A Long Way From The Buffalo Road

PrintPrintEmailEmail

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.”