John H. Seger
The tradition of the Cheyennes as told to John H. Seger,* by one who was appointed to keep this tradition.
Preface of the relation of the story giving the tradition of the Cheyennes.
This story is the history of the tribe of Cheyenne Indians and it is their history as far back as they know anything of their history and it has been handed down by word of mouth from generation to generation, and John H. Seger fully believes that he is the only white man who knows this tradition and he now publishes it that it may be preserved, also that the Cheyennes may have a record of their origin.
To show why John H. Seger believes he is the only white man come to get it, then all can judge for themselves whether he is the only white man that knows it and whether it is true or not.
It was in the spring of the year when John H. Seger had charge of the Cheyenne and Arapaho Indians, at what is known as Seger Colony, that a prominent Cheyenne Chief came to him and said: “when is the best time to plant corn?” Seger replied, “plant corn when the oak leaves are the size of a squirrel’s foot and plant potatoes when the elm buds begin to swell and plant corn when the moon is light because it grows above ground and plant potatoes when the moon is dark because they grow below ground. I suppose when the white man first came to this country that he found the Indians raising corn and potatoes, and when the white man asked the Indians when was the best time to plant them the Indian told him as I told you which was to plant corn when the oak leaves were the size of a squirrel’s foot.
The Indian replied, “I suppose that is so, for the Cheyennes planted corn before they hunted buffalo. I have a good mind to tell you about it.
Seger said, “is that so, tell me all about it, for I thought the Indians always hunted buffalo.”
The Indian says, “I will do so if you will write it down and some day have it printed in a book and will not give the name of the one who told it to you. The reason I ask
this is because it is our history and I am of those who are appointed to keep it, each one is required to make a vow and promise to the Great Spirit that he will never tell it as a story and will not tell it except in the presence of two others who are appointed to tell it and they must agree to every word as it is told, before the one who is telling it can go on. And should I tell this history to you I would be breaking my vow and promise, and would be censured because of it, and the reason why I would tell it to you is because the habits and customs of the Cheyennes are changing and we are not repeating this history as often as we did in the past and we are not adding of late any new history and I can see that as the Cheyennes take up the white people’s ways and customs, more and more we will let our old customs disappear and to preserve our history is the only thing that would induce me to violate my vow by telling this history to you. So if you will promise me faithfully to write it down and have it printed that our children and their children can know the past history of their tribe, I will give it to you.” I promised.
So this booklet is the fulfillment of my promise to him.
TRADITION OF THE CHEYENNE INDIANS.
The tradition of the Cheyennes as told to John H. Seger in the year of 1905, by one who was appointed to keep the tradition. This story is considered sacred and is no falsehood.
A long time ago before the Cheyennes ever heard of or saw a white man the Cheyennes lived in the north, in a much colder country than this where we live now. We were a large and hearty people in those days.
Although it was a cold climate the men women and children went naked, and wore no clothing. In very cold weather we would crawl into caves or hollow logs and would carry dry leaves and make nests or beds with them and we would pile up very much like some animals will do to keep warm and we would remain that way during a snow storm.
We could walk across the rivers and streams on the ice in our bare feet and thought nothing of it,—the same as a bear or panther could do.
We had no way of getting food but such as we could get or kill with our hands. We could climb trees and get young squirrels or panthers or any kind of animals that were young and helpless or we could get young birds from the nests or could get bird’s eggs. We run in herds like a herd of buffalo or antelope. We had no families and the mother only cared for her children when they were young and helpless very much the same as a cow cares for her calf.
As our tribe increased food became difficult to get. The first help we had in getting a living was brought about in this way: A Cheyenne woman lost a small child that was nursing. Soon after her child died she had found a nest of young kitten panthers, she waited until the mother panther was away to hunt food, then she went and took one of the young panthers out of the nest and ran off with it and the young panther gave a moan or whine which sounded like the cry of the baby she had lost and the reminder of her dead babe caused the woman to hug the kitten panther to her breast and when she did so the kitten panther which no doubt was hungry began nursing the woman. Thus it was taking the place of her dead babe and an affection for the kitten panther sprang into her heart and the woman loved this kitten panther and she raised it as if it had been her own child, and as it grew up it would kill deer and other large game and furnished food for the Cheyennes much easier than they could get it in any other way.
