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.
Brinton Darlington came to the agency as our friend and helper, and we liked him. He brought assistants there, many of them Quakers like himself, who built good buildings and started schools and opened trading posts and laid out farms. He planted an orchard and a garden, so that our people might learn how fruits and vegetables grew. He was patient and kind; he managed like a chief; he prayed to the Man-Above when he was thankful and when lie needed power. So although he was a white man and did not speak our language, we could understand him. He died in iSja, some years before I was born, and when he was buried in the cemetery on the hill near the road that ran between the agency and Caddo Spring, there were Cheyenne and Arapaho chiefs, as well as white men, who wept over his grave. Later the agency was named Darlington, in his honor.
We had everything to learn about the white man’s road. We had come tu a country that was new to us, where wind and rain and rivers and heat and cold and even some of the plants and animals were dillerent from what we had always known. We had to learn to live by farming instead of by hunting and trading; we had to learn from people who did not speak our language or try to learn it, except for a few words, though they expected us to learn theirs. We had to learn to cut our hair short, and to wear close-fitting clothes made of dull-colored cloth, and to live in houses, though we knew that our long braids of hair and embroidered robes and moccasins and tall, round lodges were more beautiful.
Every white man seemed to have a great concern about time. We had our own names for the seasons and for the months that made up the year, but they were not the same as those the white man used. And we did not know how lie counted time, by minutes and hours and days of the week, or why he divided the day into such small parts.
We had never made brick or sawed lumber or had a wooden door to open and shut. Although some of us had visited the forts and the trading posts before we came to the reservation, and a few of us had seen the while man’s towns and cities, hardly any of us had been in houses where families lived. We thought windows were put in the walls so that we might look in to see how white people did their work and ate their meals and visited with each other. We pulled up some of the first little trees that were planted at Darlington, to see why the white people had put sticks in the ground in rows. There is a story that one of our men, given a little pig to raise so that when it grew up lie could have pork and bacon, returned it to the agency to be kept for him until it grew too big to get through the holes in his fence. He did not realize that he could repair the fence to suit the size of his pig.
We knew nothing about how to harness a work horse or turn a furrow in a field. Our women did not know how to build a fire in a cookstove or wash clothes in a tub of water. It was a long time before we knew what the figures on the face of a clock meant, or why people looked at them before they ate their meals or started oil to church. We had to learn that clocks had something to do with the hours and minutes that the white people mentioned so often. Hours, minutes, and seconds were such small divisions of time that we had never thought of them. When the sun rose, when it was high in the sky, and when it set were all the divisions of the day that we had ever found necessary when we followed the old Arapaho road. When we went on a hunting trip or to a sun dance, we counted time by sleeps.
My people had everything to learn about the white man’s road, but they often had a good time learning it. How they laughed when a war pony, not understanding what it was supposed to do when it was hitched to a plow or a wagon, hinged and jumped away and threw them Hat on the ground, with the plow or the wagon riding high in the air. Stairsteps, built to take people tip to a house built on top of another house, amused them. How pu/yled they were when they found that old men and women, among the white people, had teeth they could take out of their mouths and put back in again. They gave Brinton Darlington the name Tosimeea —“he who takes out his teeth,”—when he showed them that he could do this, and they wondered how he had come by that strange power. But when Mr. Miles, our second agent, came, he could do the same thing. It must be, they thought, something all agents had the power to do; so the movement of taking out and putting back a set of teeth became the word for agent in our sign language.
We knew nothing about cutting and storing hay, either. We had always moved our horses from one place to another, summer and winter, for good grazing; now we learned to move the grass to the horses and store it in stacks or in bales. This was new to us, but we saw how it worked. Our ponies no longer grew weak and lean in winter when snow and ice covered the dried grass. If there were good rains, the prairies and the hay fields could be cut not once but several times during the season. It was something we could hardly believe.
