Northern Cheyenne Women: Resiliently, Respectfully Navigating Our Own Way
Before we began our morning interview with Professor Medicine Bull, we asked him which Northern Cheyenne women he would suggest that we interview. He sat there, reflective, deeply quiet, and then responded: “Teanna Limpy. Go see Teanna Limpy.” He gave us directions, and David and I decided to go find her later that day.
When we arrived at the Tribal Historic Preservation Office (THPO), we were told that Teanna had been out all day at a meeting and they didn’t know when she was expected back. Having left our names and number, we turned to go, and she pulled up to the office. Within ten minutes, we were seated on a sofa, listening to the ruminations of this young, beautiful Cheyenne woman – softly spoken and proud of her heritage.
Teanna is the first female director of the Tribal Historic Preservation Office, a department entrusted with safeguarding cultural resources located on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation and ancestral lands of the Cheyenne people, and at the age of 32, realizes that she carries an enormous responsibility as a Cheyenne woman. Like other women of her Nation, she is “finding [her] own way…with…respect for how we’ve been as a [Northern] Cheyenne people.”
Traditionally, the majority of the Cheyenne are patrilineal. The men customarily speak for the women and children, with the men passing down generational knowledge and tradition to other males, and the women “kind of follow suit behind them” respecting their knowledge and trusting their guidance. Even though a lot of the teachings emphasize that “males…have to work their way up to be on the same level as female, because females are life givers,” Teanna still finds herself nervous when she is the only woman sitting at the table – and she is often the only one speaking from not just a tribal perspective, but more importantly from a Cheyenne perspective, to various agencies in the same field of work who have little to no understanding of who her people are!
Where does this courage to preserve tradition, while having to break some of its protocols, come from? Teanna first attributes it to the constant encouragement of her grandfather: “my…grandpa is like, ‘Get out there, go tell them, go stand in front of a crowd. Don't be scared.’ So it's kind of hard to come out of that, and I still have difficult times with that.”
As a woman then, Teanna, while still single, finds that she is called to give life not to children, but in the preservation of the Cheyenne tradition, at work and at home: “You build your child or your person that's going to grow up to continue that way of life.” And that tradition is not preserved as a photocopy, but by seeking its living form in the midst of the two worlds in which the Cheyenne live: the world of their history and heritage, and a world that has sometimes sought to eliminate them. She speaks excitedly, with that same light-heartedness noted by Professor Medicine Bull, about the repatriation of the bones of two young men from Fort Robinson.
In the winter of 1878-1879, 150 Northern Cheyenne members seeking to return to their northern reservation – a period known as the Exodus – were intercepted and imprisoned at Fort Robinson in Nebraska. Being deprived of food and heat and told that they would be sent south again, they attempted an escape. The young Cheyenne warriors took the brunt of the gunfire, hoping this would allow the elders, women, and children to escape. The US Army killed almost half of the Cheyenne. A first repatriation of the remains of those killed at the Fort Robinson massacre occurred in 1993. Teanna then led the second repatriation of two young men in 2017, 138 years after the massacre: the men with whom she worked told her that the warriors were happy to come home.
What then, does she think is the gift that the Cheyenne people have to give to the world? It is their resilience in the midst of difficulties and change. “We don't do things hastily. We think things out. If we know it's a good thing to do, we do it. Of course, it plays into our beliefs and who we are, our stories, traditions, the things that we share with one another. The things we tell the world about why it's important, why our land is so precious, and all that comes with history and teaching and continuing what our ancestors have taught us. That's the reward, it's people get to see who the Cheyenne people are.”
Seeing who Teanna Limpy is, a young woman proud of her tradition, sometimes admittedly scared in her role as the first female director of THPO and yet confident of her knowledge and heritage, is a true gift and a real reward. Professor Medicine Bull was wise to suggest her as our model.
How then can this resilience of the Northern Cheyenne help us to better form our personal identities as feminine or masculine?
As a woman, do you give life? Do you realize this life-giving in terms of your heritage, finding new forms consistent with that tradition in the world of today? Are you willing to step out in courage for your family and for your traditions, so that other people can receive the gift of your culture?
As a man, do you encourage the women in your family? Do you help them to see where their gifts and talents are needed, where they can bring life? Are your family stories something shared between women and men, to cultivate a family resilience and hope?
Thank you for accompanying me on this gender journey! May the wisdom of the Northern Cheyenne be a gift to you!