So other women got hold of young panthers and raised them the same way as this woman had done. And they not only got by the help of these panthers their food much easier than they had done previously to their getting the panther, but they had to take the hide off the deer and other game they got by the help of the panther. This made it necessary for them to get something to cut the hides with so they got pieces of flint stone that had sharp edges, which enabled them cut the hides off of the animals the panthers killed. They found these hides would keep them warmer than leaves when laid over them, so they used them in this way.
There was another tribe of Indians that used to fight with them and attack them when they crossed each other’s
paths. This tribe would steal the children of the Cheyennes and their women also, and keep possession of them. The Cheyennes were not so war-like as this other tribe, yet the other tribe was afraid to meet the Cheyennes openly, because the Cheyennes were so large and strong. So the other tribe would come at night and come on to them stealthily and bear away their women and children. So the Cheyennes went to war against this tribe that was menace to them and they killed them with clubs and stones.
After the Cheyennes had killed many of this tribe and captured many of them as prisoners they were not bothered by them. Since the Cheyennes began to use the hides of animals, which the panthers had killed they not only used the hides to cover over them in cold weather but some times they would use them to tie around themselves to protect their bodies from the cold, thus they could go about in the cold much better than they could before they got these hides and they would use the hides to construct rude shelters from the cold.
A change came in the lives of the Cheyennes, which was brought about by a great flood of water which covered the earth where the Cheyennes were then living. We don’t know just where it was but we think it was in the valley of the Missouri river up near its head. It seems we were in a valley where there were mountains on the side of the valley. What was the cause of the flood we do not know, whether it was an earthquake or a cloud burst, but very suddenly the earth was covered with swimming water and every one had to take care of himself and the only way they could do this was to swim toward the mountains which were far away. There were but few who escaped drowning and when they did so they landed alone. Their panthers were all drowned. Thus they were when they reached land. Alone and with nothing but their hands to provide their food. They were naked and on a mountainous barren land and at first only one in a place. It was hard work to get any thing to live on, yet they remembered the help the panthers had given them and the use they had made of the hides of the game the panthers had killed and how they had made use of the sharp flint stones to skin their game.
The remembrance of this seemed to inspire them to use their minds to study ways of getting food, so they used their minds to study out ways to get food. There was no game in these mountains like there was in the valley and lower land where they lived before the flood.
There were small trees. They used sharp flint stone to scrape off the bark which they ate to keep from starving. There were fish in the mountain brooks, they studied up ways of getting them which was principally by trapping them, which was done by putting something in the brook where there was but little water, then drive the fish to the place where they would catch them with their hands or hit them with a club or stone.
Sometimes when a Cheyenne reached the land when swimming out of the flood, it was a long time before he would meet another one of the tribe who had like himself escaped. When he did so, this was the first time that love sprang up in their hearts one for another. After the flood when two would meet after wandering around alone for we know not how long, it might have been for months or years, at the sight of each other love seemed to spring into their hearts and they would run to meet with outspread arms and would clasp each other to their bosoms in a loving embrace. This love which was kindled at the sight of each other did not die, but caused them to form families. If one was a man and the other a woman, they afterwards lived together as man and wife and when children were born they loved them even after they were grown up. As the numbers of those who had escaped the flood become greater, as they drifted together and children were born it was necessary for them to invent other means to get food which they did. They used clubs to kill game with that they could not get with their hands. Their experience in the flood caused them to be afraid to again go into the valley where they lived when the floods came, so they necessarily had to exert themselves to get food to live on, to do this they became very skillful in handling the club they learned to throw a club to kill game they could not reach otherwise.
At the time of the flood there was one band of Cheyennes that disappeared and those who escaped never have been heard of nor have they seen one of them since the flood.
Yet even to this day if they meet a member of a tribe of Indians they have never met before they at once begin an inquiry to find out whether they might be the part of the tribe that was lost in the flood, yet they have never found any of them.
