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Two Bears (Mato Nopa): Yanktonai Chief
Two Bears (Mato Nopa in the Sioux language) was a highly respected leader of the Upper Yanktonais. Though he was often called a “peace chief” by the Army, his loyalty to the welfare of his band was the philosophy which guided him.
Two Bears spoke of his friendship for whites as early as 1856 in a council at Fort Pierre. However, in 1862, while demanding that the U. S. keep its promises to him, Two Bears said that he doubted the military power of the U.S. Army. General Sully removed those doubts when soldiers attacked peaceful Dakotas, including Two Bears and his family, camped at Whitestone Hill in September 1863.
Two Bears fought at the Battle of Killdeer Mountain in 1864. A few months later, he went to Fort Rice where he met and befriended the commanding officer, Colonel Charles Dimon. Dimon, who had little experience with Indians, appreciated Two Bears’ friendship, though he was confused by their cultural differences. Dimon described Two Bears as sharp and eloquent, and (to Dimon’s surprise) able to present his ideas very well. General Sully also respected Two Bears. He described him as a “very influential man in his nation; a very brave and very shrewd Indian.” They had met in battle, but Sully respected Two Bears and gave him a letter attesting to his trustworthiness and friendship.
Once he became known at Fort Rice, Two Bears promised to live in peace. He tried to help the Army locate Minnesota Santees who had participated in the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862.
Two Bears and his family were invited to Fort Rice for the Christmas celebration in 1864. They dressed in their finest clothing, as did the soldiers, and enjoyed the feasting. The Dakotas performed songs and dances for the soldiers. And they all ate well. Col. Dimon was astonished by how much the Yanktonais ate; he did not consider that because of the very dry summer and their losses in the Battle of Killdeer Mountain, they needed to take in as much food as possible in the face of a long winter.
Some Dakotas, particularly those led by Sitting Bull, made frequent attacks on Fort Rice and on the men who worked outside of the walls cutting wood and carrying mail. Two Bears did not have the power to stop these attacks. Though the Army wanted to believe that he could order his followers to do what he wanted them to do, there was no such thing as an all-powerful king among Native Americans. Two Bears could talk peace, but if his people chose war, he was bound to follow them. Dimon and other officers saw this as dishonesty. They did not understand that for Two Bears, this was the quality of responsible leadership.
Two Bears attended the 1867 council at Fort Rice. At this meeting, U.S. agents suggested that several reservations be established for the Dakotas. Two Bears objected saying:
Now I will tell you one thing that I don’t like; you are going to put all the tribes together and I do not approve of it. I speak for my own band; our country is on the other side of the river—we are Yanktonais...The trouble was begun by the whites rushing into our country...There is one thing that I must tell you; though I want to make peace, yet I don’t want to sell my land to the whites. It is the whites who will break the treaty, not us. I don’t give permission to any white man to chop wood and get hay in our country.”
In 1873, while traveling to his new post at Fort Abraham Lincoln, Colonel George Armstrong Custer and his wife Elizabeth visited Two Bears. Mrs. Custer held a low opinion of most Indians, but still she was able to see the dignity of Two Bears and understand why so many people respected him. In his council with Col. Custer, Two Bears demanded payment for use of his tribe’s land and for the grass that the soldiers’ horses had consumed. Custer gave him a beef steer.