Religion and Traditions of the Cheyenne

 

There is a tradition among the Cheyennes that in the beginning they lived upon the upper Missouri or in some part of Canada, existing much like animals. What they could catch they ate raw, so the tradition says, and as to clothing, the less they had, the better. They had no love nor respect for one another, and when a woman gave birth to a child she would take care of it until it was large enough to catch what it needed to live on, and then turn it adrift and care no more for it.

They were living somewhere in a valley, and they don't know whether it was a cloud burst or a tidal wave or what, but all at once the whole face of the earth became covered with water, and all but a few of the tribe were drowned. Those that were saved were scattered widely, and wandered around without seeing one another for several days. Finally the medicine man found a woman. Now both he and the woman had felt so lonely that when they saw one another they ran and embraced one another, and, clasped in one another's arms, created a human love, so that ever after they lived as man and wife.

And they found the tracks of others of their tribe, and tracked them up, and when they found them they embraced them in their arms. And so they kept on till they had quite a number, and they went to living together in pairs, and loved one another, and ever after they loved their children.

And, after this advancement, they found some young panthers and raised them as pets, and when a panther would catch a deer he would eat what he wanted and leave some for his masters, and he would also leave the hide for them, and they used the hides for making clothes. And when the panther wasn't hungry he would catch small game and carry it to the tribe.

And they had precious stones with which they cut wood. And they cut for themselves clubs, and learned how to throw them. And there was a medicine man who had a medicine club, and when he threw it at anything he could kill it. And there came another tribe from the east that they supposed to be others who had escaped from the flood the same as they had, but they made war on the Cheyennes. But so great was the power of this medicine man and his medicine club that no one could stand before him, and, though the battle lasted several days, the Cheyennes came out victors, and drove the enemy from the land.

There was a certain season of the year when it was very hard to get anything to eat, which must have been in the long winter. And there came a time when they were near starvation. They had hunted, but could find nothing. There was one young man who had gone a long way from the camp, and was standing on a high hill. And he saw something a long ways off that looked white. Going closer, he saw that the whole prairie was covered with skunks. So he went back to camp and got the others and they surrounded the skunks and killed them all. And they took them home and ate them, and they lasted until the bitter season of the year had past.

This same young man was considered a prophet, and was the first man to invent fire. This he did by taking one stick and putting one end on a log. Then he put sand and dry grass around the stick. Then, holding the other end of the stick up, and whirling it between his hands, the sand and the wood set the grass afire.

After the hard year, game was more abundant for a season. Then came a hard time again, when they had hunted but could find nothing, and were about to be forced into cannibalism, and were casting lots by setting two sticks in the ground and rolling a ball between the sticks. Now there came a man and looked on, and he was dressed differently from any man that they had ever seen. He had a fine head-piece on his head, and there was paint on his face, and his clothing was more beautiful than any they had ever seen. But while he stood looking on there came another man dressed in exactly the same way and stood in an opposite direction and looked on.

The camp was by a big spring, and the man that first came said to the other man, "Why are you mocking me? You are dressed just as I am."

But the other man said, "I am not mocking you. A person down in the spring told me to dress this way."

"Well," said he, "there was a person down in the spring who told me to dress this way,, too."

"Well," said one of the Cheyennes, who had heard what they said, "let's go down and see that person in the spring."

So they went and dived into the spring, and when they came up they found that they were in a big room. And there was an old lady in there who was the grandmother of all of them, and she was glad to see them. Then she built a fire and cooked them both' meat and corn and put it in a big wooden bowl. And when they had finished eating the bowl was just as full as it was before.

"Now," said she, when they had eaten, "I heard my people were starving outside, and you must take them something to eat, but before you go I must teach you how you must do."

Then she picked up a handful of corn and said, "This is corn." It was all colors. "You must go to some rich bottom land and dig up the dirt and plant the corn. And it will grow and you must take care of it, and you will always have something to eat."

Then she told them to look to the east, and they looked to the east and saw great fields of corn. Then she told them to look to the north, and they looked to the north, and the hills and the plains were covered with buffalo. Then she told them to look to the south, and they looked to the south, and they could see great herds of ponies. Then she told them to look to the west, and they looked to the west, and they could see great armies.

Then said she, "Which one of these will you choose?"

And they said, "Give us the buffalo."

And she said she would turn the buffalo over to them. Then she told them that by the paint of their faces and by their head-dress she would know them, and those that would not wear the paint, were ashamed of her and she would not protect them. So, when they got to where they were starving, she would come back again. From this incident came the ghost dance and the paint.

