The Cheyenne Indians are one of the most notable of the western tribes who inhabited the Great Plains, the open country lying west of the Mississippi River and east of the Rocky Mountains. They were famous among early travelers for chastity of their women and the courage of their warriors, in later years, when everything was in change, they were considered the most conservative of the Plains Indians. Their attitudes toward sex and war, and toward the maintenance of their social order are the outstanding features of their way of life.
Several hundred years ago, the Cheyennes resided in the woodland country of the western Great Lakes. Toward the end of the seventeenth century they migrated westward, settling on the Red River where it forms the border between Minnesota and the Dakotas. Early in the eighteenth century they started becoming closely associated with sedentary village tribes of the upper Missouri River, namely The Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara. These tribes were old time gardeners who relied upon hunting for subsidiary subsistence. They lived in permanent villages constructed of large, semisubteranean earth lodges. They were organized into matrilineal clans, and a married couple lived with the bride’s parents. During the eighteenth century, and for the first decade or two of the nineteenth, the Cheyennes settled down in earth lodges villages and grew crown, beans, and squash in the manner of their new neighbors. Their way of life was both sedate and sedentary.
From 1857 to 1879 the Cheyennes were embroiled in almost continuous fighting with the Americans. The wars were not of their own choosing but were forced upon them by whites who were little disposed to discriminate among Indians. The Cheyennes were made to suffer for more aggressive hostility of Sioux, Kiowas, and Comanches, until they, too, were inextricably involved in the bitter, bloody death struggles from which there was no escape but humiliating surrender and the ignoble lassitude of reservation life.
Personality and Culture
The typical grown up Cheyenne woman exhibits much the same constellation of traits. Not having the direct outlet for aggressive impulses that men find in war, she is touchier in domestic relations and apt to be a bit willful within her family. She is equally repressed sexually but manifests less contemporary behavior in masochism and aggression against enemies although both these traits are discernible in her.
The molding of adult, of course begins in infancy. Cheyenne children are highly valued by their parents and by the tribe. From the outset, their lives are made as comfortable as is possible. They are strictly taught and steadily but gently molded toward the Cheyenne ideal in an atmosphere of love and interest. The Cheyenne child is rarely physically punished, and we have seen how daughters may react in suicide if their mothers overly harsh or vindictive after they have grown up.
A child doesn’t have to wait until he is grown up to be able to practice what is preached and to experience the satisfaction of performance. Cheyenne children are replica of their elders in interest and deed. Children begin to learn adult activities and practice them in play at incredibly early ages. Boys learn to ride almost as soon as they learn to walk, girls soon after. At two or three, they ride with their mothers to gather wood and bring in water, the mothers patiently helping them with their pint sized burdens. Boys get small, but good quality, bows and arrows as soon as they can effectively learn to use them.
A boy’s real hunt and war party comes early in life at twelve or thirteen. His first buffalo kill is rewarded with great public recognition, if his family can afford it. His father calls out the news for all in the camp to hear, and he announces that he is giving a good horse even his best one to some poor man, in the honor of the event.
This man gets on the horse to ride all around the camp,
singing a song in praise of the boy. The youngsters mother may gets up a feast, to which the father publicly invites a number of poor people to share in the family’s good fortune. Gifts of blankets and other valuables may be distributed at the end of the feast. The same thing is done when a boy comes from his first war party.
For the Cheyenne girl, on the other hand, there is clear cut transition rite. Before the time of her menses, however, she likes the boys, receives continuous encouragement and family rewards for her achievements. After her first menses, each girl receives her chastity belt from her mother. She wears it constantly until married. Even after marriage she wears it whenever her husband is away at war or on the hunt.
For any other man than her husband to touch it is a private delict for the magnitude. In one case, a man was nearly stoned to death by the girl and her mother in a surprise ambush. The lest that the miscreant may expect is that the girl’s female relatives will charge his camp and destroy it. In the one case in which this actually happened, the parents of the guilty boy made no resistance.
Individual assault with intent to rape are non existent among the Cheyenne, expect the case of the Bear Rope, who assaulted his daughter. She disemboweled him with knife while protecting her virtue. The arrows were renewed for Bear Rope’s death, but the daughter was not exiled, for her parricide was justified.
Men who participated in a gang rape are not proud of it. The woman in the camp taunt them, and they do not defend themselves, they just hang their heads and walk away. Clearly, the deeds run counter to dominant Cheyenne values. The right of the husband to do this to his wife is very old and may have some sacred significance.
According to formal belief, any woman who has been four times divorced, become a free woman any man’s game. Although there is no memory of this ever having happened, one of the four virgins of the Elk Soldiers was once put on this footing because she had lost her virginity before marriage. The Elks cut their hair turned her loose, publicly disgraced. No man would marry her, although many went to her intercourse. She was really a kind of outlaw, like the banished sticks everything under his belt.
(to be continued…)