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  • Speaker Provides Insight Who Were The Northern Cheyenne? How did they Live?

Speaker Provides Insight Who Were The Northern Cheyenne? How did they Live?

The Sand Creek Massacre NHS is sponsoring a speaker’s series on Native and Non-Native American perspectives of the historical context in which the Sand Creek Massacre took place. Included in the sessions will be speakers on American history, tribal histories and American Indian Law.

If last week’s speaker, Rick Williams, is any indication of what’s to come, this is a series not to be missed.

Richard WilliamsAs he was described in Sand Creek Massacre NHS materials, Mr. Richard B. Williams (Oglala Lakota/Northern Cheyenne) is a passionate and committed advocate and fierce champion of native education in the United States.

Williams was the first American Indian to graduate from the University of Nebraska Lincoln, receiving a B.A. (magna cum laude) in 1975. Concurrently, he finished an independent study program at the Native American Rights Fund (NARF) in Boulder, Colorado, where he continued his work as a paralegal after graduation. In 1987, Williams completed an M.A. in Educational Administration (Summa Cum Laude) at the University of Wyoming, Laramie.

At NARF, Williams worked on landmark cases concerning the civil rights of American Indians in prison. With the assistance of Wallace Black Elk, a Lakota medicine man, he helped build the first sweat lodge at a correctional institution. He also developed a plan to build a 50-bed minimum-security prison on the Cheyenne River Reservation in South Dakota, where he served as the first warden. It was during this time that Rick learned and studied the political and social processes that influence the effectiveness of tribal governing entities.

From the moment Williams took the podium at the Crow Luther Cultural Events Center last week, it was apparent that the evening was going to be as interesting as it was educational. Williams, tall and soft spoken, began the presentation by greeting the crowd in Lakota Sioux, a loose translation of which was, “Today is a beautiful day.”

He then spoke of those individuals from whom he is a descendent.

Mr. Williams is descended from Old Smoke (Oglala Lakota Sioux) who raised Red Cloud. He is also descended from White Horse (Cheyenne), a dog soldier who traveled with Tall Bull, and whose daughter, Mary Yellowwood, was Williams’ great-great-grandmother. Mary Yellowwood’s daughter was Ida White Eyes, Williams’ great-grandmother.

Williams briefly discussed growing up in Crawford, Nebraska where he was raised by his grandmother, Louisa Star Nelson, and his great grandmother, Ida White Eyes, two women whom he credits for teaching him much of what he knows about the lives of American Indians. His great-grandmother was also a witness at the Battle of the Little Big Horn and survived the Cheyenne breakout at Fort Robinson in 1879.

At that point, he began to answer, as much as time allowed, answers to two questions. Who were the Northern Cheyenne? How did they live?

The Northern Cheyenne have four core values: sharing, respect, cooperation and generosity.

Historically, the heart of the Cheyenne government was the Chief Society – a Council of 44, which is considered the second most sophisticated government behind the Iroquois Confederacy. (As a side note, the Iroquois Confederacy provided much of what became the basis of the United States Constitution. In fact, the word “caucus” is derived from the Iroquois.)

Originally, the Council of 44 met at the Meetings of the Nation and consisted of four representatives from each of the ten bands that made up the Northern Cheyenne. The purpose of the Council of 44 was both parliamentary and judiciary. Not only did the Chiefs establish the traditions and laws of the people, they also interpreted those laws, including deciding on punishments for deviance in behavior.

The governance of the Cheyenne reflected the culture of the tribe, just as the culture was reflected in governance. As was reflected in the core values, the Cheyenne tried to maintain harmonious relationships. Among the Chiefs on the Council of 44, there was equal power and equal representation. Qualities of those who were chosen to be Chiefs included wisdom, kindness, generosity and even-temperedness. As Williams described it, “Whatever is asked of a Chief, he will do. Whatever is asked, he will give.”

