Webs of Kinship: Family in Northern Cheyenne Nationhood

Webs of Kinship: Family in Northern Cheyenne Nationhood

by Christina Gish Hill


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780806156019
Publisher: University of Oklahoma Press
Publication date: 04/27/2017
Series: New Directions in Native American Studies series , #16
Pages: 400
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.70(d)

About the Author

Christina Gish Hill, Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Iowa State University, was awarded research and publication grants from the American Philosophical Society and the American Association of University Women for her work on Webs of Kinship. Her research focuses on Plains Indian history and on Native foodways.

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Webs Of Kinship

Family in Northern Cheyenne Nationhood

By Christina Gish Hill


Copyright © 2017 University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, Publishing Division of the University
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8061-5832-7



Family, History, and Native Nationhood

My first summer at Northern Cheyenne, I quickly realized that before anyone would talk with me, they needed to learn about me as a person. Would I listen? Was I respectful? Did I approach learning with humility? I was welcomed because a family member had introduced me. Even though I had this connection to the network of kin, I was still an outsider. I spent most of that summer learning what the community expected of researchers, such as the proper way of introducing myself, asking for knowledge in a respectful manner, listening politely, and observing preferences for tape recording or note-taking. I learned a lot by doing, but I learned even more through stories. As on every other reservation in the United States, researchers — historians, anthropologists, and sociologists — have descended on the Northern Cheyennes. They have plenty of experience fielding steady streams of questions with microphones in their faces. I heard story after story about this or that bumbling researcher who failed to be respectful or listen or who simply knew next to nothing about Native people.

Over time, many of the warnings veiled by humorous stories sank in and began to guide my behavior. I kept returning to one story because it not only taught me how to behave when seeking to learn from Cheyenne elders, but it also revealed something profound about the connection between family, Cheyenne history, and identity. During one of our many evening chats over coffee in her little kitchen, Ms. DG told me about a young man who was eager to ask her about Cheyenne history. She never told me whether he was a scholar or a journalist, but I imagined him as a documentary filmmaker. She also never told me why she agreed to the interview, but she did. Apparently he came to her house with all kinds of equipment and spent close to an hour setting it up. He positioned a chair for her ringed by bright lights to illuminate her face. He finally sat down and asked her to do the same. He pushed one of those big fuzzy microphones in her face and said, "So tell me about the Battle of the Little Bighorn."

When she told me this, we both laughed. "Of course," I said. "Everybody wants to know about the Battle of the Little Bighorn. That's all anyone ever writes about!" But I had misunderstood the point of the story. She told me kindly that what I said was true, but that she had a bigger issue — she could not talk to him about that battle. "You can't?" I asked, not masking my surprise because she seemed to know everything about Cheyenne history. She explained that she had told him that she was not the person he wanted. He had to pack up all of the equipment that he spent so much time setting up. She laughed heartily at that, but I was still confused. She paused, noticing that I still failed to understand the actual joke. You see, she gently told me, her family was not at the Battle of the Little Bighorn. She could talk about the fight led by Ranald Mackenzie against Dull Knife's village, she explained; her ancestors were there. But not the Battle of the Little Bighorn. Of course she could tell him anything that other Cheyennes knew about it or that anyone could read in books, but she could not tell him the whole story. She explained that while the Battle of the Little Bighorn has become part of the nationalist history for the Cheyenne people, the details of such histories are archived within the families whose ancestors experienced the events. Family is not simply an important part of each individual's cultural identity; it is the main path for learning social and cultural values, as well as the primary repository for Cheyenne history.

Archiving histories within families complicates the process of constructing a Cheyenne national narrative. Cheyenne tellings of the past are not often presented as part of a unified national narrative; instead, many elders weave webs of diverse narratives that parallel the webs of kinship. Cheyenne history is polyphonic because different families archive different pieces of it. Some families preserve the history of the massacre at Sand Creek, some of Dull Knife and Little Wolf, some of the scouts that made an alliance with General Miles. No one can possess the "complete" corpus of knowledge about Cheyenne history because it emerges from the experience of ancestors. Although the Northern Cheyennes today use their histories to present a unified nationalist narrative, writing tribal histories and memorializing important persons in the names of buildings, the detailed, personal, and experiential component of these histories is retained in families.

Like in many Indigenous communities, a Cheyenne person is expected to gain cultural knowledge — including family histories — over time in small pieces. As Clifford points out, a researcher from the outside cannot expect to gather the entirety of such knowledge and can only access fragments through "an open-ended series of contingent, power-laden encounters." Within any culture, differential knowledge exists in multiple locations, affecting the results of ethnographic research. During my time on the Northern Cheyenne reservation, I gathered narratives from families who experienced different moments in Cheyenne history, but I know I have barely begun to access the knowledge that Cheyenne families collectively preserve. Furthermore, these are not my histories to claim, so it is doubtful that I heard them as a family member who had a more intimate relationship with those narratives would. I had to piece together my perceptions of Cheyenne history — by not only weaving together multiple narratives but also carefully considering how Cheyenne people today perceive the motivations of their ancestors, how they might filter them for someone like me, and why these histories are both an important part of creating the current community and of positioning that community within the dominant society.

