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Charging Bear Adopts Captain Welsh


During the summer of 1913, an event near Fort Yates led to a full-page spread in the Minneapolis Sunday Journal, including photos and artwork. The story referred to Blackfeet/Hunkpapa Chief John Grass adopting Alfred Burton Welch, Captain in the U.S. Army, as his son.

North Dakota historian LaDonna Brave Bull Allard writes, “Adoption is one of our sacred seven rites of the Lakota/Dakotas Nation. We adopt all kinds of people young and old. If you lost a sister, you adopted another who reminds of that sister or brother, grandmother etc... We believe that you should never be alone in this world... It is our way,” she concluded.

Grass inherited his position as chief from his father, Chief Pezi. Grass fought at the Little Bighorn, and his war name was Mato Watakpe (Ma-tow-a-tak-pe), or Charging Bear. When Charging Bear was younger, his father told him “not to fight the white man, but to help the white man, to give to him honor and respect, and then the white man would honor and respect him.”

John Grass had mixed feelings about his people’s struggle on the Standing Rock Reservation. “I like to see the old men dance,” he said. “It is their custom, their bread, their life. They cannot change. I like to see the young people go to school and learn the white man’s ways. I have tried to live up to my father’s instruction and have set my feet in the paths of peace.”

During a Bismarck banquet in the early 1900s, Grass spoke as a guest, through an interpreter, “of the burdens of his people, of their former prestige, of their depleted numbers and their lost and broken spirits.”

One of the people in the audience that night was Captain A.B. Welch, who had grown up in South Dakota where he had daily contact with Native Americans.

The Journal stated, “(Welch) studied their lives and haunts, became familiar with their bows and arrows... (learned) their history... with the result that a purpose was born within him to do whatever it might be given to him to do, to show his faith and his friendship for these once mighty children of nature, now shorn of their ancient rights.”

Welch quickly became an advocate for Grass’s people, and the chief learned that the captain had fought with distinction in the Philippine-American War. Over time, the two men became close friends. Grass lost a son in 1910, and three years later, he decided to adopt Welch in memory of his late son. It was a great honor; the chief said it was the first time in history that any white man had been adopted into the Sioux nation using the full tribal ceremony.

The ceremony took place on June 12th near Fort Yates where Chief Pezi had once won a great battle. As Welch approached the grounds, he was twice “taken prisoner” by ceremonial war parties and then released when Charging Bear would say, “This man is my friend.”

The warriors voted on whether Welch was worthy of this honor. One negative vote would have stopped the adoption, but Welch was accepted and was given his adoptive father’s name, Mato Watakpe. With 500 in attendance, the ceremonies included speeches, converging of elders, drumming, dancing, and singing.

Charging Bear presented to Welch a specially made pipe, and Welch gave Charging Bear a gold watch. Welch also gave the tribe a barbecue, including two steers, 100 pounds of coffee, a wagonload of hard tack, and 100 pounds of tobacco.

Dakota Datebook written by Merry Helm