"Now," said she, "you must go and feed my people." So each one took a handful of corn and a handful of meat and went out. And when they came to the people they called for the big wooden bowls, and they put in one corn, and in the other the meat, and when they put them down the bowls were full. Then came the warriors and ate, and when they had finished there was as much as before they had begun. Then came the old men and women, and they ate, and when they had finished, there was still as much as before they had eaten. Then came the children, and when they had eaten, and had had all they wanted, the food disappeared.

And yet the people were all in doubt, saying, "Must we believe these men?" So there came out of the spring a big fine buffalo heifer. She came close up to them, then turned around and disappeared into the spring. Then they said, "Now we believe." So they put paint on their faces, and shouted aloud, and danced all night. And when the morning came the whole face of the earth was covered with buffalo. So they went out and surrounded a herd and caught them with their hands, and with their clubs they killed them. These were the first buffalo they had seen or heard tell of.

And they began raising corn, also, so when the winter had come and the buffalo had gone farther south, they put their corn in a cave and followed the buffalo. And. while they were gone, some of the tribe came and stole all the corn. When they came back, therefore, and found all their corn that they had depended on gone, and nothing left for them to eat, they went south. They found more buffalo, and they went still farther south, until, in Old Mexico somewhere, they found a tribe that had many ponies. But they had nothing with which they could buy ponies, and they could not make war on these other Indians, for they could ride away from them, and they had ropes made of raw-hide.

So the Cheyennes went by night and stole some ponies, and kept on until they had stolen enough for all their warriors. And so they never tried to raise any ponies. They ran them so hard after buffalo that they never could raise any colts, and when they needed new ponies they simply went back and stole them. But the Mexican tribe grew very tired of this stealing, and made war on the Cheyennes, and drove them back to the Black Hills, where, after this, they remained a great deal of their time, until the white man came.

These old Indians are big, stout men, and the best ropers I ever saw. In times of peace they are good, clever, sociable Indians, and would fight a white man in any way he cared to fight, and then shake hands and forget their wars. But there are very few of the old ones living nowadays, and the younger ones that have been raised as prisoners of war are more sullen. They believe that all kinds of meat is good to eat. There is no difference to them. They will eat a dead pony just as quickly as they will a steer that they have butchered. It makes no difference to them what has been the cause of death of a cow or hog or pony; they will eat it just as quickly as if they themselves had killed it. They believe that human flesh is forbidden, but that anything else in the shape of meat is good to eat.

They believe that the devil is an evil spirit, and that he uses a person's appetite to destroy him with, such as tobacco and whisky and coffee and fine clothing, and indeed anything that a person can exist without is the devil's agent. They say before they knew the white man they knew nothing of such things, and that then they were perfectly happy. They say they had clothes that satisfied them just as well as the clothes they have nowadays. Now, too, they know how to use tobacco and coffee, and as they are out of these articles about half the time they are unable to be happy, for they have come to love these agents of the devil. They believe that sin came into the world first through man's appetite. They believe in obeying literally the command of the Savior when he said, "Take no thought of the morrow; what ye shall eat, or what ye shall drink, or wherewithal shall ye be clothed," for they will eat the last bite on the place and then lie down and go to sleep just as contentedly as if they had a store.

You can't make any sort of a trade with an Indian when he is full. You must catch him when he is hungry, and then you can make any kind of a trade with him that you want. When an Indian decides to sell a pony he will call about him his wife and children and all the neighbors, and they will reach a decision as to which one shall be sold. And then that pony and no other will be sold, no matter if no more than a third of what he is worth is realized. And you might just as well talk to the wind as to try to buy a pony which the council has not decided should be sold.

A number of the younger members of the tribe have been educated, and they make good clerks and soldiers, and are able to engage in almost any kind of business, competing on even terms with the younger class of other tribes which have been under government protection and tutelage for a hundred and fifty years. This ought to be sufficient to convince anyone that it is all in the way one is raised.

The winter quarters of the Cheyennes are generally along some water course on the edge of the prairie and handy to timber. They put posts in the ground around a square large enough for one of their tents or tepees. A pole is then fastened at the top of the posts and another at the bottom. Next a ditch is dug around the entire enclosure. Then they take big sunflower weeds or small willows, put one end in the ground and fasten a pole on the outside all around, leaving a place for a door. The tepee is then erected inside the enclosure.

The accompanying picture shows an Indian village at Colony, Oklahoma.

From one to two dozen families live in a village. The children all play together. In case of trouble between the children the mothers usually settle it between themselves, and if they fail the attention of the band chief who presides over the village is called to the matter and his decision is final.

The women, while in their tepees, generally spend their time doing bead work or making shoes, as shown in the accompanying picture of a group of Cheyenne and Arapahoe women.

History of Oklahoma, Indian Territory and Homeseeker's Guide

Source: History of Oklahoma and Indian Territory and Homeseeker's guide, By J. L. and Ellen Puckett, Vinita, Oklahoma, Chieftain Publishing Company, 1906

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