Gathering at the Hearth: Stories Mennonites
A collection of twenty-eight stories from Mennonite History
by John E. Sharp
Herald Press, 2001
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Cheyenne Legacy at the Washita River
The cultural clash between European Americans and Native Americans on the Great Plains became severe during the 1860s and 1870s. Homesteading pioneersMennonites among themincreased the pressure on Native Americans to vacate their ancestral lands. Little did European American Mennonites realize that they shared a deeply held conviction with some Native Americans: nonresistance to violence. Lawrence H. Hart, a former bomber pilot, embodies this conviction from both traditions: he is a Mennonite pastor and a Cheyenne peace chief. In this story Hart revisits a painful, violent event in his history and becomes an agent of reconciliation.
"O dai! (listen)," a Cheyenne woman whispered in the early morning of November 27, 1868. The noises she heard struck fear to her heart. Four years before, she had survived a terrible massacre at Sand Creek in eastern Colorado. Her fear was especially heightened the evening before when Cheyenne Peace Chief Black Kettletraveling with warriors Little Robe and Spotted Wolf and Arapaho Chief Big Mouthreturned from his visit with Colonel William H. Hazen at Fort Cobb. They had gone seeking an assurance of peace and safety.
Surely the colonel would honor Black Kettles peaceful cooperation. Had the chief not received a peace medal from the hand of Abraham Lincoln, president of the United States? Was he not flying the American flag given him in the nations capital as a symbol of his peaceful intentions, as well as a white flag of peace? Had he not signed the treaties of 1865 and 1867? Had he not survived the terrible Sand Creek massacre without making any resistance?
Colonel Hazen refused to give them the protection they sought. He told them that the federal government had initiated a winter campaign to punish them for attacks against Kansas settlers. When the chiefs returned to their respective winter camps with the bad news, everyone was alarmed.
Cheyenne men discussed the impending campaign in Black Kettles lodge. His wife, Medicine Woman Later, was listening. She had survived nine bullet wounds at Sand Creek and wanted the camp moved immediately, but it was midnight and very cold. The men decided to stay one more night by the banks of the Hooxeeohe, the Cheyenne name for the Washita River in Indian Territory, later to become the state of Oklahoma.
As it turned out, Medicine Woman Laters intuition was right. The unsettling noises she heard that night came from eight hundred approaching troops. Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer led the Seventh U.S. Cavalry to within striking distance, arriving at midnight. At dawn on November 27, with a foot of snow on the ground, the regimental band of the Seventh Cavalry played their marching song, "Garry Owen," signaling the attack.
Terror struck the Cheyenne. The sword-wielding Custer, who himself would one day die by the sword, ordered the attack from four sides. The troops charged through the cluster of fifty-one lodges, shooting right and left. Hearing the noise of the weapons and the screams, Arapaho and Cheyenne warriors from nearby villages came running. Eventually, Kiowa, Comanche, and Plains Apache warriors joined the fight.
Twenty-two soldiers were killed and thirteen wounded. Custers troops captured fifty-three Cheyenne Indians, mostly women. They torched Black Kettles village, including the winter supply of food and clothing, and slaughtered over eight hundred Cheyenne horses. Black Kettle and Medicine Woman Later tried to escape, but they were shot off their horse and fell into the Washita River.
Lieutenant Colonel Custer reported to his superior officer: "After a desperate conflict of several hours, our efforts were crowned with the most complete and gratifying success." He claimed to have killed 108 warriors, when in fact most of the victims were women and children. Furthermore, he was pleased that Black Kettles scalp was in the possession of one of his Osage guides.
Chief Black Kettle did what weaker men could not do; he refused to fight violence with violence. He had been taught the words of Cheyenne prophet, Sweet Medicine:
If you see your mother, wife, or children being molested or harmed by anyone, you do not go and seek revenge. Take your pipe. Go, sit and smoke and do nothing, for you are now a Cheyenne chief.
One hundred years later, the town of Cheyenne, Oklahoma, planned a centennial commemoration of the massacre, now called "the last great battle between the Indians and the U.S. Army in Oklahoma." The organizers asked the native Cheyenne to participate in a reenactment. But how could they celebrate the brutal attack on their peaceful village? Finally, the Cheyenne reluctantly agreed on condition that they be permitted to bury the remains of a Cheyenne child on display in the local museum.
The reenactment began. Local townsfolk and ranchers played the soldiers of the Seventh Cavalry. In a mock village of tepees, Cheyenne adults and children portrayed their ancestors. Unknown to the Cheyenne, however, a California group called the Grandsons of the Seventh Cavalry, Grand Army of the Republic, had been asked to join the reenactment.
This group was dressed in authentic Seventh Cavalry uniforms. Marching to the tune "Garry Owen," they rushed the village, shooting blank cartridges from authentic Spencer carbines. For many Cheyenne people watching, especially those whose children were in the mock village, the events became all too real. Deep feelings of hostility erupted.
Nevertheless, the days schedule continued. The final event was the re-burial of a victims remains on the grounds of the Black Kettle Museum. As the chiefs, including peace chief and Mennonite pastor Lawrence Hart, left the museum carrying a small, custom-made bronze coffin, they began chanting their special burial songs. Snow was falling as it had fallen a hundred years before.
Over their singing, the chiefs suddenly heard the command, "Present arms!" The Grandsons of the Seventh Cavalry were there. Emotions flared. How dare they salute someone their grandfathers killed? thought Hart. In the midst of the charged atmosphere, a Cheyenne woman, Lucille Young Bull, took off her beautiful new woolen blanket and quickly draped it over the coffin as the procession went by. As tradition dictated, the blanket would later be given as an honored gift.
After the burial the older and wiser peace chiefs huddled momentarily. Lawrence Hart speculated that the blanket would be presented to one of the Oklahoma dignitaries in the audience. But the older chiefs had a different plan. They asked Hart to give the ceremonial blanket to the captain of the Grandsons of the Seventh Cavalry! How could Hart do this? This man was the enemy! Harts own great-grandfather, Afraid of Beavers, had barely escaped the attack by hiding in a snowdrift. Harts nerves and muscles tensed.
In sharp military fashion, the captain came forward, stopped in front of the peace chiefs, and drew his saber to salute. Hart, the young peace chief, instructed the captain to turn around. Returning his saber sharply, he did an about-face. Harts trembling hands draped the beautiful blanket over the captains shoulders.
It was an awesome moment. The wise Cheyenne peace chiefs had initiated a reconciliation that resulted in conflict transformation. At this ceremony, the older peace chiefs indelibly impressed onto the younger chief what it meant to follow the instructions of Sweet Medicine, a prophet of the Cheyenne. To end the ceremony of re-burial, the Grandsons fired volleys to honor the victim. There was not a dry eye in the audience.
The Grandsons followed the chiefs
back to the museum. Then and there, they embraced. Some cried.
Some apologized. When Hart greeted the captain of the regiment,
the officer took the "Garry Owen" pin from his own
uniform and handed it to Hart. "Accept this on behalf of
all Cheyenne Indian people," the captain said. "Never
again will you people hear Garry Owen."