Article Printer Friendly Printer Friendly 

Book Review

by George Bird Grinnell, edited by Joseph A. Fitzgerald

Review by Samuel Bendeck Sotillos

Source: Studies in Comparative Religion © World Wisdom, Inc.

“The Cheyennes [Tsistsistas] have a tradition of a golden age when war was unknown and universal peace prevailed. All strangers met in friendship and parted on good terms. Such a far-off time, when hostile encounters were unknown, is told of by many of the tribes of the northern plains.” – George Bird Grinnell

The Cheyenne Indians: Their History and Lifeways is an edited rendering of George Bird Grinnell’s magnum opus, a two-volume work over 800 pages in length, devoted solely to the Cheyenne Indians. George Bird Grinnell (1849-1938) lived and studied with the last of the Cheyennes who sustained a nomadic way of life in the old West. The famed historian Stephen Ambrose called Grinnell’s work, “of incalculable benefit to every student of Western or Indian history.” Dee Brown has remarked that “So extensive are details of dress, courtship, the place of women in the tribe, implements of war, hunting methods, games and amusements, religion, accounts of battles, [that Grinnell's two volumes have] long been favorite source books for everyone interested in Plains Indians.” Renowned western author Mari Sandoz called these volumes “the finest body of material on an American tribe.” This edition of Grinnell’s work features over 100 photos and illustrations and includes selections from three articles previously unpublished in book form.

To ignore the contrast between the modern world and that of the traditional Indian civilizations would be like mistaking an eclipsed day for daylight itself. The integral nature of the Indian world will become impressively clear to the reader the further one proceeds through the pages of this book. It is free of sentimental testimonies of the “noble savage” and remains true to the voice of the Cheyenne, probably as true as any book by an outsider could be. It is also interesting to observe that in a world that is becoming more “culturally diverse” or “multicultural,” very little is known about the traditional Indian ways of life. Nor are the native peoples often included in such discussions regarding issues of diversity. Although there has been an increase of interest in indigenous studies via shamanism over the past few decades, this is often isolated from the traditional spiritual life or metaphysics of the native peoples themselves. This attempt to recreate these shamanic traditions outside of their traditional contexts often contributes to more misunderstanding and confusion, no matter how good the intentions may be. It cannot be forgotten that such interest has fueled a whole marketplace for what has been termed “spiritual tourism,” causing much upheaval to these traditional populations including the desecration of their sacred sites and the lands that they inhabit.   

The Cheyenne Indians do not use the term “Cheyenne” to refer to themselves; they call themselves Tsistsistas or “people”. The Indian child was educated with great care from early childhood and received the guidance of the entire tribe. He learned self-restraint, humility and tribal customs that engrossed both the social and the sacred dimensions of life. “Thus, in the old days it was a common remark among Indians that white men did not seem to know how to act—how to conduct themselves” (p. 36). The Indian education was both theoretical and experiential, yet theory was never substituted for action itself nor did action replace theory, for they both complemented each other. The boys learned to be hunters and trackers, learning the signs of nature and simultaneously the habits of the wildlife—learning the quality of true observation. When young girls reached the age of puberty a rite of passage was enacted upon the young girl by the whole tribe in order to mark a significant transition that confirmed that she was now a young woman. Ceremonies were central to the indigenous ways of life—they carried the tribal member from birth into the physical world, guiding them throughout their lives until their return to the spirit world. The smoking of the sacred pipe was never a profane act, even when we consider the many ways in which it was used; it was common that a prayer was first made before anyone smoked. Prayer was also made before feasts: “A feast was begun and ended with prayer, and before eating, a little from each kettle was offered to the spirits, the food being held up to the sky and then placed on the ground” (p. 37). Food was shared amongst the entire community and was always made available to everyone—no one was turned away hungry. The role of women among the Indians has been widely misunderstood, a situation that is not limited to Native Americans themselves but perhaps to all indigenous peoples. Women have been portrayed as the slaves or property of men and yet Grinnell witnessed firsthand quite the contrary for close to half a century: “The man and woman were partners, sharing equally in the work of the family, and often in a deep and lasting affection which each bore toward the other—an affection which, beginning in youth with love and marriage, lasted often to the end of life” (p. 40). There was a spirit of chivalry among the native peoples, a genuine regard for the well-being of others which was characteristic of the Indian way. In fact “Crime as understood by civilized people scarcely existed in the Cheyenne camp. Such a thing as theft was unknown…infringement of the rights of others was unusual.” (p. 129) Courage was a quality that was very revered by the Plains Indians. This book also discusses the Medicine Lodge or the Sun dance, one of the most important of all sacred ceremonies, along with the sweat-lodge, fasting for a vision, and the use of the sacred pipe. It is fitting that the author acknowledges the universality of all spiritual paths via his descriptions of the Sun Dance: “The sacrifice of the body is as old as religion and is confined to no sect, creed, or race. It has been universally practiced as a means of invoking the favor of the powers which rule the universe.…All these [spiritual methods found in the religions of the world] are different expressions of the same feeling” (p. 229).

This work, The Cheyenne Indians: Their History and Lifeways, is impressive in its scope and density, bringing together the diverse facets of the Plains Indians—the Cheyenne—into an integral unity illuminating the fullness of their traditional ways. This work goes beyond the interest of Native American or Cheyenne studies, for it presents a way of life that offered psychological stability and spiritual certitude which are wholly lacking in the modern and post-modern world. The contemporary world can benefit much from this work. We owe much to the indigenous peoples who continue to live mostly outside the “consensus reality” and oftentimes under the harshest circumstances in the midst of a compromised world that was not their doing.