The Cheyennes kept increasing in number and had to spread out over a greater area of territory until they met another tribe of Indians who spoke a different language, yet was living like they themselves were, and were also using clubs for weapons. With the two tribes being so near together, game became scarce and the tribe they met regarded the Cheyennes as intruders on their hunting grounds, so made an attack on them, as the tribes they met were numerous it was very hard for the Cheyennes to keep them from overpowering them. But about this time there was one of the Cheyennes who was very strong. It was believed that the Great Spirit gave him strength to do things. The Great Spirit also provided him with a large club and told him that any one whom he hit with it would be killed. (This is the first time the Great Spirit is mentioned in their tradition).
So the Cheyennes knew that wherever this man met the enemy their side would win because the Great Spirit was with him. They also had bows and arrows with points of stone. They also used stone hammers. They had no iron so they used bones and stone instead. Used flint and bones for knives. The other tribe who had been at war with the Cheyennes were soon driven out of the country.
And, the Cheyennes never knew what became of them. The flood had brought much trouble. We seemed to wake up and we reasoned more. We were more kind and human. We began to make friends with other tribes when we met them. One time we had placed our camp in the shape of a horseshoe the opened end being towards the rising sun, we were camped on a level piece of land and below our camp was a large spring, which gushed out from the foot of a bluff. In the midst of our camp were some young men playing the hoop game and some were playing the game of chance, the basket game. (This is the first time that gambling was spoken of in tradition. The basket game that they used then is used by them to-day.)
It was at a time when game was scarce, and the Cheyennes were very hungry. There was one Indian watching the game who was dressed very peculiar and different from the rest. This man had a painted hide, which he wore around him as he stood watching the game. He had a feather stuck in his hair, and it was worn different than a feather was worn by any other Indian, soon another Indian came and stood by the first, and he was dressed in the same way as the first mentioned Indian was dressed. When he saw this he said “why are you mocking me, by dressing like me?” The 2nd one said, “that it is you that is mocking me.” They were soon engaged in a quarrel, and a large crowd gathered around them. The first Indian said, “that it is you that is mocking me, for I was told to dress this way by a person in that spring.” So was I, the other Indian said, if you are telling the truth follow me into the spring, and if you can go into the spring like I can, then I will know that you are not telling a lie, so the Indian dove headfirst into the spring. The other Indian followed him, they came out together where an old woman was baking bread made of corn. The women asked them why they come there together, and she had one sit on the right of her and the other on the left, then asked them what they came there for? They said that their people were very near starving. And they were told by the Great Spirit, to come there and they would find an old woman who would tell them what to do. She said, “I know all about it and that is the reason I have prepared something for your people to eat.” The old woman then showed them a field of corn, which extended as far as they could see. Then she showed them a large herd of buffalo which extended as far as they could see. The old woman said she knew that they needed food and the Great Spirit had heard their prayers and had instructed her to prepare food for them. The old woman taught them how to plant corn and told them how to kill buffalo and she gave the two men buffalo meat and corn bread to eat. And told them that the Great Spirit would give them food to live on instead of the small animals that they had been living on, for as their people were more numerous they would need more to live on than in the past. She then showed them how to
make corn into bread and told them how to dress the buffalo. When the old woman had given them the necessary instructions they were ready to go out of the spring. She gave them corn bread and buffalo meat to feed their people and corn to plant. She told them to feed their people with the corn bread and meat which she gave them. She told them to begin and feed the men first as they would have to hunt the game and provide the meat for the people to eat. When they were fed and satisfied, she said, “that they should feed the women for they were to cook the food and care for the camp and last they were to feed the children and orphans and those who were dependent and after they were all satisfied there would be nothing left of the food she gave.
She told them when they went out the buffalo would follow them. The men went out and they fed the people like they were instructed to do and the people were all satisfied. After they were through eating every one was instructed to go into their tepees so that not to frighten buffalo when they came out of the spring. One buffalo came out, he looked around then kicked up his heels and went back into the spring, then three buffalo cows came out and looked around, they then went back into the spring. Then a noise like thunder was heard and soon a herd of buffalo came pouring out of a spring, they kept coming out until they filled the valley below the spring with buffalo, and they went to grazing. Then one of them who came out of the spring showed them how to kill the buffalo and dress it. The other man taught them how to plant the corn and tend it, thus the buffalo and the corn gave the Indians plenty of food. After they had planted and tended their corn they lived on it through the winter, while the buffalo had drifted south to spend the winter.
