Little Big Man: Do you hate the White man now?

Doug George-Kanentiio: As long as the sun shines...

Origins of the Phrase: As Long as the Sun Shines

Recently I watched the film Little Big Man which remains one of my favorite movies given the outstanding performance by Chief Dan George of the Tsleil-Waututh Nation north of Vancouver, British Columbia.

Although Dan George is not a relative he did meet my uncle Angus "Shine" George when he was playing professional lacrosse in the late 1930's. My uncle said Chief George would perform songs and dances between periods of the games which my uncle would stand and watch. Decades later my brother Dan George, now a retired U.S. Marine, was in Vancouver as part of the Akwesasne junior lacrosse team playing in a national tournament when he met the actor with the host saying, "Dan George meet Dan George."

In the movie, Dan George plays "Old Lodge Skins" a Cheyenne leader and one with a sharp sense of humor and insight into the human mind. He adopts a white boy refugee named Jack Crabb, played by Dustin Hoffman who finds happiness and freedom among the "human beings" only to be drawn back into the viciousness of settler life on the western frontier.

He guides Lt. Colonel George Custer to his defeat at Little Big Horn but witnesses the Cheyennes as they are overwhelmed by the Americans. Crabb lives to 120 years when he is interviewed by an historian and says, as written by the author Thomas Berger, with bitterness and regret, this:

Jack Crabb: Well, that's the story of this old Indian fighter. That's the story of the Human Beings, who was promised land where they could live in peace. Land that would be theirs as long as grass grow, wind blow, and the sky is blue.
Historian: Mr. Crabb, I didn't know...
Jack Crabb: Get out. Get out.

Following the Battle of Horseshoe Bend in 1814, U.S. Major General Andrew Jackson made a promise to the Cherokee people: “As long as the sun shines and the grass grows there shall be friendship between us, and the feet of the Cherokee shall be toward the East.” Photo: Pi3.124

I was curious as to the origins of that phrase "as long as the sun shines and the grass grows". It has become a standard part of U.S.-Indigenous treaty language long before the events involving the Cheyennes during the time of Berger's novel, set after the American Civil War.

Yet is has been used by other Native nations as far north as the Canadian prairies where it has been cited in two treaty regions and in the American southeast during the Jacksonian forced relocation era.

1814: Andrew Jackson promises friendship to Choctaw, Cherokee
Choctaw and Cherokee Indians fight for General Andrew Jackson to defeat the Creek Indians in the Battle of Horseshoe Bend, Alabama. After the battle, Jackson tells the Cherokee chief Junaluska, “As long as the sun shines and the grass grows there shall be friendship between us, and the feet of the Cherokee shall be toward the East.” But soon Jackson will rise to national political leadership and reverse his policy, setting the stage for the forced removal of these tribes, and others, from their homelands.
Source: Native Voices (National Institutes of Health, Health and Human Services)

In Canada the Plains Cree also made use of the phrase in their pursuit of lands stolen by the Crown:

Treaties reflect First Nations’ relationship with the land which must be acknowledged and taught to all people if they are to fully comprehend the spirit and intent of treaty. They were not merely contracts with the Queen as they have been perceived to be. They were undertaken as sacred commitments of the highest form where Creator was considered the binding factor. The natural forces symbolized their expected continuity. For example, the terms, “For as long as the sun shines, the grass grows and the rivers flow” are acceptable in English, but extend a more powerful connotation when expressed in the Cree language in ceremonial context. The phrase is given in Cree by the late elder Jim Kâ-Nîpitêhtêw in his oral history of Treaty Six:
iskoyikohk pîsim ka-pimohtêt, iskoyikohk sîpiy ka-pimiciwahk, iskoyikohk maskosiya kê-sâkikihki. (SRO)
Source: "Tyrone Tootoosis, Sr. on the Treaty Six Flag,"

In Oklahoma it was also used just prior to Word War I and the discovery of oil reserves on their territory:

