The Northern Cheyenne: The Joyful Hope of the Morning Star Appears
Updated: Jul 3, 2019
Among the men and women of the Northern Cheyenne nation, one of my most poignant interviews was with Professor Burt Medicine Bull, Cheyenne Language Instructor at Dull Knife College. As David Bailey shook his hand and greeted him in Cheyenne, Prof. Medicine Bull smiled broadly and welcomed us into his classroom. He held out a piece of smoking cedar explaining, “I was just saying my morning prayers” and then invited David and myself to join him in a brief purification ceremony.
We did so and then sat down to learn from this man of prayer, this man of the Morning Star.
The Morning Star is displayed prominently on the Cheyenne flag. When the Northern Cheyenne, seeking to escape the United States Army and return to the Tongue River Valley, would see the Morning Star, they knew that they had survived one more day. There was one more day to live, one more day to hope.
And in fact, this same hope, or hopeful joy, in the morning and in the midst of mourning, characterized Prof. Medicine Bull and his stories of masculinity and femininity.
When asked what the gift of the Cheyenne people to the world was, he immediately yet calmly replied, “We're called the lighthearted people, because no matter how tough a situation is, we laugh, because that helps to ease the pain. In…January of 2010, I lost three of my older children all at once…and if it wasn't for that humor, I don't think I could've handled it. I wouldn't be sitting here, I'd be in Billings skid row feeling sorry for myself, drinking,…drugging.... But the teachings of my grandparents, the Creator is going to do something,…there's something in store for you….don't ever blame the Creator, because he's the one that's in control of our lives. So, that's what I always keep in mind…He wanted those three children back, he wanted them back to help. That's how I see it.”
The man who carries this grief, even with a pained smile, is the same Prof. Medicine Bull who is “always cheesing,” according to his students.
How then does a Northern Cheyenne man live? How does this hope and this sense of humor, this trust in the Creator, characterize his everyday life? That, for Prof. Medicine Bull, was an easy question. Growing up with his grandparents, he learned from his grandfather that “a man provides for everything.” He begins by rising early in the morning, before the sun. Prof. Medicine Bull recounted, “[W]e'd get up real early to go outside and pray... He [grandfather] said you get all the blessings from that. We'd stand there,…just before the sun come up, and when it'd come up, you could actually feel that puff, it was like a wind or a air, sacred air he would call it. He'd say, ‘That's from the power of the sun. That's what that is. You want to get that all the time. It keeps you healthy.’”
This provision then continued in a very practical way. It included gathering wood for the stove, planting a garden, and building a home, all long-term, constant projects. This hope and joy of providing for others each new day and for the future colored the masculinity taught to Prof. Medicine Bull by his grandfather.
What then does it mean to be a Northern Cheyenne woman? Prof. Medicine Bull smiled profoundly at this question, reminiscing: “My grandmother would always say this… ‘I would normally be saying this to my granddaughter, but you're my grandson and I'm raising you, so here's what a woman is supposed to be like…’” Women, too, were to live in such a way that they were present to the day while counting on the Creator for the future. They were to share what they had with those in need, “even if it’s down to your last bowl,” as this would be recognized and their needs provided for. Moreover, women were to bring hope to others by their presence. He repeated her words, “ ‘Talk good to people. You see someone over there kinda looking sad, go over there and shake their hand, smile, and say, 'Hey, really good to see you.' Put a smile on their face. That helps people.’ ”
And, in fact, the need for this hope and humor becomes clear in his work. Often, Prof. Medicine Bull says, students are angry, because they do not speak their own language, the Cheyenne language. While the Nation may have survived and may see the Morning Star each new day, the current generation of youth did not receive their traditions from their parents. They feel disconnected from their Nation, especially when others are speaking Cheyenne at the powwows or at home. However, after about a month of classes, when they are capable of saying their own names and using basic phrases, Prof. Medicine Bull says they feel good, because they can begin to understand.
Prof. Medicine Bull’s work to restore the native language of the Northern Cheyenne is thus one more sign of that joyful hope, a sign of the Morning Star, which allows his people – to live as a people – for another day and for the future.
In this context, it is more than fitting that his name in Cheyenne is Setovaatse, or “Appears.” With him, appears the hope of his people.
What then can we learn from the wisdom of the Northern Cheyenne? How can the joyful hope and humor of the Morning Star characterize the way we live out our gifts as women and men?
For men, the questions can regard providing – and the mode of provision! Is the provision you make for others not just physical, but also first and foremost spiritual? Do you struggle with a tendency to approach life cynically, or are you learning how to “cheese” and count on the Creator? Is there a need of your own culture, for which you are called to provide in joyful hope?
For women, the questions can regard our attitude of hope towards others. Do we share with those who need now, in the hope that provision will be made for us for the future? Do we speak with a smile to those who are upset, or depressed, bringing a joyful hope to them through our presence? Do we encourage other women and men in our own family traditions?
In summary, how can the joyful hope and humor of the Morning Star help to better form my personal identity as feminine or masculine?
Thank you for accompanying me on this gender journey! May the wisdom of the Northern Cheyenne be a gift to you!