What astonished us more than anything else was to learn that the white man cut and stored ice in winter, for use in summer. At the agency they built a thick-walled storage house, and when the ponds and streams were frozen solid they sawed the ice into blocks, hauled it in, and packed it in sawdust from the agency sawmill. We had never heard of ice in summer before. It would have seemed like strong medicine, if we had not seen for ourselves how it was done. But when the next summer came, and some of the Indians drank the white man’s iced lemonade, and when we tasted ice cream, we knew that the white man had schemes for comfort and good living that we had never dreamed of.
The first thing I remember about my childhood is the tepee where my family lived. It was one of many that belonged to our band or village, and was always somewhere near the agency. All of our tepees were a good deal alike, and yet none of us children ever made the mistake of getting into the wrong one when we wanted to go home to our mothers, perhaps for the same reason that prairie dogs never ran into the wrong hole in the ground or cliff swallows never flew into the wrong opening in the river bank. We were within sound of the big bell that hung above the stable at the agency and was rung at seven in the morning and at noon and at six in the evening to tell the employees there when to go to work and when to stop. On good days, too, we could hear the bugle calls from Fort Reno, a mile and a half away from the agency on the high land across the Canadian River. For us in our villages, these bells and bugle calls served as clocks when we needed to take notice of time in the white man’s way.
Except in midwinter, most of us were stirring in our village long before we heard the agency bell ring seven o’clock. Our circle of lodges was open to the east, and each one of the lodges within the circle also opened eastward, to the dawn of light and to the sunrise. That was the way the Arapaho had been taught to build their lodges, at the beginning of time, and that was the way we had always built them.
When I was born, most of the Cheyenne and the Arapaho still lived in tepees. Brinton Darlington, when he first came to the agency, had called our chiefs together and told them he wanted them to live as white people lived, in houses with gardens and orchards and fields around them. There was plenty of rich land, and each man was to choose ground whereever he wanted it within our boundaries and settle down. The government, he said, would help us build our houses when we were ready to live in them. But this meant a great change, and one we could not make in a hurry. We liked our tepees, with all our things around us in a circle.
Also the Arapaho had always lived in bands, with their tepees side by side, their horses grazing together, and with hunting and fighting and feasting and worship all carried on by the group. It took years to learn to work alone on a farm and see one’s neighbors only once in a while. Neither we nor our dogs nor our ponies understood this new way of the white people. To us it seemed unsociable and lonely, and not the way people were meant to live.
The corn road, we found, was different from the buffalo road in more ways than anyone, white or Indian, had realized. The old people—even our tribal leaders who were great men at hunting and fighting- could not learn it in a hurry. The country itself was new to the agents and the teachers, too. Sometimes all the corn failed because of heat and drought; sometimes grasshoppers and locusts swept in and ate up everything. After a few years, the agents and the agency farmers were ready to admit that cattle raising and dairying were better, on most of our land, than raising corn and oats.
It was easier for those of us who were boys and were taught farming and dairying in the schools. We could grow up with the new idea, and some of us were also learning other trades. For in 1872 a man named John Seger was hired to come to Darlington, to set up a new mill and a brick plant, and to help build houses and school buildings and offices and a commissary there. He built good buildings, some of them three stories high, and we liked him. He lived among the Cheyenne and Arapaho for more than fifty years, building and teaching and farming and running a stage and mail line, and he was our friend until he died in 1928. His children played with us and went to our Arapaho school and learned our language and songs and games and stories. Some people said they even came to look like us.