Crazy Snake's Plea
In 1906, Crazy Snake, leader of the Creek opposition to allotment, made this impassioned speech, explaining what the signing of the Treaty of 1861[1866] meant:

...[The white man said,] "There is a law ... that is above every other law and that is away up yonder--high up--for," said he, "if any other town or nation or any other tribe come against you I will see through that law that you are protected.... I will protect you in all things and take care of everything about your existence so you will live in this land that is yours and your fathers' without fear." that is what he said and we agreed upon those terms. He told me that as long as the sun shone and the sky is up yonder these agreements shall be kept. This was the first agreement that we had with the white man. He said as long as the sun rises it shall last; as long as the waters run it shall last; as long as the grass grows it shall last....That is what he said and we believed it. I think there is nothing that has been done by the people should abroagate them. We have kept every term of that agreement. The grass is growing, the waters run, the sun shines, the light is with us and the agreement is with us yet for the God that is above us all witnessed that agreement....
From A Short History of the Indians of the United States, pp. 166

I recalled that at the same time as the Little Big Man novel was published (in 1964 the singer Johnny Cash issued his first, and only, human rights-political recording called Bitter Tears: Ballads of the American Indian. It was a summation of the racism, deception and genocide the American government used to destroy Native people.

Peter LaForge: As Long as the Grass Shall Grow

Most of the songs were composed by Peter LaFarge, a Narragansett folksinger who rivaled Bob Dylan in the power of his lyrics. One song in particular cited the "grass grows" phrase in its summation of the destruction of the Seneca Nation at Allegany by the construction of the Kinzua Dam in direct violation of treaty law.

The lyrics are, in part, as follows:

As Long as the Grass Shall Grow
On the Seneca reservation there is much sadness now
Washington’s treaty has been broken and there is no hope, no how
Across the Allegheny River they’re throwing up a dam
It will flood the Indian country, a proud day for Uncle Sam
It has broke the ancient treaty with a politician’s grin
It will drown the Indian graveyards, Cornplanter can you swim
The earth is mother to the the Senecas, they’re trampling sacred ground
Change the mint green earth to black mud flats as honor hobbles down
As long as the moon shall rise
As long as the rivers flow
As long as the sun will shine
As long as the grass shall grow
Peter LaFarge, As Long as the Grass Shall Grow, recorded by Johnny Cash for his Bitter Tears album (1964)

I remembered our own Rotinosionni (Haudenosaunee) ancestors had also used similar words in our agreements with the colonials. After further consideration I found that in the John Arthur Gibson telling of the founding of the Iroquois Confederacy the origins of the phrase is revealed. In Gibson's "Concerning the League" text pages 476-477 I read this:

From the Great Law of Peace
Moreover we have completed all matters that follow in the family through the generations and these shall last as long as the earth exists and as long as they are going to grow, the grasses…as long as the springs emerge the waters of the rivers will keep flowing…as long as the sun keeps rising and moon keeps up its phases and in the sky the stars do the same and the wind is stirring on the land and the heavenly bodies continue to provide light by day and by night: thus it shall last.

The late Mohawk Nation leader Jake Swamp and I talked about how to refer to the author of the above without violating the sanctity of his name. We came up with this: Skennenrahowi, the Peacemaker and then used the traditional teachings to determine when he may have lived. Given all that information our estimate was Skennenrahowi was active in the early decades of the 12th century.

So we have a distinctly Iroquois origin for the "sun shines, waters flow and grass grows" an expression of dramatic historical articulation and, along with the peace pipe, covenant chain and wampum belts, indicative of the creativity of the Rotinosionni mind.

Doug George-Kanentiio, Akwesasne Mohawk, is the vice-president of the Hiawatha Institute for Indigenous Knowledge. He has served as a Trustee for the National Museum of the American Indian, is a former land claims negotiator for the Mohawk Nation and is the author of numerous books and articles about the Mohawk people. He may be reached via e-mail at: or by calling 315-415-7288.

Note: Content copyright © Doug George-Kanentiio

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