Sometime during the 1780s, the Arikara Indians suffered through the first in a series of brutal smallpox epidemics. Over the years, the disease savaged the original populace of nearly 30,000, so much so that by October 1804 and the arrival of Lewis and Clark, only a small percentage of the original population remained. One deserted village after another greeted the expedition as it neared the Arikara homeland, located in what is now northern South Dakota.
Lewis and Clark found three Arikara villages, all located on a three-mile-long island at the mouth of what is now the Grand River. Altogether, some 2,000 Arikaras inhabited these villages, living primarily in earth lodges that were scattered across each village. The round, covered lodges were the first of this type that the expedition had encountered, and aroused the interest of the Corps Patrick Gass a former carpenter enough for him to note their design in his journal.
The Arikaras were primarily farmers. Their major crops were corn, beans and squash, but they also grew tobacco, watermelon and pumpkins. Some years, when crops did not grow in sufficient numbers, the Arikaras supplemented their food supply by hunting buffalo. Farm fields were owned by family groups, and women did the farming. The women used two simple yet effective tools to do their work: digging sticks fashioned from the shoulder blades of buffalo or deer, and rakes made by fastening reeds to a long handle.
It was important for the Arikaras to have productive harvests, both to supply the tribe with food to eat and to provide commodities that the Arikaras could trade with other Indians. In particular, crops balanced the relationship between the Arikaras and the neighboring Teton Sioux. The Tetons possessed great military strength, but they depended on the Arikara harvests to survive. Similarly, the Arikaras obtained many of the trade goods that they needed from the Tetons.
On October 8, 1804, the expedition made contact with the Arikaras, and stayed with the tribe for five days. Relations between the Corps and the Arikaras were warm. Keeping with the directives of the expedition, the Corps observed and recorded descriptions of their hosts. Arikara men wore buffalo robes, leggings and mocassins, and many warriors wielded guns that they had acquired in trade. Women were clad in fringed antelope dresses.
Much of the negotiations between the expedition and the Arikaras centered on future trade with America, toward which the Indians showed interest. Moreover, as the Oto and Missouri Indians had already done, the Arikara agreed to dispatch a representative east to visit President Jefferson. Lewis also encouraged the Arikaras to make peace with their chief enemies, the neighboring Mandans, and the tribal chiefs consented to his suggestion.
But more than anything else, York -- Clark's slave -- occupied the minds of the Indians. The Arikaras had never seen a black man. York played with the children, and told them he was a wild creature who had been captured and tamed by Captain Clark. The adults were so astonished by his presence that they believed he had special spiritual power. Because of this and his impressive size, they nicknamed him Big Medicine.
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