Northern Cheyenne Monument, Near Fort Robinson, Nebraska
The Northern Cheyenne Breakout Monument near Fort Robinson State Park in Nebraska honors those who gave their lives during an escape from U.S. imprisonment in 1879. Photo: Conspiracy of Cartography
Northern Cheyenne “Call Back” Ceremony
Native Sun News Today Columnist and Correspondent

LAME DEER, Montana — Due to the high number of deaths of elders in recent weeks and months among the Northern Cheyenne, the matter of funerals and grieving is a common topic of discussion. Recently, when my mother passed due to the COVID, my sister said “Let’s do things the old traditional way. How do they work? I think that would be nice.”

So, I explained what I know and have been told about traditional grieving among the Cheyenne, once governed by extremely specific practices. Though much has changed, some vestiges of these traditional ways still linger in contemporary times.

Until not too long ago, when a Cheyenne person died, the immediate family such as the surviving spouse and children would go into grieving stage, literally impoverishing themselves by giving away personal possessions of the deceased and themselves (which was not often that much) at the time of internment. It was common for Cheyenne women to cut off part of a finger, gash their legs and to chop off their hair, ever a source of personal pride to both the old-time Cheyenne men and women. (The practice of cutting hair is still observed today, though thank goodness we are no longer expected to sacrifice fingers).

In Plains sign language, the sign for Cheyenne for example is to make a sawing/slashing motion across the fingers, i.e. “Cut Fingers”. Sometimes it is also an indication of how the Cheyenne marked their arrows – with red slashes.

Traditional burials during those times and even up until the 1950’s and 60’s were, from what I’ve been told, very practical, sometimes in a cave, a site covered with rocks or shallow graves. Now, we have gone the way of mortuaries. Then, for about a year, the immediate family went into voluntary isolation, largely staying home and avoiding social contacts and gatherings, often surviving in extremely poor circumstances. During this time, they were modest in dress, an expression of grieving.

However, there is a remedy for that. Traditionally when a large social gathering among the Cheyenne (such as social dancing or pow wows) is planned, it is necessary to obtain the permission of those in the grieving stage. Thus, organizers call upon knowledgeable elders to conduct the “Call Back” ceremony to seek permission and to formally invite the grieving ones back into the community. This is still common practice and I have personally been involved in one as a grieving parent.

The ceremony is a wonderful way to help families better deal with grief and allow the community to proceed with “doings” in a respectful manner. It also shows respect for those who have gone on before us.

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Clara Caufield can be reached at acheyennevoice@gmail.com

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