Memorial Day, Shell Village, May 29, 1922. And a Col. A. B. Welch visit to Black Bear’s Altar

I had been invited some weeks before this day, by the Indian Organization known as The Volunteer Indian Scouts, to be present with them at Shell Village and Armstrong (Fort Berthold) and take part in their ceremonies.


Poster for “Memorial Day for Old Scouts and Catholics,” Shell Village, May 29, 1922


I went to Beulah, from there by auto across the Missouri river at Ree, to Elbowoods.  From there to Van Hook with Father Peter.  Monday, the 29th, the Legion boys drove me to the Indian Village of Shell, on the banks of the Missouri river.  These are Gros Ventres (Hidatsa or Minartares).  Birds Bill is Commanding Scout of the Society of Old Scouts there.

The camp was in the vicinity of the cemetery and there were several old time tipis and some square tents.

This could be the Camp at Shell Village, May 29, 1923


Many horses were grazing and the Indians were singing as we entered the camp.  After visiting these people we visited the cemetery, where there were graves of twenty six old scouts and one World War Veteran.  The names of the old scouts were:

Red Feather, One Buffalo, Spotted Bear, Sitting Bird, Chase Enemy, Holding Hat, Red Tail, Ta-da-he-da, Crow Feather, Black Bear, Horn (a Crow Indian), Like White Women, Yellow Head, Goes Both Ways, Big Head, Wi, Skunk, Iron Bull, Little Flag, Butterfly, Bear Tail, Belt, Crow Bear, Long Toe, Bull Goes Against the Wind, Dancing Bull.

Rabbit Head was the name of the World War soldier.  His father and mother were old time Indians and sat on the ground near his grave.  The old woman covered her head with her shawl and wailed during the entire ceremony.  After the ceremony, she stuck some sticks, with calico flying from the tops, on the grave and the old man arranged a head dress with buffalo horns on it and the long, back feathers, on the grave.

The ceremonies consisted of singing by a group of Indian children, led by a Sister of Charity.  They sung America.  Then a prayer by Father Peter, followed by my address.  After I had finished (my interpreter was named The Mandan and was a Gros Ventre) there were speeches by two old scouts.  These were mostly talks of welcome by Bulls Eye and Foolish Bear, but one of them said:

“We saw some soldiers about 95 years ago.  We smoked with them and they made us presents.  Since that time, we have not killed a white man, nor disturbed the whites who were cutting wood for the steamboats which came up the river.”

Note:  I think this was the force of soldiers who came up the river in the second expedition of Col. Leavenworth’s, a year or two after the destruction of the Arikara villages on the Grande river in 1823.  They did stop for a short time among the Mandans at old Fort Clark, and must have met the Gros Ventre (Hidatsa or Minatares) a short distance from the Knife river.

The graves were decorated with the usual assortment of oranges, cracker-jack and paper flowers and flags, after which it was announced that there would be a dance in honor of the soldiers, all night, and I was invited to stay and dance.

The old scouts sung a song in honor of the dead and there was much wailing.  I went to the tipi of Chief Birds Bill, where I was served much bread, boiled beef, coffee and sort of sweet break, which took the place of cake.  After I had finished, the rest of the people were served at a great circle feast.

I had been told of a pagan altar on the edge of a great butte overlooking the river, and upon inquiry, found that it had been maintained for many years by an old Medicine Man, named Black Bear.  Desiring to see it, I rode over to the log house of the old man and visited him, ceremonially.  He told me that he had put it there, but was afraid that some white men might carry it away or step over it, so he had removed it this spring and it was now on the top of his house.  I went out to see it. There were two old buffalo skulls with the horns on, and around them was wound cloth; seven bleached skulls of horses; some cloth pegged out in front, and an old octagonal barreled rifle before them and some small sticks stuck into the earth roof, from the top of which fluttered a few rags of red cloth.  The old man sung and danced where he stood as I examined the articles, without touching them.

He said, “I will tell you about these things.  But not now.  There are white people somewhere around here.  But a long time ago, I had a dream.  I dreamed of these animal people you see.  It was a holy dream. I went with them.  They told me what to sing after that.  Now when I talk to them, they send us rain.  I am a very important man here among these people.  There are very few people that the spirits will talk to.  That is why they send the rain here.  When I pray or smoke to them.  That is why I am very important.”

The old medicine man’s house was of logs with dirt floor and many strange medicine things hung upon the walls together with his war bonnet and dance gear.  He called me “Cousin,” because, he said, “You are a Sioux.”

On the way back to camp, I called in at the house of Frank Packineau  – a part white man from the old French trader of that name.  He presented me with a very pretty medicine bag, saying:

“I wanted to keep this bag.  I did not want to give it away to anyone.  But, because you have called on me in my house, I give it to you.  All the people will know that you visited me. Hao.”

Note:  This bag is a beaded one with flower design and I think is of Chieepwa make. It hangs over one shoulder and down the side.

Upon return to camp, I walked to the dance hall.  It is of lumber and nicely finished with ceiling.  The floor was smoothed with dancing feet.  Many women were there as I went in, many men came in also.  The widow of Chief Big Head came to the center of the hall and threw down a pile of moccasins. She held a splendid war bonnet in her hand.  She said; “When Big Head died, he made her promise to give the bonnet to Mato Watakpe, the Sioux, to have it to remember him by.”  This bonnet is of about thirty feathers and very nicely made, and is now in my collection.  She also gave me a pair of moccasins, the ground work of which is yellow, which belonged to him also.

The other moccasins in the heap were picked up by certain men whose names she called.  Then the dancing started.  They were good singers and the dancing was very spirited.  One old fellow, by the name of Spotted Wolf, a Gros Ventre, danced alone when they sung in his honor.  When finished, he walked around the ring and said:

“I went in the way of the northwest.  I chased some Sioux about twenty miles.  I struck one of them. I told him I always wore my hair so the enemy could take it easy.  Then I killed him.”

Then another danced alone and told of his war honors and so the dance went on.  After a while they danced the Gahomny Dancy  – or whirling dance.  Some woman came for me, and as we danced, some other woman took me away from her.  I danced until three o’clock in the morning and had a fine time.

Next day I talked to the white people at Van Hook and then the entire town went over to Parshall where there were about 3000 people, whites.  I made an address there and then motored fifty miles to Armstrong, at old Fort Berthold, where the Indians were waiting for me.