Arikara (Sahnish) Literature
The Arikaras (Sahnish) came from the south, many years ago, to the Missouri River in what is now North Dakota and the Fort Berthold Reservation in South Dakota, where they live today. With them, they brought not only reliance on corn as their most important agricultural crop, but also their appreciation of it as a divine gift. The Great Spirit Above gave them corn and they show their gratitude every year in their ceremonies.
The oral history of the Sahnish people is taken from sacred bundles and is verified by archeological findings. Ancient objects and ceremonies are part of the oral history of the people. The Sahnish history has its roots in eastern Nebraska where numerous village sites were found. Oral history tells of a person called “Chief Above” who brought these villages together in a union for protection against waiting tribes. Archeologists 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 prehistoric and beginning of the proto-historic period.
In these religious ceremonies, corn was honored and referred to in the endearing and also the highly respectful title of “Mother Corn.” At a certain time in the ritual, one of the leaders of the tribe made an address to Mother Corn in the following words, or in words with similar effect.
Corn played an important mythological role in many tribes as well– in some cultures Corn was a respected deity, while in others, corn was a special gift to the people from the Creator or culture hero. In addition to its importance as a food source, corn also played a ceremonial role in many tribes, with sacred corn pollen or cornmeal being used as ritual adornment and spiritual offerings.
The coyote deity Chirich is the trickster figure of Arikara mythology. He is clever but reckless, and is forever getting himself and the people around him into trouble, particularly through socially inappropriate behavior like greediness, boastfulness, lying, and chasing women. Like modern cartoon characters, Chirich frequently dies during the course of his adventures and returns randomly to life– it is impossible to truly get rid of that trickster for good. Chirich stories are often humorous in nature, but they can also be cautionary tales about the consequences of bad behavior and the dangers of interacting with irresponsible people.
The Arikara name Atina (or Atna) literally means just “Mother”; the “corn” was added to her name by anthropologists because she was the goddess or spirit of the corn. According to Arikara mythology, Nishanu created the Corn Mother from an ear of corn and she became the protector of the Arikaras, leading them to their homeland and teaching them to farm.
Chief Rushing Bear was an Arikara Indian leader of the 19th century. His Arikara name, Kuunux-tuunawiinx or Kunuh-dunawenag, means “Rushing Bear,” which he was commonly called in English; but the Arikaras more often referred to him by the honorific “Son of the Star” or “Son of Star.” He was second-in-command under Chief White Shield, and took over the position of head chief of the Arikara tribe in the late 1860’s until his death in 1881.
The Arikara tribal chief Kunuhtiwit (also spelled Ku’nu’h-tiwit, Ku-nuh-ti-wit, or Kuunux-teewiita) was the son of the important head chief Rushing Bear. His own name meant “Sitting Bear” in the Arikara language, and he was often known by that name in English. Kunuhtiwit was chief of the the Arikara tribe from his father’s death in 1881 until his own death in 1915.
Alternate names for Arikara are:
Northern Pawnee, Ricara, Ree, Sahnish, Tsa’nish.