Edward S. Curtis (1868-1952)

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Edward S. Curtis -   Plate 150 Bear's Belly - Arikara border=
Plate 150 Bear's Belly - Arikara
Portfolio, 22 x 18 inches
Vintage Photogravure
A rare and powerful Curtis photogravure, “Bears Belly” pictures a strong looking man with a bare chest wearing the fur of a bear. According to Curtis’ writing he needed a bear skin for his medicine making. While out hunting for a single bear he instead encountered three and decided to take the risk in fighting them. The first two bears he hit with one bullet, through the heart of one and into the brain of the other. He killed the third bear and then finished off one of the wounded bears saying “I came looking for you to be my friend, to be with me always.” The fur he kept and is wearing is of the last bear he killed, the other two he sold. It was said that Native Americans would wear the skins of animals to gain some of their strength and wisdom, thus Bears Belly has taken on the powers of a bear.

Description by Edward Curtis: “Bears Belly was born in 1847 at Fort Clark, North Dakota. He had no experience in war when at the age of nineteen he joined Custer's scouts at Fort Abraham Lincoln, having been told by old men that such a course was the surest way to gain honors. Shortly after his arrival Custer led a force into the Black Hills country, and on the other side of the divide there was a slight encounter with five tipis of the Sioux, in the course of which the young Arikara counted two first coups and one second.

Bear's Belly married at the age of nineteen, soon after counting his coups.
Bear's Belly only fasted once. Going to an old man for advice, he was taken to the outskirts of the village to an old buffalo-skull, commanded to strip, smear his body with white clay, and sit in front of the skull. When he had taken the assigned position, the old man held up a large knife and an awl while he addressed the buffalo-skull: "This young man sits in front of you, and is going to endure great suffering. Look upon him with favor, you and Neshanu, and give him a long and prosperous life." With that he cut pieces of skin from the faster's breast and held them out to the buffalo-skull.

He became a member of the Bears in the medicine fraternity, and relates the following story of an occurrence connected with that event. "Needing a bear skin in my medicine-making, I went, at the season when the leaves were turning brown, into the White Clay hills. All the thought of my heart that day was to see a bear and kill him. I passed an eagle-trap, but did not stop: it was a bear I wanted, not an eagle. Coming suddenly to the brink of a cliff I saw below me three bears. My heart wished to go two ways: I wanted a bear, but to fight three was hard. I decided to try it, and, descending, crept up within forty yards of them, where I stopped to look around for a way of escape if they charged me. The only way out was by the cliff, and as I could not climb well in moccasins I removed them. One bear was standing with his side toward me, another was walking slowly toward him on the other side. I waited until the second was close to the first and pulled the trigger. The father one fell; the bullet had passed through the body of one and into the brain of the other. The wounded one charged, and I ran, loading my rifle, then turned and shot again, breaking his backbone. He lay there on the ground only ten paces from me, and I could see his face twitching. A noise caused me to remember the third bear, which I saw rushing upon me only six or seven paces away. I was yelling to keep up my courage, and the bear was growling in his anger. He rose on his hind legs, and I shot, with my gun nearly touching his chest. He gave a howl and ran off. The bear with the broken back was dragging himself about with his forelegs, and I went to him and said, 'I came looking for you to be my friend, to be with me always.' Then I reloaded my gun and shot him through the head. His skin I kept, but the other two I sold."
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