Cultural Context

Northern Cheyenne Ledger***

Bears on one of the pages in the Ledger

Northern Cheyenne Ledger***

The cover of the ledger

The prophet Erect Horns told the Cheyenne people of four life changing events that the tribe would endure. Erect Horns first spoke of the Cheyenne’s beginning. They would live in the Great Lakes area. They would plant corn and eat fish. They would make their way as sedentary people (Moe’ema’etaste 11).

The second phase, he foretold, was the phase of the buffalo. They would hunt buffalo and use the bodies to sustain the tribe (Moe’ema’etaste 11). During this time the tribe would move from the Great Lakes to the Great Plains following the herds. The prophetic vision became true. In fact, the effect of the buffalo on the Cheyenne tribe living in the Great Plains was significant. “The centrality of bison in Cheyenne society is evident in its high ratio of consumption over other tribes” (Leiker and Powers 41). The Cheyenne nation used buffalo hides, for example, to create blankets important for warmth and their courting rituals. They also turned to hides to produce colorful and complex drawings, which generally depicted the glory and power of Cheyenne combat. The Cheyenne also created sweat lodges that imitated the buffalo (Schlesier 62). The buffalo played such a central cultural role because the animal took care of all the Cheyenne’s needs. “If any animal was ever designed by the hand of nature for the express purpose of supplying, at one stroke, nearly all the wants of an entire race, surely the buffalo was intended for the Indian,”(Petersen 50).

The third time period Erect Horns envisioned was the time of the horse (Moe’ema’etatse 11). As a matter of fact, the introduction of the horse dramatically increased the Cheyenne’s ability to hunt buffalo. It also changed their efficiency and culture. The Cheyenne excelled as hunters, so much so that their “ratio of kills per person was an astounding nineteen, making them the most prolific bison killers on the Plains” (Leiker and Powers 41).

The fourth and final prophesy spoke of yet another cultural shift. This final phase was the time of the reservation (Moe’ema’etatse 11). It would cause suffering and anger to those living, Erect Horns knew, and create dependence and greed. It is understandable, then, that the Northern Cheyenne people fought hard to resist reservations in the nineteenth century. Yet it was something they knew about for a long time. They understood what came with life on a reservation, and it was not what they wanted. The Cheyenne would lose the ability to hunt the buffalo, which held an important spiritual role in their culture. It was the way in which men could distinguish themselves. There are stories of Cheyenne women refusing to let their sons work on the farm on reservations because they believed it would dishonor them. The Northern Cheyenne were the last indigenous tribe forced onto reservations, but it came with much struggle and loss.

 

Northern Cheyenne Ledger***

A man with headress on a horse from the ledger

Northern Cheyenne Ledger***

Page 2 of the ledger

Historical Framework

Originally, the Cheyenne lived in between the Mississippi River and the Mille Lacs Lake in Minnesota. They were a sedentary tribe, making a living by planting corn and fishing. After the prophet Erect Horns convinced the Cheyenne to switch to a nomadic lifestyle, they started to hunt buffalo for their sustenance. This transformation came with a move from their original homeland to life on the Great Plains. Here the Cheyenne ranged from Missouri to Wyoming, Montana, Colorado, and South Dakota. Due to tribal warfare and scarcity of resources caused by competition with white settlers, the tribe eventually lived between southern Colorado and the Black Hills in North Dakota. At this point, the tribe split into two groups: the Platte River and the Black Hills Cheyenne.

White settlers made incursions on the lands inhabited by indigenous Americans since the Puritan colonists came to the New World. But it was not until the Indian Removal Act that these land claims started to become a large-scale legal and national agenda. In 1830, Andrew Jackson passed the Act, which encouraged “negotiation” with Native American tribes to leave their land for different territory. Essentially, the Act promoted the forceful removal of indigenous tribes from their lands to reservations. As a result, many tribes resisted and battles broke out. The Cheyenne resisted the encroachment for the longest time. Sweet Medicine, a Cheyenne medicine man, foretold of the white men and the destruction that they would bring, thus predisposing the Cheyenne to be wary of them. One moment of such resistances was Red Cloud’s War, which spanned from 1866 to 1868. Lakota, Northern Cheyenne, and Northern Arapaho tribes allied and defeated white American forces. The victory gave the indigenous tribes possession over the Powder River Country area of the Great Plains, which served as a key location for their survival. However, the victory only lasted until The Great Sioux War from 1876-1877. The war featured the same combatants, but this time the United States prevailed. The defeat forced the Cheyenne onto reservations.

However, William Tecumseh Sherman, the Civil War general, took a different approach to moving Native Americans. Sherman ordered the slaughter of the buffalo herds on the Great Plains. In fact, thousands of buffalo hides were gathered in Dodge City, Kansas, and eventually went to waste. Sherman knew how much the tribes relied on the buffalo. By exterminating the buffalo, Sherman tried to force the Native Americans off their land. Without a way for the Northern Cheyenne to sustain themselves, they became desperate. In February 1879, seven Northern Cheyenne men—Wild Hog, Porcupine, Old Crow, Strong Left Hand, Noisy Walker (or Old Man), Tangle Hair, and Blacksmith—were imprisoned in the Dodge City jail after a failed attempt to avoid American forces. They were charged with the murders of forty Kansas settlers. When the Cheyenne men arrived in Dodge City, they were wounded and exhausted. Some of them even tried to commit suicide during their imprisonment. The Cheyenne tribe had been separated, desperately trying to avoid being put onto the reservation. In prison these seven Cheyenne men lived peaceably. They began to draw artistic, figural narratives in ledgers, or small notebooks typically used for schoolwork during the nineteenth century. The seven Cheyenne men created four ledgers and a few loose-leaf drawings during this time in the Dodge City prison.

Cultural Context