On July 28, Alisha Custer says a quick prayer before stepping into the hot sun to address about 600 people gathered at the Kenneth Beartusk Memorial Powwow Grounds, three miles south of Lame Deer on the Northern Cheyenne Indian Reservation.
Custer is nervous. With good reason: She's standing in the middle of what's left of Indian Country, and her great-great-great-great-uncle, George Armstrong Custer, is perhaps the most notorious of the officers who led the U.S. war against Indians in the 19th century.
Alisha had come to Lame Deer for a meeting of the International Council of Thirteen Indigenous Grandmothers, a group composed of spiritual healers, shamans and naturopathic doctors from South America and Nepal, among other places, as well as from North America's Indian reservations. The grandmothers believe that people must return to indigenous, natural ways if they are to reverse the lingering effects of colonialism, not just in Indian Country but across the globe.
It's quiet inside the powwow circle, except for the sound of Custer's wavering voice as she tells the crowd that a friend invited her to this remote reservation, about 55 miles from where her ancestor was killed in 1876 near the Little Bighorn River while fighting the Cheyenne, Arapaho and Lakota. It wasn't until after arriving at the four-day event that she felt compelled to extend an olive branch.
"I'm here to apologize formally to the Northern Cheyenne," she says.
The crowd gasps. Drumbeats and cheers erupt. Women weep.
For North America's indigenous people, such moments have been a long time coming. While this country's early inhabitants once revered the frontiersmen and cavalry troops who cleared the way for white homesteaders, hindsight offers a more nuanced view of the tactics the U.S. employed while laying its foundations.
It was only in 2009 that Congress finally and formally apologized to Native people, in a 246-word statement tucked into the 2010 defense authorization bill. The apology recognized "years of official depredations, ill-conceived policies and the breaking of covenants by the federal government" and noted the government's regret for the "many instances of violence, maltreatment and neglect inflicted on Native peoples by citizens of the United States."
That resolution was historic—or it would have been, if anyone had known about it. President Obama signed the legislation with little fanfare in 2009. A White House press release about the bill said nothing about the apology. The only public ceremony came in May 2010, when the bill's sponsor, Kansas Republican Sen. Sam Brownback (now Kansas's governor), read the resolution at a small ceremony at the Congressional Cemetery in Washington, D.C.
The quiet mea culpa drew criticism from those who wondered if an apology no one hears constitutes an apology at all. Lise Balk King, former executive editor of The Native Voice newspaper, wrote in December 2011, "Obama's apology to Native Americans is important, and could provide a much-needed shift in public attitudes toward tribes in the country, as well as attitudes of Native people toward the federal government. But only if he goes to the next logical and morally correct step, and makes the Native American Apology Resolution part of the national discourse. Otherwise, a big and historic tree fell in the forest and truly didn't make a sound."
Bozeman clinical psychologist Eduardo Duran is an Apache, Tewa and Lakota from New Mexico who's been adopted by the Cheyenne. He's written several books on postcolonial psychology and spoke at the grandmothers gathering. He introduced Custer to the crowd. The psychological value of saying "I'm sorry" resonates across cultures, Duran says. "In any human interaction, if there's been a violation, in order to heal the complete system, the perpetrator and the victim, ideally there should be an apology."
It can help staunch a victim's wounds. It also can be a salve for the offender. Native tradition holds that descendants carry the weight of their ancestors. When discussing the significance of Custer's apology, Duran points out that a similar theme runs through Christianity. "The sins of the father," he says, "are visited onto the children."
The profit motive
The smell of burning sage fills the air at the grandmothers gathering. On the way into the powwow circle, women wearing long, colorful skirts and men in button-up shirts wait in line to scoop a handful of smoke from a silver can where the sage burns. One by one, they pour the smoke over their heads and push it down with their hands, as if washing themselves.
Davian Stands, 13, sits on a log outside the powwow circle wearing a white buckskin dress and beaded moccasins. In 2008, Stands, a descendent of Northern Cheyenne Chief Dull Knife, presented a letter to the Vatican from the grandmothers. It asked the Pope to repeal church edicts that in the 15th century granted European nations the authority to exert power over tribal people and their lands. Those decrees formed the basis for "governmental doctrines of conquest," the grandmothers say in the letter, and were used as a spiritual, legal and moral justification to subjugate indigenous people all over the world. When Stands handed the letter to a Vatican guard, she says, he didn't seem pleased. Stands, the granddaughter of Lakota Council members from the Pine Ridge Reservation, was 9 years old at the time. "We almost got kicked out of the Vatican," she says.
Constance Mills Buck is also at the gathering today, in a red dress, her gray hair long. Buck is a clinical psychologist from New Mexico. She's also the great-great-granddaughter of Brig. Gen. Anson Mills, who was a captain when he helped lead U.S. cavalry at the bloody six-hour Battle of Rosebud in Montana Territory in 1876. Buck, who is 67, says she was troubled by her relative's role in the Indian Wars from the time she was a child. She began to speak publicly about her feelings in 1993, after both her parents had died. Feeling compelled to heal old wounds, she forged a relationship with the Northern Cheyenne.