Mr. Seger had a fine memory, and he liked to tell stories about interesting and amusing things that happened on the reservation. One of the stories he told was about Little Raven, who objected to the house the agent proposed to build for him. Little Raven had been taken east, with some other chiefs of the Cheyenne and the Arapaho, to meet the Great White Father and to see the wonders of Washington and Philadelphia and other cities. The house of the Great White Father was big and fine, Little Raven said, and so were the houses of many other people living there. Since he was one of the principal chiefs of the Arapaho, as the President was the principal chief of the white people, would the agent see that his house was built like the White House in Washington? Such a house, the agent explained, would cost too much money. Little Raven, enjoying the argument, answered that money was made in Washington; he had been taken to the United States Mint and had seen it made. Would the agent send word to the mint to make enough money to build him a house like that of the President? There was a good deal of fun over that argument, and Little Raven enjoyed it as much as the others did. Later, he accepted one of the government buildings at Cantonment as his house, and he plowed and planted some of the land around it. But he kept a tepee in his yard, and when he longed for the old ways that were passing, he could stay there.
The tepees I lived in as a boy were easy to move. I suppose any family’s goods could be packed and the tepee taken down in an hour or two. The mother kept the robes and moccasins in heavy skin holders, called parfleches, that were heavier and stiffer than a bag and made like a little trunk; and she kept her few pots and kettles and cooking supplies in two or three boxes that she had got from some one of the traders. These, and some skins and low bed frames and willowrod mattresses that were thin and light enough to roll up easily, were all we had to move except the tepee itself.
The woman of the family had built the lodge, and when we went to a new location she was the one who moved it. We used no nails and needed no saws or hammers to put up our houses. Raising or striking a tepee was not such heavy work as people who have never seen it done suppose it to be, but it was work that needed training and skill. It needed what white people watching it done called know-how. It was women’s work, as it always had been, and they took great pride in it. The important thing, besides the know-how, was the lodgepoles. These must be long and straight and slender, and for a good family lodge there must be from sixteen to twenty of them. They must be of some wood like cedar that would not rot when they were exposed to rain and snow. Such poles were not easy to find on the plains, and the women took great care of them.
An Arapaho woman, in putting up a tepee, started with three poles that she bound together about three feet from the small end. These she set up on the ground like a big tripod. Then she propped more poles on the ground and rested them above in the fork of the first three. These were spaced evenly in a circle and formed the framework of the tepee. Many buffalo skins sewed together had once made the cover for this frame, but the old lodge skins soon wore out after the buffalo were gone, and then a heavy white cloth called lodge cloth or strouding was used. This cloth was cut and sewed in such a way that it formed a kind of cone stretched over the poles. Yet it was not exactly a cone, for two flaps, or ears, were left open at the top, with two more poles thrust through them in such a way that they made the smoke hole above the center of the lodge large or small, depending on how they were braced on the ground. These could be adjusted according to how much wind blew and in what direction.
Above the entrance, the cone-shaped canvas was fastened together with wooden pegs about the way an overcoat is fastened with big buttons. The opening that made the entrance was covered with a skin or a length of canvas held down by a strip of wood that weighted the bottom. This was the only kind of door we knew, long ago. In fine weather it was raised on poles to make a kind of awning over the opening. This door could not be locked, of course, like a wooden door on hinges; but the Cheyenne and the Arapaho, like most other Indians, had always respected other people’s homes and never molested them.
In a family tepee, everything was neat and orderly. Right by the entrance, as one came in from the east, were the boxes from the trader’s store, where the white man’s goods—sugar and salt and flour and coffee- were kept. Beyond that, the furnishings and their arrangement were just as the Arapaho had always had them, made in the old way and placed in the lodge as they had been from the beginning. The beds were always around the edge of the circle, and a well-furnished lodge usually had three—one on the south, one on the west, and one on the north. As you entered the tepee and turned to the left, the first bed belonged to the women of the family. Then the western part of the lodge, opposite the entrance, belonged especially to the father. Here, on a pole or a tripod, were hung his painted shield and his quiver of arrows; here he kept the bundle, wrapped in skin, containing the things that were his particular protection and power, things that the rest of the family never used or handled; and here he kept his saddle. Here was his bed, with its back rests and robes, where he sat when he worked or entertained his friends; and behind the bed on the wall of the tepee he might have a finely dressed skin painted with designs and figures that represented important happenings and influences in his life. Beyond this, on the north side of the tepee, was the third bed, where the boys in the family slept and where visitors usually sat. A specially honored visitor, or one whose friendship with the father was close, might sit with him on his bed, at his left. When the family entered the tepee, they turned to the left, while a visitor went to the right.
