The Cheyenne tribe needed all the help it could get. Outnumbered and outgunned by the US army, it put its faith in armour imbued with spiritual powers, explains Max Carocci
The Cheyenne, one of the tribes of the Great Plains, roamed from North Dakota to Mexico. But increasing encroachment of European settlers forced its warriors to go to war. By the mid-19th century, the Cheyenne had become involved in a series of historic campaigns and battles alongside their close allies the Sioux.
These were the so-called Indian Wars, in which a multitude of warriors emerged as trusted leaders and combatants. Names such as Dull Knife, Wooden Leg, Little Wolf, Roman Nose and others left us their accounts of fights and bravery through their biographies and pictographic art.
In ancient times the Cheyenne rarely engaged in large-scale warfare with the aim of killing enemies. Unless the attacks were punitive, warriors usually went on raids to test their spiritual power, hoping to gain social standing by touching enemies – 'counting coup' – with the attendant risk of being killed. Horse raiding, revenge expeditions and fully-fledged wars were therefore more than mere aggressive acts. They were activities imbued with deep mystical meanings, and religious significance. Warfare was governed by ritual, ordered by the energies contained in the objects used by warriors and aided by the spiritual endorsement of otherworldly helpers. Every element associated with war was surrounded by a numinous aura. From the planning stages before battle, to the return of warriors to the camp, each phase was punctuated by ritual motions, prayers, invocations and purifications aimed at protecting the person, his horse and his weapons.
Every young man who wanted to go on the warpath had to make a gift to the Sacred Arrows, the holiest objects owned by the tribe. The Sacred Arrows had been given to the people by the prophet-hero Sweet Medicine. Offerings made to the Arrows consolidated a pact between the warrior and the protective powers the arrows embodied, thus securing success and a safe homecoming. These four arrows wrapped in fox fur embodied the Cheyenne national spirit and identity, and were also a reminder of the rules dictated by Sweet Medicine for the welfare of the tribe. The arrows' black and red decoration were a reminder of the complementary roles held by warriors, who were both protectors and providers.
No man among the Cheyenne would go on the warpath without having followed the proper procedures and, most importantly, the guidance given to him in dreams. Dreams often informed warriors how to dress in order to be successful and safe. These recommendations included what colours he should wear, how he should paint his body and horse, what songs he should sing before and during the combat, and what he should be mindful of throughout the fight.
When the famous leader Roman Nose was killed in 1868, he was believed to have violated one of the prescriptions associated with his headdress, which had been made for him by a medicine man called Ice. It was supposed to protect Roman Nose from thunders and bullets, but when he ate a piece of 'fry bread' that had touched an iron cooking implement, Roman Nose inadvertently broke the rule that no metal made by Europeans should touch him. In the eyes of the Cheyenne, it was a fatal move. So it was no surprise when he was shot in battle shortly after.
The Cheyenne firmly believed in the power of the charms they were instructed to wear as protection in war. Often these amulets were worn directly on the person, but in many cases they were tied to the shield or weapons. Though shields may have protected a warrior against blows and arrows, they would have been largely ineffective were it not for the designs painted on them. Cheyenne shields, such as the example being offered at the San Francisco sale of Native American Art, depicted eagles, turtles, crescents, stars and rainbows. These totems revealed themselves to individual fighters to enhance their power, offer sustenance and bestow blessings and health. Protected by the supernatural energy emanating from these pictures, Cheyenne warriors confidently faced battle.
Scalps also frequently decorated shields and weapons due to the vital energy they contained. Hair was considered indestructible and so it added strength to the warrior while demonstrating his courage and bravery. Scalps attached to shields, often painted with the sacred red and black colours, hung stretched on the wooden hoops that were used to display them during victory dances.
Wearing such powerful objects to war, Cheyenne men aimed to maintain a connection with the invisible energies that ordered the universe, honouring the oaths made to the Sacred Arrows through gifts that guaranteed their safe return.
Max Carroci is a curator at the British Museum and the author of Warriors of the Plains (McGill-Queen's University Press).
Who were the Cheyenne?
Cheyenne Indians embody the Hollywood stereotype of the Native American: theirs was a feather-wearing, pipe-smoking, bison-hunting, tepee-living warrior culture. But it was not always thus. In the 18th century, they were living a settled life in Minnesota on the edge of the Great Lakes. But the Spanish introduction of horses to the continent revolutionised the Cheyenne world. Huge herds of wild horses spread upward from Mexico and are thought to have reached the upper Missouri River by the 1750s. Under pressure from the European settlers and dislocated Indian tribes to their east, the Cheyenne abandoned their agrarian life and took to the prairie. Horses dramatically increased the range of the tribes that adopted them and became a measure of wealth. With the simultaneous introduction of firearms, horses also enabled the Indians to hunt the massive herds of bison that still roamed the plains. Within a couple of generations, tribes such as the Cheyenne, Sioux and Arapaho had created a new highly ritualised culture revolving around horse raiding and bison hunting.
As the United States extended its authority westwards, the tribes repeatedly clashed with the white settlers and prospectors. To deal with this, the government attempted to restrict the hunting grounds of the tribes as well as forcibly relocating them. In 1851, the United States Congress passed the Indian Appropriations Act, which authorised the creation of Indian reservations. Enforcement of the policy required the army to drive tribes on to the reservations while exterminating the bison herds in order to destroy the Indians' self-sufficiency. The conflicts culminated in the Sioux Wars that continued from 1876 to 1881. Despite the triumph of the Cheyenne and the Sioux at the Battle of Little Big Horn in 1876, ultimately both tribes were forcibly resettled. By 1890, the bison population was reduced from some 30 million to only 1,000. With the destruction of the bison, the way of life of the Plains Indian effectively vanished as well.
Matthew Wilcox is the Assistant Editor of Bonhams Magazine