According to the most recent statistics about 11,200 people are enrolled in the Northern Cheyenne Tribe and about 5,000 of those live on the Reservation. Because of my service on the Northern Cheyenne Elderly Commission, I recently learned from Wallace Bearchum, Director of the Tribal Services Department that only 78 tribal members are age 80 and above and only four are ninety or more. They represent less than 7 percent of the tribal membership.
The two oldest tribal members are Bertha Beartusk Freeman and Melvin Small Sr. both to turn 94 in a few months. Along with Barbara Bierdneau, age 91, they are the last of the original allottees on the reservation which was allotted in 1926. nez need Spotted Elk Wilson just celebrated her 90th birthday. Of the remaining who are in the eighth decade, several are very close to 90. Still, that’s not very many people to have survived to such age, a much lower percentage than in non-Indian communities.
Think of the lives they have lived. When they were young, the Northern Cheyenne still largely got around on horses, team and wagons or on foot. Most tell of growing up in log cabins, sans running water or electricity. Telephones, televisions and computers for communication were unheard of. Yet, most will fondly recall the “good old days” when life was hard, but much more simple and they speak of the sense of close community which characterized the Tribe. The majority of these people in their 80’s and 90’s are fluent Cheyenne speakers, a cause for celebrating resiliency, for these were the same generations who subjected to boarding school assimilation efforts. Yet, it is also cause for concern as we lose more and more Cheyenne speakers every day. Yet, they have lived to see the development of sophisticated technology, men on the moon, and have adapted to that, some of these elders even now capable of using cellphones.
Our Tribal President and Tribal Council members will send a special and personalized Holiday greeting to each of the tribal members who have reached 80 and above, acknowledging their contribution to the Tribe over so many years. Each of them has many descendants and all have enriched our lives, continuing to do so. We would not be here without them, as most are now great grandparents, a few even great great grandparents who count numerous descendants. A demographic graph of our tribal membership looks like a triangle, the largest portion at the bottom of the triangle, youngsters aged 18 and under, indicating that the Cheyenne people will be around for a long time, though each generation experiences a different reality. In one way or another all of the surviving 80 and 90 year olds are related to these youngsters. Literally, the children are their legacy. If not for them, the rest of us would not be here.
(Clara Caufield can be reached @firstname.lastname@example.org)