The Council of 44 did not make decisions based on voting. If someone wanted to be on the council, people introduced him to members of the clan. Voting implies opposition with one who wins and one who loses. Instead, Cheyenne governed by consensus. “You could never speak against a person,” Williams explained. “You could never speak in opposition. Opposition was silence. If someone proposed an action, the way he was opposed was by no one saying a word. That would tell him that there was no agreement with what he’d proposed.” Essentially, the Cheyenne governed by consensus. “Imagine that,” Williams said, with a smile. “Imagine governing by consensus.”

In contrast with the strict separation of church and state as established by the U.S. Constitution, the Cheyenne’s form of governance incorporated spirituality. The Chiefs prayed on decisions and were responsible for keeping sacred objects, such as the Sacred Arrows, that were involved in the tribe’s governance.

In explaining the Sacred Arrows, Williams spoke of Sweet Medicine, the most reverentially respected cultural hero among the Cheyenne. Sweet Medicine was a holy man who not only led his tribe to be one of the most dominant tribes on the Plains but also prophesied the enormous transition coming to their way of life, including the “disappearance” of the Cheyenne from the Plains. Both his essence and his life epitomizes Cheyenne law.

Sweet Medicine was given the four Sacred Arrows—two for hunting and two for war—when he went inside the Sacred Mountain (which is Bear Butte). The Sacred Arrows symbolize the collective existence of the tribe and are considered the heart of the Cheyenne and central to their survival. Their safekeeping is of primary importance for the tribe to prosper.

Another sacred object was provided by Erect Horns when, during a terrible famine, he and a woman went to Sacred Mountain. The Creator gave him the Sacred Hat, which was a buffalo horn hat, and then gave him the Sun Dance and told him how to care for the hat and use it to bless the people.

Sweet Medicine also provided the four taboos: murder, theft, infidelity and incest.

Part of governance involved the military society, which was subordinate to the Council of 44 and responsible for carrying out punishment. “And punishment was severe,” Williams said.

For example, if someone committed infidelity, the punishment was whipping. If someone murdered someone else, the person was banished from the tribe, taken 4 rivers away and left with nothing—no bow and arrow, no robes, no tee pee, nothing. He could not return to the tribe for 10 years, and, during that time, his family was not allowed to speak in public.

Again, as a culture, the focus was on harmonious relationships. The family structure was inclusive. All the mother’s brothers were considered fathers to the child; all the father’s sisters were considered mothers, as well.

It was considered immoral for a couple to have children one year after another, and, if a couple chose to do so, the action was frowned upon by other members of the tribe as such an act was considered disrespectful to the child to have another child born so soon after him. When two people were married, the husband lived with the wife’s family for the first year. During this time, there was no communication between the son and mother-in-law. The family would then build the woman a tee pee—this was her property. If there was a divorce, the woman would place the man’s possessions outside of the tee pee. That was the extent of the communication. However, that also communicated that reconciliation was impossible.

So, Williams asked, “What led to the devolution of governance?”

Rick Williams at Crow-Luther Cultural Event Center in Eads, ColoradoThe answer was simple. Sand Creek. “After Sand Creek,” Williams explained, “the Cheyenne went as far south as the Kiowa and as far north as the Blackfeet. They smoked the war pipe. After Sand Creek, they became very vengeful. Women had always been able to join the military society, but after Sand Creek, it became more common. They became very vengeful.” He paused for a moment. “Never give up.”

Williams closed his presentation with the story of Ida White Eyes who was 7 years old and witnessed the Battle of the Little Big Horn from where she stood on the banks of the river and only managed to survive the Cheyenne breakout from Fort Robinson by—as her dying mother had instructed--following a group of people into the fog. In the confusion, Ida White Eyes followed a different group and ultimately ended up returning to Nebraska in 1910 where she and others lived in tents on the bank of the White River. As previously stated, she eventually lived in Crawford where she helped to raise her great-grandson, Rick.

That one mistake made his great grandmother a part of a very rare group of people: those American Indians who never lived on a reservation.


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