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Cheyenne Women Honor Tradition

By Linda Wommack
5/15/2018 • Wild West Magazine

Mo-chi did, too, although she was unique.

Mo-chi, known as the first female Cheyenne warrior, was hardly typical of the women in her tribe. Cheyenne women didn’t usually fight alongside their husbands in battle or on raids, and they didn’t make a practice of cracking open the skulls of emigrants with a hatchet (see feature story, P. 36). That is not to say that Mo-chi, or Buffalo Calf Woman, had an atypical upbringing for a female Cheyenne in the 19th century. Quite the contrary. She was raised according to the Cheyenne traditions of the time.

That her nurturing ways, encouraged in childhood, were sometimes set aside to take care of the “revenge business” is understandable in light of two major unfortunate incidents that occurred when she was a relatively young woman. In November 1864, she was 23 when she survived the slaughter at Sand Creek, in eastern Colorado Territory, but found the dead bodies of her father and first husband. In November 1868, she witnessed the destruction of her village again, this time along the Washita River in Indian Territory (present-day Oklahoma) by Lt. Col. George A. Custer. Mo-chi and her second husband, Medicine Water, also survived that attack unscathed, but one of their daughters was shot in the hip. After each of these tragedies, Mo-chi felt sorrow and shed tears, but she also felt rage. This was one Cheyenne woman who wanted to fight back. What’s more, she didn’t just think about it…she did it.

The Old Ones have always spoken of my great-great-grandmother Mo-chi defending her family and riding as a warrior against the military. To this day, it still brings great pride to her descendants.

—John L. Sipes, Mo-chi’s great-great-grandson

Clearly, Mo-chi had great strength, born from pride and loyalty and a belief in the traditional Cheyenne way of life. These strong convictions about what it meant to be Cheyenne were passed on to her daughter Measure Woman, who in turn passed them on to her own daughter. Family and traditional values meant a lot to Mo-chi (and still do to her descendants), but part of those values has always encouraged developing one’s unique character. To protect those values, she was willing to put her life on the line in battle, just as many 19th-century male warriors did.

In Cheyenne culture, women have always been considered nurturers, with nurturing being central to life itself. Female children were taught to gather herbs for cooking and healing, to collect chokecherries, to dig various roots, to sew porcupine quills in circles and points and to sing Cheyenne lullabies to the young children. Cheyenne women, like the men, were known to go off by themselves to remote places to fast and pray and perhaps bring forth guardian spirit helpers. Female chastity was valued, as were long courtships, with certain niceties extended to the families on both sides.

The Cheyenne family structure revolved around the matrilineal custom, meaning family lines were determined from the female side of the family. For women, this meant a stronger influence in tribal life. For in stance, in the hot summer heat, the men would gather willow branches for arbors built to shelter the band members from the sun. Arbors would stand in front of the lodge entrance, which faced East. Even though men built the arbors, custom dictated that they had to ask permission to be invited in.

Cheyenne women, young and old, had certain chores, such as using long branches full of dried leaves to sweep the dirt from lodges and from under the arbors. Most days began with Cheyenne women gathering wood and other fuel to make fires and collecting water for drinking and washing. Order and cleanliness was a highly regarded standard. Everything had a place, and this made it possible to do a quick inventory of family possessions, as when lodges had to be moved or when a swift escape was required. The women were responsible for breaking camp, packing belongings and food and then moving the lodges on travois, sometimes across vast distances of barren country. When a new campsite was found—and this happened often among the Cheyennes, whose men were, above all, hunters and warriors—the women were responsible for setting up the tepees, gathering water and keeping the fires going for warmth and cooking. When the hunters would return to camp with their bounty, the women prepared the meat.

In a single day, the women could butcher two to three buffalo and prepare the hides for tanning. When slicing the meat, they reserved certain portions for boiling in handmade dried clay pots, designating the remainder for cooking or drying. Meat was hung out to dry on long poles resting on notched sticks. It was then packed into dry pouches for future use. The bones would be cleaned and cured by the women and then turned over to the men, who would fashion them into tools. Buffalo, so central to Cheyenne culture, were also used for clothing, bedding and shelter. The women made moccasins, robes and other clothing for men and for themselves. To make it all work, cooperation was necessary between the women as well as between the women and the men.

When life began Maheo (our Father) made the earth and gave us all things. We had no such clothes as now, nor had we any metals. The Father gave us the buffalo, and all species of animals to survive.

—John L. Sipes

The Sand Creek Massacre also took its toll on many women besides Mo-chi. During the warfare on the Plains that followed in the 1860s and ’70s, women were often at risk, because the soldiers made a practice of attacking Indian villages. Striking villages when most of the men were off hunting or raiding was not uncommon. The Cheyenne people, sooner or later, were primarily located on reservations in Indian Territory (present-day Oklahoma). Women no doubt adapted to the new lifestyles more readily than many fighting men, but it still wasn’t easy for them.

Cheyenne women typically formed a sisterhood, working together in the time-honored tradition, for the common good of the tribe. Many were cousins by birth but viewed as sisters, and joined together in the gathering, digging, sorting, drying, wrapping and storing of food. These times presented the opportunity to gossip, laugh, sing and socialize. At times, when the women gathered, they spoke of the death and hardship the tribe had been through and struggled to overcome. It was during these gatherings—which eventually included Mo-chi’s daughter Measure Woman—that they would mourn their lost ones. The women would sing Cheyenne goodbye songs, as well as family and warrior songs.

Long notes of sorrowful loss would echo among the willow and cottonwood trees.

—John L. Sipes

As Measure Woman grew up, she was taught the very same traditions, values and lifestyles as her mother. Later, she took a husband, cared for her home and nurtured her children, Mochi’s grandchildren. Measure Woman expressed her culture and teaching through beadwork and storytelling, two strong traditions among her people. Measure Woman had been only about 3 years old when the 7th Cavalry attacked her village on the Washita River in November 1868 and a soldier shot her in the hip. She had been raised by family members during her mother’s three-year (1875-78) exhile to the Fort Marion prison in St. Augustine, Fla. Measure Woman learned much about Mo-Chi through the oral his tories. Once Mo-chi was freed and returned to the reservation, mother and daughter enjoyed each other’s company, if only for a short time, before Mo-chi died in 1881.

In the Cheyenne tradition, raising her children was Mo-chi’s only desire as expressed in her prayers repeated by her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren through the oral history. Her prayers were for her children to be safe, grow strong and honor their Creator. Instead of rearing her children and becoming a grandmother in a peaceful way, Mo-chi became a warrior woman, fighting the military, and ended up as a prisoner of war. She had conviction and determination to avenge the massacres of her family, and her tribe. Mo-chi is honored by her descendants as a courageous and brave defender of freedom and family.

—John L. Sipes

Throughout Cheyenne history, regardless of outside perception, the Cheyenne women were noble and nurturing. Their devotion and self-sacrifice to home, husband and family is a testament to their loyalty to Maheo (the highest and most sacred of the Cheyenne spirits) and the Cheyenne way. Mo-chi became a Cheyenne warrior, but she also was a Cheyenne mother and a Cheyenne wife. Her people remember her for all those things.

 

Originally published in the April 2008 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here

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