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Bob Lind, Published April 11 2005

Arikara history kept alive by Webb

The Arikara tribe of American Indians has never had it easy. Its people have been slaughtered in war and by epidemics.

But they had at least a couple of friends who were white: explorers Lewis and Clark.

Two hundred years ago, Lewis and Clark's Corps of Discovery was packing up and preparing to move out of what now is North Dakota. Their winter stay in this area has been chronicled in The Forum day-by-day for several months.

An e-mail from a former North Dakota resident who is an avid historian brings up the Corps' link to the Arikara.

Bernie Webb, formerly of Carrington, N.D., and now of Gettysburg, S.D., also gives some of the history of the Arikara.

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The tribe suffered terrible losses long before the outside world knew of North America.

About 100 years before Columbus landed in the Americas, about 500 of the Arikara were killed, probably in an intertribal battle over natural resources, in what has come to be called the Crow Creek Massacre near what is now Chamberlain, S.D., where historians learned of it when the remains of those killed were found in the 1980s.

In the early 1700s the French expanded their fur trade along the Mississippi and Missouri rivers, where the Arikara lived. Yes, this brought goods to them through trades, but it also exposed them to diseases like smallpox.

Epidemics eventually reduced Arikara villages from an estimated 32 to 18, Bernie says.

Then came intertribal warfare with the Lakota tribe. The Lakotas pushed up the Missouri River from the southeast and killed many Arikara. The fighting and the ongoing epidemics combined to takes the lives of untold numbers of the Arikara.

The nation, still existing only of eastern states, knew nothing of all this until Lewis and Clark negotiated a trip for an Arikara village chief named Ankedoucharo, meaning Eagle Feather, to Washington, D.C., to report.

But while he was there, Ankedoucharo died, and no satisfactory reason was ever given as to why.

Eventually word of his death came back to Lewis and Clark, who in turn relayed the bad news to the Arikara. The tribe, angry over the death of one of its leaders, became hostile to the whites … not to Lewis and Clark, but to others, including, in 1823, a general named Ashley and his men who were coming up the Missouri from St. Louis.

The Arikara, in revenge, attacked the Ashley party, killing 14 and wounding nine.

But the tribe was driven out that year by the U.S. military assisted by a 1,000 member Lakota warrior group. It settled in present-day North Dakota and now is one of the Three Affiliated Tribes (along with the Mandan and Hidatsa tribes) at New Town.

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Bernie is a long-time regional vice president of Westerners International, a worldwide group of history buffs. He is a walking encyclopedia of historical information from this area.

He says, for instance, that the Arikara people migrated from the site of present-day Omaha, Neb., to the Gettysburg area around 1250 A.D. That area became a center of Arikara culture, which included excellent craftwork despite the Indians having only the crudest of tools.

In the mid-1900s, a husband-and-wife team from Gettysburg discovered about 175 Arikara artifacts near Gettysburg. They included fish hooks, arrowheads and various stone and bone tools.

One fish hook in particularly is beautifully carved out of bone. "It's a one-of-a-kind design," Bernie says. "It's the difference between a Cadillac and a Volkswagen from a collecting standpoint."

Despite their value, he was surprised to find the artifacts stored in marked cigar and shoe boxes when the couple died.

Bernie now makes sure the public gets to see them, putting them on display in various locations whenever he gets the chance.

It's one way to honor the history and heritage of one of the great American Indian tribes of this region.

If you have an item of interest for this column, mail it to Neighbors, The Forum, Box 2020, Fargo, N.D. 58107; fax it to 241-5487; or e-mail blind@forumcomm.com