At some point, early in their lives, every child on the Northern Cheyenne Indian Reservation hears a rendition of the tale about “Our ancestors, long time ago.” The story is always told with great pride, but often with little detail and few facts. Some are lucky and are born into a family where oral tradition is practiced as diligently as it was in the old days, while the rest, a large majority in fact, are not quite so lucky. I am one of the latter. I am the product of three generations of Indian boarding schools where civility was often beaten into us as the Indian was beaten out.
One summer, when I was quite young, I visited an old family cemetery with my father. While we were there, I asked Dad if any of our relatives had been involved in the key events of Cheyenne history around the time of the fight at the Little Bighorn. He said that he wasn’t sure but had heard that, “Your Grampa Rowland was supposed to have been a scout or something.” That was my one and only Cheyenne history lesson from my father.
I did, however, have the benefit of hearing many stories about Cheyenne history from friends and other relatives as I grew up. I soon realized however that, depending on who the storyteller was, the same story often took different turns. A hundred years had gone by and it seemed that everyone had a grandparent who told them a different version based on the story told to them by their elders, the ones who in fact lived through it. Some say the stories may have been changed out of fear of retribution, while others were altered out of defiance. Those that were told openly, obviously came from each individuals unique perspective which was based on their own personal location and activities during certain events. Because of all this, I realized that any cohesive familial rendering of Cheyenne history, much like the practice of Cheyenne tradition, and the speaking of the Cheyenne language, was at risk of going the way of the buffalo.
The good news is that others have realized this dilemma as well, and changes have started to take place. Early ethnographers and modern academics have provided the Cheyenne a great service by recording many different aspects of their remarkable history, and more and more tribal members have made significant strides of their own in their efforts at learning and preserving our culture. Traditional tribal societies have seen growth in their numbers, and the tribal government has made historical preservation a priority. The tribal community college, Chief Dull Knife College, has collected and preserved documents, recorded oral histories, and has committed substantial time, effort, and resources into a language preservation program at the school. Many, such as myself, have begun to research our history and write about it utilizing a more authentic Cheyenne perspective and drawing on aspects of our culture, such as our complex interpersonal relationships, that many outside the tribe overlook.
I am involved in a project called The Cheyenne Healing Trail, which is part two of an effort to memorialize the path taken by a group of Cheyenne who escaped the confines of a barracks prison at Fort Robinson in northwest Nebraska during the winter of 1879. Part one was a successful effort put forward, prior to my involvement, to build a commemorative monument at the site. Both projects represent the growing desire of the Cheyenne people to honor our ancestors, recognize our heritage and to reclaim both as uniquely ours. We are all healing through learning, re-framing, and sharing our rich tribal history with the world. In addition to my work on this three volume novel, I have had poetry and short stories published as well as non-fiction historical articles.
I dedicate this blog to the overall healing effort and to the trilogy of books I am writing. I am honored to be able to participate in any effort that brings an awareness of our ancestor’s heroic efforts to secure our homeland, a place where each new generation can learn who they are and make their own history.