Buck also apologized to the gathering. "Maybe the women can get together and trust each other," she said, before embracing a Native woman in front of the crowd.
In an interview later, Buck said that Anson Mills, who was also an inventor, an entrepreneur and a supporter of women's suffrage, "was a great guy." He was simply a product of his culture, she says—a culture that lingers today.
Buck says she apologized because she believes that such actions are what it takes to begin to dismantle a conquer-and-fallout-be-damned mentality that took root in North America during the Indian Wars.
The federal government's actions in the 19th century were motivated largely by profit—the desire to have Americans benefit through land and mineral acquisitions, to the detriment of Indians. That way of thinking holds true today, Buck says: Just look at the economy, in which a small group of people holds nearly all the resources. "If you are a winner, you have money-power." Losers are powerless.
Buck says one sees the same attitude in industry. "We are polluting in ways that will not sustain life. ... This is the same behavior that started the foundation of this country. ... It's about the profitability. It's not about the impact."
The solution, she says, entails talking it out. Americans have to acknowledge that their country is founded on brutal hubris, and that that's not enough to sustain them. Getting past their pride requires a psychological shift. "We're talking about something huge here," she says.
"We either do something or we're out of here."
They fired with howitzers
Western history first notes the Cheyenne as a people living near Hudson Bay, between what are now Quebec and Ontario provinces in southern Canada. The tribe split during the early part of the 19th century; the Southern Cheyenne moved along the Arkansas River in Colorado and Kansas, and the Northern Cheyenne hunted buffalo across the Dakotas, Wyoming and Montana's winding Tongue River.
In 1851, the Fort Laramie Treaty created the Great Sioux Reservation, which encompassed much of present-day Montana, Wyoming and Nebraska and parts of the Dakotas, to be inhabited by the Cheyenne and the Lakota—except that none of the parties abided by it. Cheyenne and Lakota continued to leave the reservation and the U.S. government, hungry for Western resources, could not stomach allowing Indians to inhabit such a vast swath of the Great Plains.
As homesteaders streamed west, tensions between the federal government and Natives mounted. They boiled over early on the morning of Nov. 29, 1864, when 700 cavalrymen approached Big Sandy Creek, in southeastern Colorado, where Cheyenne and Arapaho chiefs Black Kettle, White Antelope, Left Hand and their bands were camped.
Some Cheyenne had resisted federal encroachments, but Black Kettle and those camped at Big Sandy were peaceful. Six months before, Black Kettle had asked the U.S. for a ceasefire. "We have been traveling through a cloud," he told government officials in June 1864. "The sky has been dark ever since the war began. These braves who are with me are willing to do what I say. We want to take good tidings home to our people, that they may sleep in peace."
They were told that U.S. soldiers would protect them if they camped near Big Sandy Creek.
Many of the Cheyenne and Arapaho men were out hunting that morning. By some estimates, as few as 35 braves remained at the campsite, along with hundreds of women, children and elders.
When Black Kettle saw the cavalry approach, he grabbed an American flag that had been given to him years before by a U.S. dignitary, fastened a small white flag beneath it and ran the flags to the top of his lodge. According to later congressional testimony from John S. Smith, a U.S. Indian agent and interpreter who was at Big Sandy Creek during the attack, Black Kettle had been advised to do that if he encountered soldiers who appeared hostile.
Col. John Chivington, a sharp-tongued Methodist minister, led the attack. His troops fired on the camp with rifles and howitzers.
Estimates of the number of Northern Cheyenne and Arapaho killed that cold morning range from 200 to 400.
Smith, who had a half-Native son who was killed at the camp, told Congress that soldiers cut women and children into pieces. "They were terribly mutilated, lying there in the water and sand; most of them in the bed of the creek, dead and dying, making many struggles."
After the U.S. military investigated what would come to be known as "the Sand Creek Massacre," Army Judge Joseph Holt publicly deemed it "a cowardly and cold-blooded slaughter, sufficient to cover its perpetrators with indelible infamy, and the face of every American with shame and indignation."
Chivington's Army commission expired before he could face a court martial.
In 1867, government negotiators persuaded the Cheyenne to sign the Medicine Lodge Treaty. Black Kettle, who survived the Sand Creek Massacre, was a signatory. His followers were relocated to a smaller reservation in present-day Oklahoma. Rations promised by the government were insufficient.
Hunger, desperation and anger prompted an increasing number of Indians to carry out raids. Militaristic bands like the Cheyenne Dog Soldiers attacked settlements and stole livestock. On Aug. 10, 1868, they killed at least 15 white settlers in Kansas and wounded several others. They raped white women.
Some of the men who carried out the Kansas raid took refuge at Black Kettle's camp in Oklahoma. At daybreak on Nov. 27, 1868, Gen. Custer ordered his troops to attack Black Kettle's camp. Black Kettle and his wife were shot to death while trying to escape.
In June of 1876, Custer was killed while fighting the Lakota, Northern Cheyenne and Arapaho at the Battle of Little Big Horn. More than 200 cavalrymen died that day. What became known as Custer's Last Stand further inflamed hostility toward Natives.
