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White River Cheyenne stand up



Elsewhere in this issue you will find a story about a bad situation affecting the Busby District, Northern Cheyenne. While the situation is sad, the response of the community is encouraging.

This small village is known as the “White River” Cheyenne, because while still ranging free before the reservation era, this band favored the White River Country, liking to live close to Sioux friends and relatives, hold-outs who did not want to relocate when the Northern Cheyenne reservation was formed in 1884. Current descendants from Busby still exhibit that independence, now standing up to demand correction of a botched community center project, ably led by a young Cheyenne man, Dana Eaglefeathers, and several other dedicated district members who recently took office.

Here is a picture of Busby, Mont.: It is geographically and demographically the second largest of five districts on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation, populated by about a thousand people, some 300 living in the Busby “village,” the others scattered in the vast rural area. Unemployment and poverty are extremely high (60-80 percent), mostly because the private sector economy is practically non-existent and easily summed up: Northern Cheyenne Tribal Schools, funded by the Bureau of Indian Education, is the main employer, including many locals; the tribal Rosebud Lodge, shelter for children in need and the BIA Youth Detention Center provide some other jobs; the U.S. Post Office employs about three people who rotate shifts, but not any Indians; the D & D Trading Post is solely manned by a non-Indian family; one enterprising fellow has a mechanic shop; about ten families ranch, a hardy crew, experiencing feast or famine and finally, it is home to A Cheyenne Voice, though I haven’t lived here long enough to gain the stripes of a true “Busby-ite.” Many others are very resourceful, which I call subsistence entrepreneurs (bead workers, artisans, wood vendors, scrap metal collectors, quilters, dry meat cutters, pemmican makers, etc.) And dare I mention the thriving underground economy of boot-leggers, drug dealers and fencers who buy and somehow distribute the ill-gotten gains necessary to finance those bad habits? The Busby picture is very similar to many reservation communities scattered across the Great Plains region, such as our “sister village,” Wounded Knee.

The generational and deeply ingrained poverty would challenge even the most educated and talented economist. And, tackling this situation in any meaningful way has certainly been beyond the abilities of our tribal government, for generations. What can be done?

I don’t have the answers either, but think that the “from the top down” strategy hasn’t worked and never will – that is solutions derived and imposed by well-meaning bureaucrats. Instead, change must come from the bottom – up, from the grassroots people who have lived here for generations, hoping their descendants do the same. In past days, Busby people were known for being self-sufficient in a frontier way, gardeners, hunters and fishermen, living in log cabins heated by wood and lit by lamps (some of us still do that), day workers, even traveling off the reservation to work on nearby ranches bringing money home, a simpler way of life, not reliant on much cash. We all dream of a better future for our children and grandchildren, hoping they might prosper and have good lives, but in today’s society, money and jobs are essential.

Busby folks have long played second fiddle to the largest district, Lame Deer, the hub of government and commerce on the Northern Cheyenne reservation. Maybe, that can change. Recent district meetings in White River Cheyenne country have seen record attendance, as people gather in well-behaved fashion to discuss community problems and possible solutions, for which they are demanding accountability. Tackling the problem of a botched community center is a first step; yet they have other things in mind, such as re-taking control of the Northern Cheyenne Tribal Schools through an elected school board, replacing a tribal council member committee; urging the provision of additional community services such as a Food Bank, “Meals on Wheels” for tribal elders, constructive activities for youth, suggesting small business projects etc.

As Dana says “the people have the ultimate power and we are getting back to that.” He is a very respectful and courteous young man, from a well-known Cheyenne family, he and fellow district officers taking their office and obligation very seriously, determined to follow the wishes of the Busby community, in the style of a true servant.

This is a good thing. Hopefully, the course can be stayed; people will put aside old family feuds or differences and come together, keeping an eye on the goal: a better future for White River Cheyenne country by speaking with a unified voice. Even they may be surprised at how powerful that can be. I, for one, think it is wonderful to see the White River Cheyenne standing up again.

(Clara Caufield can be reached at

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