The Cheyennes had no way to carry their bedding and camp equipage, as they now had begun to use the buffalo robes to cover their tepees and also for bedding. They could not take this with them and follow the buffalo very far south. During the time that had passed by the Cheyennes had met up with other tribes, who disputed with them the right to the hunting ground. Other tribes who opposed them would steal into their camp at night when they
were sleeping and attack them. To prevent this the Cheyennes captured young wolves or wild dogs and raised them as pets and they would guard their camps at night and now since they were killing buffalo they could provide plenty of meat for these dogs and they soon had a large number of them in camp. They began to pack their camp equipage on these dogs when they followed the buffalo on their way south in the fall and with the help of the dogs they were enabled to follow the buffalo much farther than they could do before they had the dogs to carry their camp equipage, but all had to go on foot and the women carried the young children on their backs. The Cheyenne women were very strong in those days, they would give birth to a child and the next day would take the child and keep up with the tribe. In the fall as they could not carry corn with them, they would store it away in caves, so they would have it when they came back from following the buffalo.
Some other tribe came to their hunting ground when they were gone, and found their corn which they had stored away in a cave. They took a part of it so when the Cheyennes came back from following the buffalo, they were short of something to eat. Yet as the Indians had not taken all their corn, they had corn to plant but finely some white men came up a stream in a boat. They were the first white men they had ever seen or heard of. They did not molest the white men and they soon went down the stream again and afterwards the white men came up the stream to their hunting grounds. While the Cheyennes were away after buffalo and the white men found the Cheyennes’ corn which they had stored away and the white men took all the corn they had left and carried it off and did not leave any for seed. When the Cheyennes came back and found the corn was gone there was no other way for them to do but to turn back and follow the buffalo south. This was very hard for them to do as they had nothing but dogs to carry their food and camp equipage. As the men did the hunting the women had to move the camp. They were obliged to move so slow that when a cold spell of weather came and the buffalo moved faster toward the south and traveled a long ways before they settled down to graze. The Cheyennes were unable to keep up with them and had it not been
for the large numbers of dogs they had with them of which they killed and ate, they would have starved to death before they could catch up with the buffalo again. They went much further south than ever before and did not go as far north as their old hunting ground.
On one of of their trips south they met some Mexicans who were riding ponies, these were the first ponies they had ever seen. One day they came across a pony and they caught him and he proved to be gentle and they packed him and as he could carry much more than many dogs they sent a party down into Mexico and brought back a herd of ponies with them. They soon learned to use these ponies and it enabled them to get their living much easier and it changed their way of living to a great extent.
The pony very soon became the standard of value. As time went on they came in contact with the white man, since which time their Indian customs have been changing and as one old Indian man said, “tribes of people are like the waves of the ocean which roll along until it strikes the shore then it vanishes, but another wave takes its place and follows until it too strikes the shore, when it also vanishes, so it will be with tribes of people, one tribe follows another, when one tribe passes away, another takes its place, and it will be so until eternity.”
This is the full and complete tradition of the Cheyenne Indians. A history kept by word of mouth you will understand is necessarily short and brief. It is printed to preserve it for the Indians and to keep my promise to the Indians.
JOHN H. SEGER
John H. Seger, the only white man ever intrusted with the Tradition of the Cheyenne Indians, came to Darlington in 1872. Darlington was then the Cheyenne & Arapaho Agency. He was in charge for five years of the Indian School at Darlington, which included the Cheyenne School, the Arapaho School, and a school for 40 children of the Northern Cheyenne, when they were moved down to Darlington
after the battle in which General Custer was killed. He moved the Cheyennes & Arapahos, an affiliated tribe, to what was afterwards
called Seger Colony. There he built up the Seger School and was in charge of it for 12 years.