A Long Way From The Buffalo Road

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This gentle narrative—sad, cheerful, wistful in turn—is the boyhood memoir of an Arapaho Indian born shortly after his people, had been forced to “sit down on the réservation” and adopt “civilized” customs. Carl Sweezy—his Indian name was “Black”—was born in 1881, fourteen years after the signing of the Medicine Lodge treaty, which confined the Southern Arapaho and Southern Cheyenne to a reservation between the Canadian and Red rivers in Oklahoma. The original treaty establishing their territory had already been broken once, and would be broken again as white settlers encroached on their lands. Although born into a debated, confused people, Mr. Sweezy managed to make the transition from Indian culture to white without bitterness. He chose, however, to spend his life recording the vanishing traditions of the Arapaho in his paintings, four of which are reproduced here. His only guidance was the advice of an anthropologist from the Smithsonian Institution who urged him to keep painting, and to paint “Indian.” Before Carl Sweezy died in 1953, Althea Bass, a writer and friend, spent hours recording his memories of his boyhood on the reservation. In her forthcoming book, The Arapaho Way , from which this article is taken, she has rearranged the material and added dates, but has in no other way changed Mr. Sweezy’s account. It will be published soon by Clarkson N. Potter.—The Editors

My people, the Arapaho. are scattered now. There are fewer than one thousand of us who are full bloods now living in Oklahoma, and many of us who are left do not know our language or our old ways and our old songs and stories. The Cheyenne-Arapaho Agency at Darlington is gone; Fort Reno. across the river from the old agency, is no longer a fort; our while lodges no longer stand in circles on the prairie with their poles pointed toward the blue sky. Mornings and evenings no smoke from hundreds of campfires rises into the air; no coyotes howl at night and no prairie dogs build their towns on the uplands. No ponies graze in herds on the open ranges. There are fences dividing the farms, and barns for the cows and horses, and roads marking the land in sections, and highways carrying the people in last cars from one town to another. A pony carrying an Indian woman on its back, with a travois dragging behind to carry the children and the puppies and the household goods to the hunt or to another village, is never seen.

A boy growing up today has no way of knowing how good life was on the Cheyenne-Arapaho Reservation when I was a boy, or what that life was like, unless he reads about it in books. Even if he should read books about our life, he would miss something. Books could not make him see the sun rising oxer the land that stretched for miles without fences or roads, or the North Canadian River and the smaller streams winding through that land with trees and brush along their banks and reeds and grass as high as a man’s waist in the low places; or feel how friendly the life in our villages was, with children and dogs and ponies outside the tepees, and men and women busy drying meat or beading moccasins or making arrows or dressing skins. But I am an old man who can remember all this from my boyhood, before the white man’s government and religion and houses and inventions changed everything. The road of the Arapaho was an old and good one, and we believed it had been travelled since the beginning of the world. Now, though we can no longer travel it, it is a good thing to show how that road once ran before we lost it.

President Grant was the Great White Father in Washington when we came to the reservation. Before that time he had been a great warrior, just as our chiefs Left Hand and Powder Face had been, but he had left the warpath and he wanted us to leave it. So he saw to it that good men were sent to take charge of our agency. There was more than one white man’s road that we might take, and President Grant wanted us to take the right one.

He sent Brinton Darlington to be our first agent. Mr. Darlington belonged to the Society of Friends, the Quakers, and we could tell that he believed many of the things that we believed. He knew, as we did, that there was a good Man-Above and an evil ManBelow, and he worshipped and prayed to the ManAbove. And although he never spoke to my people about his belief in Mother Earth, he must have believed in her as we did. He and the men he brought with him had strong power in planting and harvesting, while we depended on what Mother Earth gave us, glowing wild. He never spoke to us about the power of the Four Old Men, which comes from the four quarters of the earth, or of the mysteries of Grandfather Sun that lights the day, or of the Moon the Night Sun, or of the influences of buffalo and eagle and owl and coyote. He had not been trained in our religious societies and did not know our ceremonies. But he did not try to wipe them all out, as some white people believed in doing.