Making amends among Montana's Northern Cheyenne 

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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."

click to enlarge Neal Miller uses a brass bowl to purify people entering the powwow circle. - PHOTO BY ANNE BAILEY

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?"

click to enlarge PHOTO BY ANNE BAILEY

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."

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