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The Sahnish (Arikara)

The oral history of the Sahnish people is documented in sacred bundles and is verified by archaeological findings. Ancient objects and ceremonies are part of the oral history of the people. The Sahnish history has its roots in the south-central part of North America where numerous village sites were found. Oral history tells of “Closed Man” who brought these villages together in a union to allow freedom for religious practices. He helped each village and their sacred bundle have an assigned position. Archaeologists confirm there was a drawing together into large villages on the Elk Horn River in what is now called Omaha, Nebraska, at the end of the pre-historic and beginning of the proto-historic period.

In 1714, explorer Etienne Veniard de Bourgmont, who spent several years with the Sahnish, described three Sahnish villages on the west bank of the Missouri River above the Niobrara River and 40 villages still farther up river on both banks. By 1723, the Sahnish had gone up the Missouri River into South Dakota near the Arickara River (called Grand River today). In 1738, Pierre de Varness Gaultier de La Vérendrye, a French fur trader from Montreal, seeking a route to the Pacific Ocean, reported villages of the Panaux (Skidi) and Panai (Sahnish) living a day’s journey from the Mandan villages near the mouth of the Cannonball River. In 1743 La Vérendrye’s son arrived at the Sahnish villages at the mouth of the Bad River and was met by the Little Cherry Band of Sahnish. La Vérendrye commemorated the event by planting a tablet that today is kept in a museum at Pierre, South Dakota.

Jean Baptist Trudeau, a French fur trader, encountered the Sahnish living at the mouth of the Grand River around 1794–95. Trudeau was the first trader to live with the Sahnish for a long period of time.

Their westward movement has sometimes prompted historians to promote the myth that the “Arikaras seemed to have wandered aimlessly up the Missouri River.” According to Sahnish oral historians, the extensive movements of the tribe were not at random or without purpose, but was the westward migration in fulfillment of the directive given to them by Neesaau ti naacitakUx, Chief Above, through an ancient tradition and from a sacred being called “Mother Corn.” (Dorsey, 1904)

Lewis and Clark encountered the Sahnish people at the mouth of the Grand River in 1804, and found them living in three villages that numbered about 3,000. The first village was on an island two miles above the Oak Creek and contained about 60 lodges. The whole island was under cultivation. The other two villages were on each side of a creek, which from its references, appears to be the Cottonwood Creek of today.

War of 1823

A part of a national policy to show Indian nations the strength of the United States, the government requested that tribal people be brought to the east as representatives of their nations. In some cases, it was an effort on the part of the explorers and traders to showcase their discoveries.

The result of this policy can be seen with the incident with Leavenworth. The incident began when explorers Lewis and Clark negotiated the trip that sent the Sahnish village chief, Ankedoucharo to Washington, D.C. where he died. There was no explanation of how and why he died. Lewis and Clark, fearing the wrath of the Sahnish, did not tell them until a year later. When the Sahnish found out about his death, they became rightfully angry. President Thomas Jefferson tried to appease the Sahnish with the following eulogy:

He (Chief Ankedoucharo) consented to go towards the sea as far as Baltimore and Philadelphia. He said the chief found nothing but kindness and good will wherever he went, but on his return to Washington he became ill. Everything we could do to help him was done but it pleased the Great Spirit to take him from among us. We buried him among our own deceased friends and relations. We shed many tears over his grave. (Delegates in Buckskins)

The President’s explanation did not impress the Sahnish. For the next twenty years they were hostile to white people. The inexplicable death of their chief was the major reason for their so-called belligerence.

The most notable of these hostilities was in the 1823 battle where the Sahnish took revenge for the death of their chief on General Ashley and his men who were coming up the river from St. Louis. The Sahnish killed several men, took some of their goods, and set their boats adrift in the river. The attack angered the white military forces and they set out with soldiers, artillery, cannons, and 800 to 900 Sioux for Leavenworth to “teach the Arikara (Sahnish) a lesson.” (Leavenworth Journal)

The Sahnish had fortified their villages well. The Sioux were first into the battle, and when they met the Sahnish, they both lost lives. The Sioux, fearing Leavenworth was losing the battle met with the Sahnish. It was presumed they wanted to join the Sahnish. They then left the battle taking with them corn and other crops of the Sahnish leaving Leavenworth’s forces to their own tactics. The Sahnish were surrounded by the United States military who lobbed cannonballs and other artillery into the village of men, women, and children. The Sahnish, realizing they were outnumbered and at risk, began negotiating for surrender. Before the battle could be settled, every man, woman, child, horse, and dog disappeared during the night.

This time in history was a turning point in the relations between the Arikara and whites. Prior to this battle, traders and travelers had described the disposition of the Arikara towards the whites as “friendly.” After this war, there were reports of hostilities and murders on both sides. The result of the battle infuriated the traders who further antagonized the Arikara, worsening the already deteriorating relationship between the Arikara and the whites.

On June 10, 1833, George Catlin passed the Arikara villages at the Grand River but did not come ashore because he considered them hostile. He sketched their villages from the deck of the steamer Yellowstone. That same year, the Sahnish left the banks of the Missouri River after two successive crop failures and conflicts with the Mandan. They rejoined the Pawnees in Nebraska on the Loop River, where they stayed for three winters. Because this location made them susceptible to attack by the whites and the Sioux, after only a few years, the Arikara moved back to the Missouri River area.

Upon their arrival back to the Missouri River area, they were stricken with smallpox. In June 1836 and into 1837 the Arikara people were decimated by the third epidemic of smallpox at their village below the Knife River near Fort Clark.

In 1856, the fourth smallpox outbreak occurred in the Star Village at Beaver Creek. The smallpox outbreak and the constant raids by the Sioux forced the move in August of 1862 of some Arikara to Like-A-Fishhook Village, while some remained at Star Village at Beaver Creek.

Their bout with smallpox was the final blow that left the Arikara people weak. They lost almost half of their population. Later, fire destroyed the old Mandan lodges, and they built a new village on the site of the old Mandan villages and remained there until the abandonment and destruction of Fort Clark in 1861. In 1862, the Arikara moved up to join the Mandan and Hidatsa at Like-A-Fishhook Village.