Native oral histories archived within the community reveal the flexible constructions of Native national identity. These narratives were — and still are — transmitted along kin networks and can only approximate a description of Cheyenne history in its entirety when woven together into a collection. Historical narratives in a Native nation have loosely woven families together into a larger sociopolitical group by creating connection through shared histories, while allowing for divergent histories within families and bands. Such divergent histories did not contradict the Native nation in the way they contradict the hegemonic narratives of the nation-state. Recognizing that a Native nation's history exists as multiple narratives traced through and passed down by kinship suggests that political actions operated using a similar logic. This web of shared and divergent histories provided the flexibility to assert national autonomy while also recognizing the shifting status of both the individuals within it and the group over time.

Ms. DG's critique of the body of historical scholarship about the Cheyenne people rests on her observation that kinship's centrality to the operation of the Cheyenne nation has yet to be recognized, resulting in histories that emphasize the motivations of famous men. By seriously considering her critique, I have come to view family as both a motivation for and a mechanism of Cheyenne historical action. Furthermore, using the lens she proposes to reexamine the most tumultuous moments of Northern Cheyenne removal, I have been able to demonstrate that the people not only maintained kinship ties across vast distances but also used these ties strategically to gain resources, to escape the U.S. military, and to establish alliances that in turn aided their efforts to remain a nation in their northern homeland.

By listening to Cheyenne elders focus their histories on family, I came to understand that the actions taken by the Northern Cheyennes in their efforts to remain in their homeland were embedded in a system of social relations based on kinship ties as opposed to objective sociopolitical markers. Historically, the Cheyenne nation did not need to maintain rigid cultural or territorial boundaries or require its members to submit to sovereign institutions in order to exist as a political body. Instead, as a Native nation, it depended on the maintenance of kin-based relationships that could be strategically activated for political, economic, religious, or social actions when needed. Every person understood his or her place within the Cheyenne nation in terms of privileges and obligations to other members created through relationships defined by family. While kinship acted as the mechanism through which members could take political action, the nation was also motivated by creating and sustaining social relationships, not by asserting sovereignty over its members or the land. Although kinship organized Native peoples at many levels, including the family, the clan, or the band, the Cheyenne used kin ties to construct a sociopolitical body that connected people across these smaller kin-based social units, tying people together by blood, by marriage, or by differing levels of adoptions.

Native oral histories often reveal the primacy of kinship to political and economic action, demonstrating that Native nations asserted their distinctiveness by maintaining networks of familial relationships instead of defending external boundaries supported by hegemonic nationalist narratives. Kin relations were a part of the fluid processes that affected the group's cohesion, as well as its response to external forces such as territorial or trade disputes. These networks of kin remained central as Native nations encountered Europeans and Americans and wrestled with the onslaught of colonialism.

It may seem unlikely that kinship could have the power to affect political change when a group fled a reservation for their northern homeland, outnumbered, accompanied by women and children, and with the U.S. military in hot pursuit. How could family affect more than the immediate decisions of fighting or fleeing? In Cheyenne narratives, those who fled with Dull Knife and Little Wolf did so believing that it was best for their families to maintain the kin networks that connected them to their homeland. These leaders did not impose their decisions on the people; all were free to choose to participate. Many who fled were desperate to escape the intolerable conditions on the southern reservation but also to reunite with their relatives. Cheyenne narrators describe this flight as the best option for families who had been torn apart by removal, and for children and elders, the foundations of Cheyenne family life, who were sick and dying in a strange land. Kinship played a central role in motivating the political action behind the fight to return home and in shaping the mechanisms that made it possible. Kinship also became a tool the Northern Cheyennes could use to gain leverage in their negotiations with U.S. officials over land.

When Dull Knife and Little Wolf made the decision to return north and each extended family decided whether to join or stay, this choice was discussed as a family. Sometimes individual members chose different paths, but each decision was affected in part by what was best for the family as a whole. When Ms. DG reminded me that Dull Knife had a family, she was reminding me not only that every member of the family was involved in the decision to flee, but that these family members were also thinking of their relatives who needed them in the north, and perhaps more importantly, who were yet to come. In a conversation with Alan Boye about fatherhood, one of Dull Knife's descendants stated, "If fatherhood doesn't go beyond your own offspring then you're just selfishly protecting what you think belongs to you. Dull Knife understood the danger in that kind of fatherhood. In a way, he was a father for all of the children, even down to children of this day." This philosophy played out in the decisions that he made. The people who left wanted to escape the suffering they experienced in Indian Territory, but they also wanted to secure a homeland for their great-grandchildren in the place that they loved. At all costs, they needed to protect the two greatest foundations for their future — the landscape and the unborn.