In 1877, the United States ordered that 972 Cheyenne, led by chiefs Dull Knife and Little Wolf, be escorted from the north to live with the Southern Cheyenne at the Darlington Indian Agency in Fort Reno, Okla. Promises of food and peace persuaded the chiefs to go.
Again, insufficient rations greeted the Cheyenne. Accustomed to a diet of fresh game, they were starving. Measles further weakened and killed them. The chiefs told Indian agents that they feared their people would die out if they were left in Oklahoma for another year. Their pleas got them nowhere.
On the morning of Sept. 9, 1878, nearly 300 Cheyenne escaped from Fort Reno to make their way north, toward their traditional homeland, where game was plentiful. According to We the Northern Cheyenne People, written by Chief Dull Knife College faculty, the journey was grueling. "Some [Cheyenne] wrapped their feet in rags to get through the snow. ... Some of the young Cheyenne warriors, angry, needing horses and supplies, attacked white settlers in Kansas and Nebraska." The Cavalry followed them. Survivors of that exodus became the original inhabitants of the Northern Cheyenne Indian Reservation.
To balance the world
Today, the Northern Cheyenne Indian Reservation is made up of grassy valleys that give rise to rolling hills and low peaks. In Lame Deer, not far from tribal headquarters, dust rises from Cheyenne Avenue. Beer cans, empty Gatorade bottles and cigarette butts ring Black Kettle Park, in the middle of town.
Nearly half of the reservation's people live in poverty. Domestic violence and addiction, once foreign to the Cheyenne, are now entrenched in their culture.
Three miles south of Lame Deer, Margaret Behan speaks quietly as she stands beside dark mustangs, descendants of the animals that carried her ancestors from Oklahoma to Montana during the Cheyenne Exodus of 1878. Behan, a 64-year-old Cheyenne and Arapaho, has the high cheekbones of her ancestors and a sturdy build. Her Indian name translated into English is "Red Spider Woman." Her Arapaho grandmother gave it to her at birth, saying that it means "You will balance the world." Behan says her Cheyenne grandmother interpreted it to mean "She will be relentless."
Behan was born on July 4, in Oklahoma, where her parents were migrant workers who picked apples, oranges and peaches and cut corn to support their seven children. She attended government schools, overcame an addiction to alcohol and left a violent marriage that almost killed her. By the time she landed in Montana in 2003, in her Northern Cheyenne father's homeland, Behan was primed for her calling. "I prepared for something," she says. But, "I didn't know what it was."
In 2004, she was selected to join the International Council of Thirteen Indigenous Grandmothers. Her evolution from an addict and a victim was largely a spiritual journey, she says, that led her back to the ways of her grandparents. From there, her view broadened. Addiction, poverty and anger, she came to see, don't just plague indigenous groups. "It's not just Lame Deer. It's the whole world."
Now, her mission with the grandmothers is to teach people—all people—to value themselves, and sobriety. As a "global grandma," she takes her message around the world while still trying to help healing at home. She says she was troubled when she heard one of her people say that Cheyenne youth would have to save themselves. "They were not getting any kind of influence or teaching from the elders."
So, in 2007, Behan formed the Cheyenne Elders Council. During the grandmothers gathering, when they heard the apologies from Custer and Buck, the council also unveiled the T'sistsistas's Sacred School, in Lame Deer, where Behan and other elders hope to bring tribal healers and historians together with Cheyenne youth.
Behan and the other grandmothers aim to call attention to the past, to highlight the roots of dysfunction. Then, Behan says, the real healing can begin. "I tell my people ... we have a great lesson to teach the world. You've got to get beyond the oppression, get beyond the poverty, the mentality." To do that, she says, one must first ask, "Where did I get them from?"
The horses that Behan nuzzles retraced the more than 1,300-mile march from Oklahoma to the Northern Cheyenne Reservation. Starting in early June, healers and historians, accompanied at times by Behan, embarked on the commemoration of the 1878 Cheyenne Exodus. Today, she's welcoming the horses—and her people—home.
During the recent journey, they blessed the earth as they went. The violence of the Indian Wars, they say, was absorbed into the long valleys and steep bluffs that were the scenes of battles and massacres. "When you commit that kind of atrocity against any human being, you're also committing that atrocity against the earth itself," says Eduardo Duran, the Native psychologist. "And so then, the earth also needs therapy."
When the mustangs finally walk into the powwow grounds, Behan leads the procession on foot. The four horses carry four riders. Two wolves and two wolf-dog hybrids, leashed by handlers, follow. Behan, fearing the horses will spook, hushes shrill welcome cries from the powwow grounds with a stern look.
"It was so powerful," Behan says afterward. She felt as though she'd been taken back to 1878. "I went into time, and the power of the horses, hoofs hitting the ground, and the earth, just that motion..."
The wolves' arrival at Lame Deer symbolizes completion. "The animals with their powers, they heal us," Behan says. "Their presence, their spirit, even when they lick their own wounds, they heal themselves."
The apologies cannot be said to hurt. Still, says Behan, "We're going to heal our own oppression."