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From Black to White

Colors are very interesting. In Cheyenne thinking, various colors have different meanings. There are four important colors to our people: black, yellow, red, and white.

I have one tattoo, on my right arm – a medicine wheel representing those colors.  I chose that for a reason and now try to explain why.

Years ago, I raised horses, interested in the fast ones. I was the architect of a very quick one. His legal name was GG Smooth, coming from his sire, Jet Smooth, AAA running horse and GG stood for Good Guy. I knew he would someday be that way, despite his own fractious self.

Upon arrival, he was black, but with telltale streaks of gray hair. That foretold he would eventually become a white horse, good progression in Cheyenne way.

As a colt, frolicking with others, he was ever in the lead. Yet, he would then stop, wait for the others to catch up and then take off again. He liked to tease. He ran for fun, the notion of winning not terribly important to him.

Here is my racehorse, I thought.

When he was three, he went to the track, me hoping he would be my ‘get rich quick’ scheme. He did good. But when in the front, he would sort of quit, waiting for the other runners to catch up in the game. He just didn’t have it in his heart to always be first, thinking instead of his buddies.

Yet, he was always in the money, a guaranteed place or show horse, second or third plumb happy with that. A few times, he won despite his fast chasing brothers.

GG lived for a long time, gradually turning from black to white. He was most beautiful when middle aged, then a steel gray, also a strong color, red to him.

In later years, he turned plumb white, by then settled down enough to pack children. Old and gentle was his destiny.

That brings me around to the significance of Cheyenne colors. This version was told to me but others may have different points of view.

When people are born, they, like GG, are black. Some people think that black is a bad color. Not so, according to Cheyenne point of view. Recently, I asked a cousin Joe Limberhand about black, frequently used in our beadwork. He related a story told by his grandmother. Black absorbs other colors, she explained.

Think about it. A child is born, sent here by the Creator to fulfill a mission. They don’t then know anything about this world. Thus, anyone can pick up a piece of chalk and write on that blackboard. Hopefully, it will be a kind person who writes nice things. That does not always happen. No matter what, the black color absorbs that message which later greatly affects their life experience.

The next color is yellow – a very happy hue. Yellow represents sunshine, joy, experimentation, finding out about butterflies, catching frogs just for fun, being indulged by grandparents, silliness, and happiness. Yet those young ones still don’t know why they are here. If so, and having fulfilled mission, they get to go back home. Some spirits learn quicker.

Next comes RED, the color of blood, power, and strength. That is when a person is supposed to be responsible, a parent, a defender of the people. Both women and males are then the strong hearts. Some survive that, but many do not. If they do not survive, Creator welcomes them back.

Finally, if you are lucky enough, comes white, elder status when you finally gain an inkling about things. Yet, many of us white-headed ones still wonder why we are still here. Maybe we are the slow learners.

White first shows up in your hair, which is very important to us. Just like GG, then you are calmed down a bit and turn your attention to the young ones. You are expected to know things (which we pretend to do) and have the right to talk, telling old stories and be greatly indulged. That is the time when the young ones, still in yellow mode, come to your knee: ask for a story and at feasts serve you first. If they have any manners at all.

Against the odds, having been once young, too daring and stupid, I have now turned white, being qualified to yatter about things, hoping a yellow or red one might notice or give a darn.

The problem with yellow ones is that they are so interested in exploring the world, that the droning of a white one bores them, unless you can make a story very funny.

Those in the red zone already know everything and are so busy directing things. But the most considerate ones will see that the white ones are comfortable.

The oral tradition only works from telling stories many times, so that people can get it indelibly imprinted on their minds. “Don’t change things,” is admonishment from the old ones.

That is why the white ones insist upon telling stories, repeatedly, hoping for an audience from the yellow and red ones. Sometimes they indulge us, but often not. In these times, cell phones or TV are much more interesting to them.

When the red ones become white, they will frequently say “I should have listened better.”

Maybe here I have changed things a little bit in this rambling so that our non-Indian readers can relate to it.

One thing to remember is that black is not a bad color as some other people’s sometimes think. It is neutral, a beginning color. If good luck comes to you, black will eventually become white. 

(Contact Clara Caufield at

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