There was room for everything in our lodge, and to us it never seemed crowded. Bags of meat and fruit that my mother had dried hung from the lodgepoles, out of our way; and around the outer circle of the room, in the space where the beds were and underneath them, folded robes and clothing, our toys, and our mother’s tools and materials for handwork were kept. Except in bad weather, most of our work and play went on outside our tepee. When we came inside, it seemed dim and cool in summer, and rosy and warm in winter. A kettle of food was usually on the fire, ready for us and for any visitors who might come in. It was unheard of among us for visitors to come and leave unfed, as long as there was anything to eat.
One of the great old-time chiefs that I remember as a boy at Darlington was named Powder Face. He was a real leader in taking up the new road laid out for us by the white man. He set the example by raising corn and planting a garden and setting out fruit trees. But he often had bad luck with his corn because of floods or dry weather, or by having fences around his fields burned in a prairie fire and his crops destroyed by livestock that got into them. He soon decided that on much of our reservation the cattle road would be a better one to follow than the corn road. He then built up a fine herd of cattle, and put his own brand on them just as the white cattleman did.
Powder Face not only set the example himself but encouraged the rest of us to raise livestock and care for them and sell them, never neglecting them when we wanted to go on a hunt or to hold a medicine dance. For an old warrior who had made a name for himself, even among white soldiers, that was a long road to travel. His father, old Powder Face, had given him his shield years before, when he was about seventeen, and had told him to carry it in battle against the Pawnees. Powder Face had returned from that battle with six Pawnee scalps, and then had been given thirty young warriors over whom he was to be chief. Before he had taken up the white man’s road, he had scalped white men as well as Indians. When he related his war story, he told how he had had fifty-five horses shot out from under him by white soldiers, and had been wounded four times. After the Treaty of Medicine Lodge, when he left the warpath, he went with white officers to Lawrence, Kansas, where he saw more white men and women and children than he had realized there were in all the world. He knew then that he had been wise to sign the treaty, because his people must live in the white man’s way or perish. After that he helped gather the Arapaho villages together, out on the western plains, and bring them in to sit down on the reservation. There he encouraged parents to send their children to school and to learn about the white man’s religion. He often came to the Sunday school at Darlington to talk to the children there.
The chief that I remember best from my boyhood was Left Hand. He, too, had been a great war chief, but he helped us learn the white man’s ways. For instance, Left Hand understood that the old customs of marriage—by which a young man left ponies and other gifts outside his sweetheart’s tepee, and her parents, if she chose him, accepted these—did not make a marriage legal according to the white man’s law. When his daughter wished to marry, he set the example by having the ceremony performed at the agency, with a license from the probate judge and a minister to perform the rites. But he kept some of the old Arapaho way, too, in that ceremony. After the minister’s prayer, Left Hand also made a prayer. Then he took the hands of his son-in-law and his daughter, touched his heart and his forehead, and blessed them. Each of the Indian guests then took the hands of the couple in theirs while they said a prayer. So the marriage was legal and Christian, and Arapaho as well. The agent thought this ceremony so impressive that he wrote about it in his report to Washington. Soon many other marriages were performed in this same way. The young man did not have to give up his best ponies; he had only to pay for the marriage license, and the white man’s prayers and those of the Indian went up together to the Man-Above. It was a good ceremony.
We Arapaho had always been a sociable people, so we found it hard, in the early days on the reservation, to learn to work and plan as individuals. Every occasion that brought us together gave us pleasure. We gathered for it early and wore the best we had and made the most of the chance to visit and feast and celebrate. So grass payments and annuity issues meant big times in our lives.
