bear explained how the Bear Society would customarily drape bearskins over the roof of the sacred lodge as a prelude to Mother Corn ceremonies. He said that “originally there were skins of a black, a brown, a grizzly, and a polar bear, representing the four quarters of the world.”

George Catlin, the artist known for his paintings of natives almost 90 years earlier, had related a different story about “Four Bears,” saying the famous Mandan warrior Four Bears got the name because his Assiniboine enemies said “he rushed on like four bears” in battle.

Yet, cultural appropriation of Arikara tradition is plausible. German Prince Maximilian of Wied-Neuwied, an early explorer in the Americas, noted how the warrior Four Bears was fluent in Arikara. Indeed, his fluency was essential to pulling off his famous assassination of an Arikara enemy. So, it seems likely that Four Bears would have known about Arikara traditions.

Another hint comes from Four Bears’ reputation. He wasted no opportunity to promote his own image, including posing for portraits, and Prince Maximilian remarked about Four Bears looking at himself in the mirror. Maximilian further said of the Mandan, “Vanity is a main characteristic of the young men, in which respect they surpass the women. They attach much importance to elegant and clean clothes, and [they] take care to have a clean body. Here it is the opposite [of] us – the men are vain. The women almost always go plainly and poorly dressed...”

This all suggests that it’s quite reasonable that Four Bears may have taken the name from the Arikara ceremony to exalt his own stature.

Were it not for the Arikara ceremonies allowed in 1921, it is unlikely that modern scholars would have become aware of this alternative origin for the name “Four Bears.” The event also helped revive tribal traditions … an early step toward the preservation of indigenous culture and identity.

Dakota Datebook by Andrew Alexis Varvel


“REVIVE ANCIENT CEREMONIES OF ARIKARA INDIANS TO PRESERVE THEM FOR FUTURE USE OF SCIENTISTS”, Bismarck Tribune, 26 August 1921, page 3, columns 3-5. North Dakota State Archives.

“Goddard's account of Arikara Ceremonies in 1921, August 1921”, Will Family Papers 10190, Box 19, Folder 1, page 4, North Dakota State Archives.

“'ARIKARA CEREMONIES' summary of August 1921 study at Fort Berthold, ca. 1921-1922”, Will Family Papers 10190, Box 19, Folder 2, page 4, North Dakota State Archives.

George F. Will, “MAGICAL AND SLEIGHT OF HAND PERFORMANCES OF THE ARIKARA”, North Dakota Historical Quarterly: Collections of the State Historical Society of North Dakota, Volume 3, Number 1, October 1928, page 54.

George Catlin, “Letters and Notes of the Manners, Customs, and Condition of the North American Indians” (Minneapolis: Ross & Haines, 1965, reprint of 1841 edition), volume 1, page 154.

Prince Maximilian of Wied, Stephen S. Witte (ed.), Marsha V. Gallagher (ed.), William J. Orr (trans.), Paul Schach (trans.), Dieter Karch (trans.), John Wilson (foreword), & Paul Schach (intro.); “The North American Journals of Prince Maximilian of Wied” (Norman, University of Oklahoma Press, 2012; in cooperation with the Durham Center for Western Studies, Joslyn Art Museum, Omaha), volume 3 (September 1833 – August 1834), p. 68, 74.

Catlin, pp. 149-151.

Prince Maximilian of Wied, p. 162.

Ibid., 147, 148-149 (M8), 151, 198, 241.

Catlin, pp. 114, 145-154.

Prince Maximilian of Wied, p. 148-149, 204.

“COMMUNITY HOUSE BUILT ON BERTHOLD INDIAN RESERVATION”, Grand Forks Herald (Evening Edition), 12 October 1921, page 3, column 3. North Dakota State Archives.

Dakota Datebook is made in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota, and funded by Humanities North Dakota, a nonprofit, independent state partner of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in the program do not necessarily reflect those of Humanities North Dakota or the National Endowment for the Humanities.

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