York The Bear God
In 1819, the third largest city in North America was destroyed by a dragon. The third largest city in North America in 1819 was a Mandan village along the Missouri River, which ranked behind Philadelphia and Boston in population but ahead of New York City.
Lewis and Clark arrived at the Mandan village in the middle of winter in 1804. The explorers were flabbergasted by how much snow fell in the heart of the continent. Millions of white snowflakes fell from the sky, covering the endless prairie with a blanket.
Fort Mandan was filled with Native Americans, attracted attention by rumors of blackness. Lewis and Clark were the first Americans to reach the Mandan village but not the first white men, preceded by the English and French trappers but Clark had brought along a black slave named York, the first black man to reach these parts. Not everyone believed such a thing was possible.
The fierce Hidatsa chieftain Le Borgne was a grim looking individual, scar across his face closing one eye. The eye had been blinded during a spring raid many years ago against the Shoshone. To the large crowd gathered inside Fort Mandan, in front of all the American soldiers, Le Borgne announced, “If Lewis and Clark cause any problems my warriors will hunt them down like so many wolves upon the prairie.”
Many people gasped. Some cheered. Both Lewis and Clark gulped.
Le Borgne stood in the center of the lodge, beside the flames, and asked to see the black man. York stepped forward. Le Borgne dipped his fingers into his mouth. Le Borgne rubbed his wet fingers hard against the black skin, trying to rub off the paint. The fierce one-eyed Hidatsa chief pressed harder, reddening York’s flesh. Le Borgne stared at York’s skin, blacker than night. York removed his hat and the Hidatsa chieftain ran his fingers through the tight curls.
The Native Americans were fascinated by their first black human being. York was pitted in wrestling matches against local champions. York told the Mandan children that he was a bear spirit who could change himself back and forth from a grizzly bear into a man and back again. He would growl and roar, chasing the giggling children.
The snow fell in a blizzard. Inside the Mandan village the drums beat. The dancers shuffled and stomped around the bonfire. Shamans entered the lodge dressed in buffalo robes, swaying in imitation of the large burly beasts. One by one the explorers are invited to join in the Buffalo Dance, while the shamans dance inside twirling buffalo robes. Young braves approach the tribal elders with their tender doe eyed wives in tow. Mandan tradition believes that the surest way to transfer magic is through sexual intercourse. These young husbands, with new and growing families to clothe and feed, have offered their wives to these tribal elders. These young braves have offered their wives as receptacles of magic, hoping to capture some of the successful buffalo mojo of the old men.
The young men approach York with their shy and nervous wives giggling behind them. The men have come to York with hopes of acquiring bear magic. Being a gentleman, York does his best to oblige these young men and their blushing brides. All night long York gives the gift of bear magic with beastly growls and grunts.
The rolling hills are covered with thick drifts of snow. The buffalo hunters struggle across the frigid landscape, icy winds blasting into their faces. The hunting party comes upon a large herd of buffalo in a shallow valley, trapped between the hills. The rifles of the Lewis and Clark expedition have bulked up the firepower of the hunting party considerably. The gunshots echo in the crisp winter air, red buffalo stains the snow.
At the village, the people celebrate the hunt. Cruzette, fetches his fiddle and begins to play. The soldiers dance to Gaelic tunes to the amusement of the Mandan villagers. The Native Americans call for York but he declines. While wading through the waist deep snow York has suffered a painful injury. The tip of his penis is frost bitten.
When spring comes the Lewis and Clark expedition moves on to the Pacific Ocean. They winter along a wet and rainy shore before returning to St. Louis where the expedition is given a hero’s welcome. Every member of the expedition is paid, including Sacagawea, except York.
York returns from the frontier only to be reminded that he is the property of another man. A celebrity slave is still a slave. York returns to discover that his wife has been sold. When York petitions Clark for his freedom so he might live in the same town as his wife, he is denied.
As a follow up to the Lewis and Clark Expedition, the Stephen D. Long Expedition was sent out in 1819. To traverse the rugged, rapid waters of the Missouri River — Long and his crew rode a paddle wheel steamboat. The steamboat came with retractable wheels for the shallow stretches. The steamboat had a Viking masthead. The carved wooden figurine was a dragon with the steam engines hooked up to the nostrils, so that the dragon could puff great clouds of steam.
As the steamboat pulled into the Mandan village, the dragon venting plumes of steam through his whistling nostrils, who could have foreseen the invisible germs floating in the air. The resulting smallpox epidemic devastated the Mandan nation. It was a terrible death; leaving behind a corpse so hideous that not even the wolves would touch you. Some of the last Mandan shamans remembered the Lewis and Clark expedition fondly; and prayed to the black man/ bear god to return and save them from this misery.