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Cheyenne Memories

By John Stands In Timber


When I was just a little boy, I began to listen to old men and women of the Cheyenne tribe telling stories that had been handed down from earlier generations. Many of them used to visit my grand-parents who raised me - my parents died before I was ten years old. And I could listen and listen; if they talked all day I would be there the whole time.

Now I am one of the last people who knows some of these things. I am telling them as they were told to me during more than eighty years among the Cheyenne people. I can tell only what I know; but I have not added anything or left anything out.

The old Cheyennes could not write things down. They had to keep everything in their heads and tell it to their children so the history of the tribe would not be forgotten. There were tales of the Creation, and the early days before the Cheyennes lived in the Plains country. Many of these have been forgotten, but some have lasted to this day. And there were tales of the hero Sweet Medicine, the savior of the Cheyenne tribe, who gave us our laws and way of living. And there were history stories, of travels and fights.


Many centuries ago the prophet and savior Sweet Medicine came to the prairie people. Before his birth the people were bad, living without law and killing one another. But with his life those things changed. Indians are often called savages, and it was true of the Cheyennes at first, but not after Sweet Medicine time.

EXILE OF SWEET MEDICINE. In those days the old men who were unable to hunt, and those who were crippled and slow-footed, would go out after sunrise to meet the hunters and help them carry in their meat. By helping in this way the old men would get a share of it. So on this day, one old man found Sweet Medicine skinning out the calf he had killed. He had nearly finished cutting out the meat he wanted and laying it on the hide. And when the old man saw the hide, he wanted it.

"Thank you, my grandson," he said. "This is the kind of hide I need. I will take it."

"No," said Sweet Medicine, "You will not take it. This is my first kill, and I need the hide myself." He divided the meat into two shares when he had finished skinning, and pointed to one, telling the old man, "You carry that; it's yours." But the old man started to pick up the hide along with the meat, and Sweet Medicine told him to leave it alone.

"I can take it away from you," said the old man, "and I might whip you if you don't let it go." He grabbed one side of it - Sweet Medicine was holding the other - and tried to swing him around and jerk it loose. That made Sweet Medicine angry. He picked up one of the shanks that was lying there and hit the old man on the head with it, and he fell. But he was just knocked out, so Sweet Medicine rolled his own meat in the hide and packed it on his back and returned to the village.

(Some have told this story differently, saying that Sweet Medicine killed the old man. But that was not true. The old people I talked to back in 1896 said that he was not killed. My grandfather Wolf Tooth told me that was a new version and they had just started it, that the real way and the old way was as I have told it here.)

SWEET MEDICINE'S RETURN. What happened to Sweet Medicine while he was gone was not known to the people for a long time, but on his return he told them of his experiences. He had traveled a long way, deep into the heart of the Black Hills country, where he seemed to be called by some great power. At last he reached a mountain known ever since by the Cheyenne as Noahvose, the Sacred or Holy Mountain; today it is called Bear Butte. Here he entered and found a place like a big lodge or tepee. Old women were sitting along one side and old men along the other. But they were not really people, they were gods. And he saw four arrows there, which were to become the Four Sacred Arrows of the Cheyenne Tribe.

The old ones called him Grandson and began instructing him in many things he should take back to the people. They taught him first about the arrows, because they were to be the highest power in the tribe. Two were for hunting and two for war. Many ceremonies were connected with them, and they stood for many laws. He was taught the ceremony of renewing the arrows, which must take place if one Cheyenne ever killed another. The arrows had to be kept by a special priest in a sacred tepee, covered at all times unless the Arrow Ceremony was under way.

Sweet Medicine learned next that he was to give the people a good government, with forty-four chiefs to manage it, and a good system of police and military protection, organized in the four military societies - the Swift Foxes, Elks, Red Shields, and Bowstrings. There was so much more to learn besides these things that he was there for most of the four years, before he was sent forth again to carry the laws to the people. One of the old ones came out before him, burning sweet grass as incense to purify the air for the arrow bundle. And with it in his arms he started for home.

It took a long time to go through all the organization ceremonies. A double tepee was put up, using two sets of poles and two covers so there was room for many men inside. Here in a long performance the Swift Fox military society was organized and given its rule and customs and songs and the special insignia it was to wear. After the Swift Foxes, the Elks, and Bowstrings, and Red Shields were organized the same way. When the military societies were finished, Sweet Medicine began on the chiefs, teaching them their duties and rule and how they were to be chosen. They too were given songs and insignia, and then much: the new laws of the tribe and the ways in which they must work with the military societies. At last he taught them the pinciples of the Arrow religion: how the Arrows were to be reverenced and cared for and used for the betterment of the people. And together, with his teachings, they performed the ceremony of renewing the Sacred Arrows, which only the chiefs might order and perform.

SWEET MEDICINE'S DEATH: The tribe was camped in a big village near Devil's Tower in Wyoming when Sweet Medicine knew his time had come. He called the military societies together and ordered them to build him a hut of cedar poles, covered with rye grass and cottonwood bark and bedded inside with rye grass. Then, since he was helpless with old age, he had them carry him to this place and lay him on the bedding inside. When this was done he ordered the camp moved farther down, several miles away from him, so that in the end he would be alone. And after the camp was set up there he sent word for the people to come back to hear the last things he had to tell them. When they had surrounded the place and stood there waiting, he began to speak.