The grass money was rental for lands on our reservation that we leased to white men for cattle grazing. Since nobody owned the land individually and there was far more of it than we could cultivate and farm, it was leased in large tracts in the name of the Cheyenne and the Arapaho tribes, through the agent, and the money for the leases was paid to us once a year. Every man, woman, and child received an equal share. Often many of us had spent most of our money in advance, before it was paid to us, but all of us went to the agency anyhow at the time of the grass payments. Sometimes we had spent our money wisely, for farm implements or household goods; sometimes we hardly knew where it had gone, for one thing or another at the commissary or at the store, where we had been given credit. But we made a good thing of the gathering. Even though the agents tried to persuade us to come to the pay table wearing no paint and dressed in what they called civilized clothing, and even though many of us had little or no cash to take home with us when the traders had deducted what we owed them, we were all there and in a good mood. There was trading at the stores and feasting in the tepees and visiting everywhere, and everybody went away happy.
By the terms of the Treaty at Medicine Lodge, the United States government was to furnish us what we needed to live on, after we sat down on the reservation, until we had time to learn to provide for ourselves. The government was also to give us schools and teachers, and farm implements and blacksmiths and agency farmers, to start us on the corn road. All this was paid for out of the fund credited to us when we surrendered our own lands and moved to the reservation. Each winter, under this plan, we received an issue of what was called annuity goods. What we were given varied from year to year, but usually there were blankets, strouding for lodge covers, calico and denim for the women to use in making clothing, coats and trousers and shoes and stockings, axes and knives, and needles and thread and kettles and frying pans. Often the goods, which were supposed to reach us at the beginning of winter for use during the cold months ahead, were delayed a long time in the shipping; often too they had been carelessly packed and handled, so that the cloth was stained and mildewed and the knives and pans were rusty. And although the agent and his men were good at figures, there was always some mistake in the count and not enough of any one thing for everyone. Sometimes there was a new lodge covering for only one family in three, or one pair of shoes for every two men. We laughed at some of these shortages and made the best of them. If a man’s share of shoes was only one instead of a pair, that was reason enough for him to sell it and wear moccasins. And if only part of the men got trousers, that was a good excuse to cut them up and wear them as leggings, as the older men usually wore them anyhow.
Sometimes the agents threatened to withhold the annuity goods, to compel us to send our children to school or to give up our medicine dances or to break sod and plant crops. They even threatened to withhold the goods from families of men who refused to cut their hair and to wear trousers. But there was nothing in the terms of the Medicine Lodge treaty to permit this kind of withholding, and the agents learned not to try it.
Wherever we lived on the reservation—and as the years went on, some of our villages were as much as sixty-five miles away from the agency—everyone that could make the trip was on hand at Darlington for the annuity issue. Many of the people, coming from a distance, brought their tepees and camping equipment with them and settled down there to visit and enjoy life together until the distribution was over. They walked or rode on ponies with a travois dragging behind or came in wagons, and a few of them rode in carriages. The agents and the teachers argued against an Indian’s buying a carriage when he needed, they said, to buy a stove and beds and chairs and farm equipment, but the Indian who managed to get together enough money to buy a carriage argued that he had been told to try to do as the white people did, and white people rode in carriages. We couldn’t do everything at once; so we did first what pleased us most.
All of us wore our best to the agency for the annuity issue. The women came dressed in their buckskin jackets and leggings, or in calico dresses with bright shawls or blankets over them; they carried their babies on cradle boards and led along small children wearing beaded buckskin or calico or denim, with small shawls and blankets of their own. The men with long hair oiled their braids and bound them with otter skin or with colored string, and wore hats on top of these if they had hats. There was every color and every kind of clothing to be seen, and everyone was in good spirits. Annuity meant a happy, sociable time for everyone. The children played such Indian games as the hoop-and-stick and the mud-ball game, or prisoner’s base and drop the handkerchief, which they had learned from white children; the young men raced their ponies up and down the agency streets, showing off; the older people, who hadn’t seen one another in a long time, sat together for hours in the lodges, visiting and telling stories of the old days. Hunting stories, war stories, stories of brave marches and hard winters and perfect summers when the buffalo grew fat and the bushes were loaded with wild fruit, were told over again by those who remembered them. All around the agency, for two or three miles up and down the river, the tepees glowed at night from the fires inside.
