LAME DEER, Mont. – Due to the high number of deaths of elders in recent weeks and months among the Northern Cheyenne, the matter of funerals and grieving is a common topic of discussion. Recently, when my mother passed due to the COVID, my sister said “Let’s do things the old traditional way. How do they work? I think that would be nice.”
So, I explained what I know and have been told about traditional grieving among the Cheyenne, once governed by extremely specific practices. Though much has changed, some vestiges of these traditional ways still linger in contemporary times.
Until not too long ago, when a Cheyenne person died, the immediate family such as the surviving spouse and children would go into grieving stage, literally impoverishing themselves by giving away personal possessions of the deceased and themselves (which was not often that much) at the time of internment. It was common for Cheyenne women to cut off part of a finger, gash their legs and to chop off their hair, ever a source of personal pride to both the old-time Cheyenne men and women. (The practice of cutting hair is still observed today, though thank goodness we are no longer expected to sacrifice fingers). In Plains sign language, the sign for Cheyenne for example is to make a sawing/slashing motion across the fingers, i.e. “Cut Fingers”. Sometimes it is also an indication of how the Cheyenne marked their arrows – with red slashes.
Traditional burials during those times and even up until the 1950’s and 60’s were, from what I’ve been told, very practical, sometimes in a cave, a site covered with rocks or shallow graves. Now, we have gone the way of mortuaries. Then, for about a year, the immediate family went into voluntary isolation, largely staying home and avoiding social contacts and gatherings, often surviving in extremely poor circumstances. During this time, they were modest in dress, an expression of grieving.
However, there is a remedy for that. Traditionally when a large social gathering among the Cheyenne (such as social dancing or pow wows) is planned, it is necessary to obtain the permission of those in the grieving stage. Thus, organizers call upon knowledgeable elders to conduct the “Call Back” ceremony to seek permission and to formally invite the grieving ones back into the community. This is still common practice and I have personally been involved in one as a grieving parent. The ceremony is a wonderful way to help families better deal with grief and allow the community to proceed with “doings” in a respectful manner. It also shows respect for those who have gone on before us.
At the “Call Back”, prayer offered by ceremonial people is central, as it is to most tribal ceremony. The grievers are seated, their faces symbolically washed, hair combed, and the center part daubed with red paint, just as the faces of the deceased are painted at burial. Sometimes, though is not obligatory, a special friend or relative will bring a blanket or quilt to “wrap” a griever. This is followed by a feast and gifts of food to the grievers. Sometimes, when grievers choose not to attend the ceremony, they send word that is ok to proceed with the doings. This is carefully announced to the tribal public.
During the year or so of self-imposed isolation, the family of the deceased one will amass many gifts (blankets, star quilts, horses, guns and table gifts the most common). Then the family, relatives and friends will host a large give-away at a public gathering, though there is no shame in having little to give -it is the gesture that counts. The Cheyenne have at least two extremely honorable “give-away” guidelines: giving to strangers, visitors and guests, where there is no hope of reciprocation and to the old, poor, widows, etc. The Cheyennes believe that the more they give the more it reflects their regard for the deceased. Lavish give aways still characterize Cheyenne culture.
Though much of this has changed, especially the time of self-isolation, due to demands of modern society, much more of these traditional ways still sustain us as a People. It is a good way.
(Clara Caufield can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)