Listening for family in Native histories reveals not only the flexibility that Native people had in taking political action but also that they acted according to a set of motivations and priorities connected to the primacy of family that have not been fully recognized in Euro-American scholarship. Many scholars have addressed the importance of family for extending economic opportunities and establishing political alliances, most often between Natives and non-Natives. Yet, as Donald Fixico argues, these histories still often rely on "factual interpretation of historical events and human deeds recorded in written documents," while Native histories "stress a sociocultural kinship of relationships." Using Northern Cheyenne history as a case study, this book argues that because kinship ordered social, political, and economic life and determined a people's relationship to the landscape and its resources among Native peoples, kinship acted as a central mechanism through which these nations expressed political autonomy, internally, in negotiation with other Native peoples, and even in response to European and American colonial encroachment.

For several decades, scholars have sought to incorporate Native perspectives using Indigenous philosophy as a means to reflect theoretically on historical and cultural processes both within and beyond Native communities. In order to develop a truly Indigenous theory, however, scholars need to be able to navigate the distinctions between Western and Indigenous perspectives. Since Linda Smith launched her seminal critique Decolonizing Methodologies, there has been much discussion of decolonizing as a way to illuminate such distinctions. Smith points out that dominant cultural institutions have denied the historical formations of the social, political, and economic difficulties Native communities struggle with and that such a denial also erases Indigenous peoples' claims to their history, humanity, and even to hope. It is vital, therefore, to disentangle Native political formations from Western ones in order to reveal Indigenous motivations in their encounters with European and American empires.

One way to begin the decolonizing process is to listen carefully to Indigenous histories — not simply the events of the narrative but how the narrative is told. Geoffrey White has argued, "if representations of history (or more generally, the past) mediate social relations and identities, then they become tools for shaping those identities." The way people tell their history reveals its purpose. By telling histories from the perspectives of the different families that make up the web of Cheyenne relationships, the tellers acknowledge the centrality of kinship not only to Cheyenne identity but also to historical action.

Just as Indigenous histories reveal the different perspectives that shape Native sociopolitical organization, hegemonic nationalist histories illuminate the assumptions that undergird the formations of specific nation-states. Unlike the polyphonic nature of Cheyenne history, the nationalist U.S. history found in textbooks, children's media, and mainstream film has often been narrated as homogenizing and progressive, uniting certain sections of the population to the exclusion of others. Of course, American Indian people have played important roles in U.S. narratives since the earliest imaginings of the nation, yet these histories supported U.S. hegemony by telling the story from only one perspective. Until the late twentieth century, American Indians were mainly granted stereotypical roles, appearing as warriors and chiefs responding to American encroachment, as princesses aiding the movement of settlers, or as victims of progress.

Frederick Hoxie has demonstrated that until very recently the description of Native histories within American history remained "contained by the all-encompassing, intersecting narratives of modernity and the 'rise' of the nation." In the past few decades, theorists have begun to question these overly clear distinctions between people with history and people without history so common in popular narratives of American Indian peoples. Johannes Fabian has argued that scholars had constructed a hierarchy based on time that represented "the other" as atemporal and ahistorical. In most U.S. nationalist narratives, Native people have not been portrayed as agents in their own histories. They simply remained as they always had been until a European or American power acted on them.

Ned Blackhawk and Jacki Thompson Rand have pointed out that even American history that has included Native perspectives has still neglected to recognize the internal colonialism perpetrated by the United States on American Indian people as a part of nation-building. Blackhawk has noted that Native people "are not simply peoples with a history" whose experiences of violence and dispossession can be reshaped and inserted into the dominant narratives of U.S. history. When Native histories are used in this way, the Native role becomes reactive and only requires focus on the actions of a few highly visible individuals, such as political or military leaders. In order to understand Indigenous motivations during colonial encounters, scholars must dismantle the legacies of colonialism present not only in their sources but also in the predominant discourses.


Excerpted from Webs Of Kinship by Christina Gish Hill. Copyright © 2017 University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, Publishing Division of the University. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations vii

Acknowledgments ix

Introduction: Potatoes and Mountain Dew 3

1 Our Ancestors Were There: Family, History, and Native Nationhood 16

2 I Was Rich in My Relatives: Kinship and the Cheyenne Nation 46

3 We Are Still One Nation: Family in Migration and Diaspora 83

4 We Never Surrendered: Two Moons's People and an Alliance with General Nelson Miles 113

5 We Could Not Forget Our Native Country: Dull Knife and Little Wolf's People and the Long Journey Home 155

6 We Are Not All Fools: Little Chief's People and the Language of Kin 202

7 It Belonged to Us: Northern Cheyenne Homesteading as an Assertion of Autonomy 236

8 Make Us Strong on This Reservation: The Northern Cheyennes' Struggle to Remain in Their Homeland 265

Conclusion: For the Unborn 288

Appendix: The 1874 Agreement with the Northern Cheyennes 307

Notes 309

Bibliography 349

Index 369

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