When the goods were distributed everyone put on something new—a blanket or a hat or a coat or a shirt or a shawl. If a man got a pair of shoes or trousers that he did not want, he sold them or traded them off for something he fancied for himself or his family. There was trading going on everywhere, and those who came out of a deal with something to sell or with some money to spend then went to the traders’ stores to see what they could get. We were always glad to have coffee and sugar and flour, and maybe some canned goods, to take home with us. By the time the gathering broke up, everyone had something new and everyone was happy.
Food was issued on a different plan. At first when we raised no crops and had no knowledge of how to do any kind of work that would give us employment at the agency, nearly all of our food had to be issued to us. Beef was issued only after we no longer had buffalo meat or when smaller game was not to be had. Every two weeks other items of food that white people considered necessary were distributed to us: bacon and salt pork, flour, sugar, salt, coffee, and lard. Some of these things, especially the bacon and the salt pork, we had to learn to eat, because they were too salty for our taste. Later, when the buffalo were all gone and even small game was less plentiful, but when many of us began to have foodstuffs from our farms and some money to buy part of our supplies, only beef and flour were issued. These rations were supposed to be enough to last each family for two weeks, but it was hard for any Indian to learn to divide what he had on hand and make it last fourteen days. It had always been our custom to feast when food was plenty and to share all we had when there were visitors. The advice our agents gave us—to cut wood in summer when it was hot to use in winter when it would be cold, to stack hay before frost, to dry corn and beans and save sugar and flour for the future—was hard for us to follow. The agents thought we were wasteful and blind to everything but the present, but they had never grown up in a village that used and enjoyed whatever food and fuel and pasture was at hand and then moved on to where there was sure to be more.
Among the Arapaho, and many other Indians, the word for beef was wohaw. This was not an Indian word, in the old sense. We had never seen cattle until we saw white men driving their ox teams across the country. The driver had a good deal of whacking and yelling to do to keep them going, and “Wo!” and “Haw!” were what he yelled at them. So, having no word for oxen in our language, we called them wohaw. When we slaughtered a beef and ate it, we called that wohaw too.
Our older people had to learn to like wohaw. Meat had always been their principal food, and whatever else they had they were always hungry without it. But beef had a different smell and a different taste from buffalo; it was stronger and not so sweet. And since the contractors who supplied the beef bought range cattle, often thin and of poor grade, for the commissary, the meat was likely to be tough. It took long cooking to make a range steer tender, and we had always eaten our buffalo meat rare. But we children who had been born on the reservation liked the white man’s meats, beef and bacon and salt pork, from the beginning.
Mondays were wohaw issue days, big times for all of us. The men who were to do the killing painted their faces and rode their fastest horses and brought along their best bows and arrows or their guns. The women followed along, usually with a pony travois to carry the smallest children and to bring home the beef. People all put on some of their finery, and braided some colored cloth into the manes and tails of their horses, and made a holiday out of the work they had to do. All across the prairies, on Monday mornings, people in bright colors and high spirits came riding to the issue station. There was visiting and excitement and work and feasting ahead for everyone. One by one, as the clerk stamped the ration tickets of the heads of families, the men in the corral drove a beef from the pen and sent it down the chute. Yelling and racing his pony and with his family coming along behind as close as possible, the man rode after his wohaw as it bellowed and plunged and tore across the prairie, trying to escape. Wohaw could run almost as fast and bellow and turn almost as wildly as the buffalo once did. For a few hours, the Arapaho knew once more some of the excitement of the old buffalo hunt. And when at last the beef was shot down, the women moved in with their knives and kettles, skinning the hide off and cutting up the meat to take back to their lodges. Everybody had a piece of the raw liver, fresh and warm, before the families set out for home. Then, in the tepee or outside, fires were kindled; some of the beef was cooked, and the feasting began. Lodge walls were lifted at the sides if the weather was good, and the skins at the entrance were propped up overhead, so that several lodges could be thrown toeether durine the feast. It was a time of plenty.
