Only love can stop war: a call to the world from a Northern Cheyenne chief

At the Battle of the Little Bighorn, 146 jare terug, my ancestors defeated the US army’s Seventh Cavalry led by George Armstrong Custer, who had previously massacred Cheyenne people.

Dit 25 Junie, on the anniversary, I will make a call to end genocide to protect diversity. I do not make this call lightly. Eerder, I am speaking with a great sense of urgency from lived experience.

For the Cheyenne, the genocide started with what the US army wrongfully called “the Indian wars”, when it was nothing more than the slaughter of our people, buffalo and horses to exterminate our way of life. It is this very genocidal mindset which now produces the climate crisis, further genocides, even the threat of nuclear war.

I want to share with you the story of how my people and my family survived through generations – despite many attempts to exterminate us. The fact that we survived is a lesson in resilience, and I know that we also survived for a reason: to protect and share our teachings for a time such as this.

My late father Chief Phillip Whiteman Sr was a descendant of chiefs. We are peace chiefs – we never provoke war, our main role is to steward our people and way of life.

My father’s grandmother, Quill Dress Woman, was a little girl at the battlefield and witnessed Cheyenne matriarchs push sewing awls into Custer’s ears so that next lifetime he would listen. They did this because after the Washita massacre in 1868, where Custer had attacked a peaceful Cheyenne camp resulting in the killing of many women and children, our Cheyenne chiefs still made peace with him in a sacred pipe ceremony.

They told him to rub the remaining ashes into the ground, and warned him he would end up like the ashes if he ever double-crossed the Cheyenne. Custer did not believe us, but whatever the medicine men said after ceremonies always came true.

My family holds the songs for the sacred site by our home community, where we went into ceremony before the Battle of the Little Bighorn. Our relative Ma’ome (Ice) served as the sun dance instructor for Sitting Bull when it was revealed that we would persevere.

We still pray there on 25 June every year, when Cheyenne children run the 45 miles to the battlefield.

My great-grandfather Vehoc was a young man at the Battle of the Little Bighorn. Vehoc means spider, trickster – a way Cheyenne refer to white people. Christian missionaries translated this to Whiteman, since his father was a US soldier. This is where our English family name comes from, a painful reminder of the abuse Indigenous women continue to suffer, with so many missing and murdered.

This historic trauma taught me that either you hate yourself or you accept and love yourself.

Vehoc’s mother, Vonha, chose the latter path. She loved her son and raised him Cheyenne.

After she perished, persecuted in the sacred Black Hills, her sister took over as his mother, only to later be massacred by the US army at Wounded Knee in 1890. She still lies buried in the mass grave.

Vehoc carried deep scars from the Sand Creek massacre in 1864 when he was three years old. There the US army slaughtered many of our people at a peaceful Cheyenne and Arapaho camp, where white flags were flying. My maternal grandmother, Milky Way Road Woman, was a direct descendant of Chief White Antelope, who was castrated there. Scores of women and children were also mutilated.

After their defeat at Little Bighorn, the US army made exterminating us their number one priority.

Within two years of the battle, our ancestors were forced to Oklahoma from our homelands in the north, even though they had been promised to us under their own treaties.

Upon suffering starvation and sickness as they witnessed the genocidal mindset being implemented, our chiefs took our peoples’ lives into their hands by leading them back north.

The US army hunted us like animals. Dull Knife’s followers was caught and imprisoned at Fort Robinson. Aan 9 Januarie 1879, after days without food, water and heat, they broke out. Many were slaughtered right there and then.

The few who lived, later reunited with Little Wolf’s band, ancestors on my father’s side, who had made it home and secured the survival of the Cheyenne people in the north.

For the last 26 jare, through our organization Yellowbird Lifeways, we have been organizing a run where Cheyenne children follow the footsteps of their ancestors, running 400 miles through four states in harsh winter conditions.

It is amazing to see them work together and find themselves as they overcome the conditioning of their lives on the reservation. Alcohol, drugs and suicide are merely symptoms of oppression. When they run, we remind them of their spirit, resilience and sacredness. We remind them of what we survived to maintain our Cheyenne lifeways.

Over the past year, many non-Indigenous people have been shocked to hear of the unmarked graves at Indian boarding and residential schools in the US and Canada. Not us.

This system forcefully removed Indigenous children from our families with the intent of exterminating our way of life, in violation of Article 2(e) van die Genocide Convention. That mandatory school system meets the definition of this most heinous of all crimes under international law.

No need to dig up the children’s remains, you just have to go to the cemeteries on our reservations and you will see all the buried potential. So many of our people die young from the ongoing effects of genocide.

My late mother, Florence, Appears in the Morning Woman, was very little when she was put through ceremony and given her name by her grandfather, a medicine man who was shot in the leg at the Battle of the Little Bighorn.

She used to say that our medicine and teachings are the reason she survived boarding school and torture at Indian hospitals. As a descendant of chiefs, she was initiated into the Elk Scraper warrior society, whose role is to protect our Cheyenne way of life, at age 12, becoming the last warrior woman among the Northern Cheyenne.

Despite the prohibition on practicing our ceremonies and on speaking our language at the schools, my parents and grandparents raised me in both, and I inherited and earned the responsibility to maintain our lifeways.

The fact that we have survived this genocidal onslaught with our language, ceremonies and teachings is nothing short of a miracle. We were not supposed to survive, still we did.

Have you ever asked why? We know. We survived because these teachings, passed on from generation to generation, connect us to the land and the universe. They are the best counter-remedy to the intergenerational effects of genocide.

One of my teachings is that the Creator shows her love for diversity in her creation. Without the understanding of diversity there is no unity, and without unity there is no oneness with Creator.

The Creator wants us to love each other; that is what the loving Creator is all about.

Looking at the wars, mass shootings and genocides happening around the world right now, and reading about what has been done to my people above, you might ask: how can people do this to each other?

The answer is simple: what we do to each other has already been done to us. European peoples were engaging in wars and suffering the effects of genocide long before they came here, and unfortunately it is still happening now. Vandag, humanity faces unprecedented extinctions due to what we have done to Mother Earth.

What you call natural disasters are Mother Earth’s way of healing herself.

If western thinking could have solved these life and diversity-threatening conflicts, it would have been done by now. In 1946, Albert Einstein made a call to “let the people know that a new type of thinking is essential if mankind is to survive and move to higher levels”. Cheyenne teachings elevate our thinking, whereas western genocidal and exploitative thinking has brought us all to the brink of extinction. I call it a mind virus: it is oppressive and does not value diversity.

We will never end war and genocide unless we change the mindset that created it. War cannot defeat war, only love can stop war.

My love and my forgiveness do not depend on you. I want to forgive you for what you have done to my people, the genocide and the eradication process. This might be our last chance to put an end to this genocidal and suicidal mindset.

I love you, and there is nothing you can do about it.

Chief Phillip is the co-founder of Yellowbird Lifeways, Nurturing the Breath of Life, an organization working to pass on Indigenous teachings to facilitate this important shift in consciousness. Their community empowerment projects focus on food sovereignty and horse medicine

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