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Sheheke Myths


On this date in 2003, a new history book was just out called “Sheheke, Mandan Indian Diplomat: The Story of White Coyote, Thomas Jefferson, and Lewis and Clark.” It was written by North Dakota historian Tracy Potter.

Sheheke is the Mandan chief who went east with Lewis and Clark to meet President Thomas Jefferson. In his book, Tracy Potter addresses some myths about the chief.

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 Yellowstone River in Montana and honored Lewis and Clark’s request that the Mandan make peace with their neighbors, the Arikara. And despite the danger of being killed by the Sioux, Sheheke volunteered to go with Lewis and Clark to Washington to meet the president in 1806.

After that, the stories about Sheheke go astray. One version states that when he 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 Sheheke rode from Richmond to Washington.

He also told of ships large enough to cross the Atlantic Ocean, and buildings with marble floors, elaborate staircases, second and even third stories ... architecture undreamed of by the people of the Mandan and Hidatsa villages. But it’s not true that Sheheke lost stature because of his stories, as documented by English naturalist John Bradbury, who visited the Mandan two years after Sheheke’s return from Washington. The Mandan chief told Bradbury that some of the young men 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 claimed.

Stories of Sheheke’s death are also misleading. Some have written that Arikara or Lakota Sioux Indians killed him in 1812. Others say he was killed by the Lakota 1832. But he was no longer alive in 1832. Actually, word came to Fort Manuel Lisa on October 2, 1812 that he 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.

Today, the Mandan and Hidatsa live in harmony, along with their old rivals, the Arikara, as the Three Affiliated Tribes of North Dakota.

Dakota Datebook written by Merry Helm

SOURCE: 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