After 1896, the method of issuing beef was changed. To shorten the time required for the issue, and to do away with the celebrating that went with it, live beeves were no longer given out. Instead, the cattle were slaughtered, and issued from the block. At first all the men objected to the change, and the chiefs protested to the agent. Many a Cheyenne family went hungry until the proud chiefs of that tribe decided they must bow to authority and accept slaughtered beef. The sport that had been as important as the feasting on issue days was ended with that change from beef on the hoof to beef on the block. Progress was catching up with us.
For some years the agents forbade us to hold any of our religious ceremonies—medicine dances, they called all our gatherings—and threatened to withhold our annuities and our rations if we took part in them. In return, our chiefs and Dog Soldiers, the strongest of our men’s societies, sometimes tried to compel us to attend and take part in our old ceremonies. To do this, those of us who were trying to farm had to neglect our livestock and crops and so were in trouble with the agency. We were wrong, whatever we did.
When I was a boy, a false religion sprang up that disturbed the Indians throughout the country for years. It was called the Ghost Dance, and began among the Paiute when one of them named Wovoka gave out word that he was the new savior. He reported visions in which he learned that all dead Indians were to be resurrected and white people were to disappear from the earth and buffalo were to return. The new religion spread fast, first to the Shoshoni and then to one tribe after another, principally among the Plains Indians. Some of the Arapaho believed in this new messiah; others were doubtful. Finally the Arapaho Sitting Bull went to see Wovoka, and came back to tell us that the new religion was false. The white men were not going to disappear; the buffalo would not return; our relatives and friends and heroes of old times would not come back to earth. We must go ahead on the new road we had taken.
Then, more than ever, we needed to carry out our old religious ceremonies, and more than ever the government was determined to make us discontinue them. The old people were despondent and the young and better educated were confused. It was then that our chief Left Hand went to the agent, Major Stouch, to give him a better understanding of our plight. Left Hand, an orator and a leader in all things, made him see that our Man-Above and his God were the same, and that we differed only in the way we worshipped. “Our way,” he said, “has come down to us through many generations, and is the only way we know. Among white people there are many ways of worshipping, and many kinds of belief about God. They are all tolerated, but our way and will worship as they are taught. but many of us are old, and cannot change our ways. When we die, our way of worship will end. We are so sure that our God and your God are the same that we do not try to take our children away from you; we know your way is good, but we do not understand it. We want you to teach our children your way and let us follow our own. We invite you to come and visit our ceremonies, and to see that they are ancient and reverent and contain nothing harmful.”
Major Stouch was deeply impressed with this speech, and wrote it in his report to Washington. It had changed his mind, he said, and he would not forbid our dances. We, on our side, agreed that we would not neglect our duties as farmers to hold them. The Major even gave up trying to persuade our old men to cut their hair and to dress as white men did. The best support he had in his work at the agency, he said, came from the old men who wore their hair in long braids. Major Stouch recognized men of strong hearts when he met them. He was our friend, as well as our agent, and we made great progress while he was there. And each year we built our medicine lodge again and held our ceremonies for the Sun Dance. Once more we came together as one people with a good purpose, forgetting our quarrels and misfortunes and leaving, after the week was ended, with hope and determination to live in peace and to be industrious in the white man’s way.
All this was a long way from the buffalo road we had once travelled. I have heard of groups of white people who have gone to Mexico or south America to take up a new road of their own and have failed in it and come back to their old homes to start over again. But we had no home to go back to; we could only follow the old road as long as it lasted while we learned the direction of the new one.