"My friends," he said, "once I was young and able, but a man lives only a short time, and now I am old and helpless and ready to leave you. I have brought you many things, sent by the gods for your use. You live the way I have taught you, and follow the laws. You must not forget them, for they have given you strength and the ability to support yourselves and your families.

"There is a time coming, though, when many things will change. Strangers called Earth Men will appear among you. Their skins are light colored, and their ways are powerful. They clip their hair short and speak no Indian tongue. Follow nothing that these Earth Men do, but keep your own ways that I have taught you as long as you can.

"The buffalo will disappear, at last, and another animal will take its place, a slick animal with a long tail and split hoofs, whose flesh you will learn to eat. But first there will be another you must learn to use. It has a shaggy neck and a tail almost touching the ground. Its hoofs are round. This animal will carry you on his back and help you in many ways. Those far hills that seem only a blue vision in the distance take many days to reach now, but with this animal you can get there in a short time, so fear him not. Remember what I have said.

"But at last you will not remember. Your ways will change. You will leave your religion for something new. You will lose respect for your leaders and start quarreling with one another. You will lose track of your relations and marry women from your own families. You will take after the Earth Men's ways and forget good things by which you have lived and in the end become worse than crazy.

"I am sorry to say these things, but I have seen them, and you will find that they come true."

The people were all quiet, thinking of what Sweet Medicine had said. But they did not believe him. At last they left him there alone and he was not seen again. A few years later some people were camped nearby, and they went back thinking they might find his bones if he had died there. But the wooden tepee was empty, and today, of course, it is gone. Some old Indians say they marked that place with stones, west of Devil's Tower; and others argue that it was not Devil's Tower at all, but west of Bear Butte. The stones may be there to this day. But I suppose we will never know.

THE CHIEFS: I would like to go back now and tell about the chiefs' organization and duties, because the chiefs were the real power of the tribe, and their organization ceremony still follows the pattern that Sweet Medicine taught them. It was connected with the Arrows, as I have said, giving it a religious feeling, and also with the Chiefs, Medicine, which Sweet Medicine brought with the Arrows from the Holy Mountain. He carried this himself through his lifetime and later put it in the care of a keeper, the man chosen to be the Old Man Chief or fifth of the Head Chiefs.

After they had smoked, the balance of the chiefs' membership was filled out to make forty-four in all, plus the Keeper of the Medicine. And after all had smoked, Sweet Medicine's instructions began.

He told them there had been a band that called itself soldiers, and these men controlled the people, they killed many men who objected to them or disobeyed their orders. Now he said there would be no more of that. Anyone who killed his kinsman - his tribesman - would be cast out. If he gave himself up in a good way, the military societies would take him out across four ridges or four rivers and leave him there. After he was turned loose he was considered an enemy; anyone coul kill him. But if he was still alive after four years he could come back to the village, the Sacred Arrow Priest could meet him and perform a ceremony of readoption. But Sweet Medicine ordered that he would not be free to do all things. He could not go to public gatherings or any religious ceremony or entertainment. People should not eat with him, but if he made a visit give him a separate dish. And if he had children after committing this murder they would also be outlawed on account of their father.

"Listen to me carefully, and truthfully follow up my instructions," Sweet Medicine told the chiefs. "You chiefs are peacemakers. Though your son might be killed in front of your tepee, you should take a peace pipe and smoke. Then you would be called an honest chief. You chiefs own the land and the people. If your men, your soldier societies, should be scared and retreat, you are not to step back but take a stand to protect your land and your people. Get out and talk to the people. If strangers come, you are the ones to give presents to them and invitations. When you meet someone, or he comes to your tepee asking for anything, give it to him. Never refuse. Go outside your tepee and sing your chief's song, so all the people will know you have done something good.

As closely as I can put it, that is what he told them. And the chiefs did keep it in their minds. When I was a boy they used to go up on a hill near camp and talk to the people about all the laws Sweet Medicine had taught them so long ago. There were many of them. The Cheyennes were not supposed to marry to young or to anyone related to them; they have forgotten that today. They were not to take anything by force, from another person, or use it without permission, or to say bad things about others, especially the leaders or chiefs. They were to take pride in their bodies and the way they appeared, to keep clean and stay healthy. They were not to talk to their mothers-in-laws or fathers-in-laws, and that one rule saved a lot of trouble. I have noticed, since that custom is not used so much anymore, that the daughter-in-law and mother-in-law start quarreling many times over little things. Some still avoid one another, however, and act ashamed in the old way.

I learned laws from my grandfather. He made me remember them. He told me about fights. A number of times I could have gotten into them, but he used to say there was always someone ready to be jealous and fight or argue. "Don't give him one word," he would tell me, "even if he should call you bad things. Walk away from him. After a time that man will come back and be one of your best friends." And it is true, I have done it many times.



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