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Sheheke Myths Corrected


On March 10th, we did a story on Sheheke, the Mandan chief who went east with Lewis and Clark to meet President Thomas Jefferson. Tracy Potter, who has just written a book on Sheheke, has more to say about the chief, starting with his name. William Clark called him “Big White,” which might have been close, but was probably shorthand for his real name... White Coyote, Sha-heyk-shote.

Sheheke and his people hosted the Corps of Discovery in the winter of 1804-05 and generously told them, “If we eat, you shall eat.” He delivered on that promise by bringing them corn and taking Meriwether Lewis on a buffalo hunt. He helped Clark map the course of the Yellowstone River in Montana and honored Lewis and Clark’s request that the Mandan make peace with their neighbors, the Arikara Indians. And despite the danger of being killed by the Sioux, Sheheke also volunteered to go with Lewis and Clark to Washington to meet the president in 1806.

After that, the stories about White Coyote go astray, possibly due to propaganda. One version states that when Sheheke finally made it home in 1809, he lost rather than gained stature – that his stories of what he had seen out east were so wild that he was branded a liar. To be sure, his stories would have been hard to believe. While the Mandans had horses, they had never seen a wheel, let alone a carriage like the one in which Sheheke rode from Richmond to Washington.

White Coyote had also seen ships large enough to cross the Atlantic Ocean – far bigger than Lewis and Clark’s keelboat, which was the largest his people had ever seen.

Sheheke and his wife probably also told stories about roads and of buildings with marble floors, elaborate staircases, second and even third stories... architecture undreamed of by the women of the Mandan and Hidatsa villages. But it’s not true that Sheheke lost stature because of his stories.

Two years after his return, English naturalist, John Bradbury, visited the Mandan. A throng of villagers led Bradbury to their chief’s lodge, where Sheheke invited Bradbury, in serviceable if not stylish English, “Come in house.” Bradbury was surprised by that, and surprised a second time as he entered the lodge and found that White Coyote had a pet rooster, a gift from his friends in the United States. The Mandan chief told Bradbury that some of the young men in his village now wanted to see the United States for themselves, and that he, Sheheke, was willing to lead the delegation. Unfortunately, it never happened. Neither did he ever return to St. Louis, as some say.

Stories of Sheheke’s death are also misleading. Some have written that Arikara or Lakota Sioux Indians killed him in 1812 as he returned from the trip he didn’t take to St. Louis. Others say he was killed by the Lakota in an attack on his village in 1832. But he was no longer alive in 1832. Actually, word came to Fort Manuel Lisa on October 2, 1812 that White Coyote had died in the single largest battle ever recorded between the Mandan and Hidatsa. Among the fourteen fatalities were Sheheke and his colleague, Little Crow, the war chief of his village.

The cause of the battle? No one today can say for sure. White Coyote’s biographer thinks it might have been international politics, with the Hidatsa lining up as long-time allies of the British in the War of 1812. Sheheke, who thought of himself as the brother of the president of the United States, led the Mandan to take the other side. Whatever the cause, it’s lost to history now, and the Mandan and Hidatsa live in harmony, along with their old rivals, the Arikara, as the Three Affiliated Tribes of North Dakota.

(To learn more, read Tracy Potter’s book, Sheheke: Mandan Indian Diplomat . Subtitled: The Story of White Coyote, Thomas Jefferson and Lewis and Clark . Published 2003 by Fort Mandan Press , Washburn, in association with Farcountry Press , Helena)

Dakota Datebook written by Merry Helm