Red Robe’s two sons were killed by the Crows quite a while back; their father in his grief stood before his lodge in mourning and called out, “All of my horses are for those who take them.” He threw the whole herd away, not keeping even one for himself to ride upon.
The Dog Soldiers went out to herd his horses together, because they simply were not going to see the old man afoot. “No one is going to take these horses,” they said. Then they sent an old man to see Red Robe.
“Your sons died like men,” this messenger reminded him. “They died the glorious death, not in bed sick. Why don’t you take back some ponies?”
“No,” Red Robe replied, “Maiyun [the Supernatural] wanted my sons to die in battle and it wants that I should be afoot awhile.” Whatever they said, they could not budge him.
Finally, four soldier troops [the Elk, Bowstring, Dog, and Fox] decided to go talk to him. He had been a good man in the tribe and here he was destitute. When the camp moved, he was the last to come along. He had nothing to camp with, but just stayed in the open. This on three or four months when the soldiers got together. They all came to Red Robe, but one or two did the talking for them all. “We are begging you to do what we ask you—we are not alone—see them all—every company among us is here. We still have your horses. Come in among the people.”
Still he was unmoved by all their pleading. At last Two Twists, a chief of the Bowstring Soldiers, came forward. “Say yes,” he implored the old man. “Say yes, and we will promise you to go to war against the Crows wherever they may be. Say yes, and I’ll get revenge for you whatever the risks. If they be in breastworks, I’ll drive them out.”
“I accept,” the bereaved old man finally answered. “I did not want to take those horses back after giving them away. It’s like taking back a thing given to a friend.”
“No, it is not like that to us,” the soldiers all assured him.
So Red Robe came into camp. In the days which followed after, Two Twists prepared his pipe, taking it to all the soldier societies. Everyone smoked, whole troops pledging themselves to vengeance on the Crows. When all was ready the societies moved to the raid in a body. Women and children went too, for the whole tribe was on the march. Two Twists was the leader of them all.
When they had come close to the enemy, Two Twists rode about the camp accompanied by his crier, who called for the people to listen. Two Twists spoke in this vein. “Look at me now. Soon I am about to follow the two sons of Red Robe. My friends, behold me; I shall never return from this raid.”
The women all came out of their lodges to gaze at him. They sang him many heartening songs of which one was this—“Only the rocks lie here and never move. The human being vapors away.” That night Two Twists sang the war songs of the Bowstring Soldiers.
The people were anxious to face the enemy, but the chiefs held them in. In the meantime the Crow scouts had spotted the Cheyennes and warned their camp. That night they built a breastwork of all their tipis arranged in a semi-circle.
The next morning Two Twists was out in the camp again. “I sing for the last time,” he cried. “People, behold me! This is my last time to walk on earth.”
From all around folks brought him feathers, to help him in the thing he was to do. They tied them to his war bonnet, to his horse’s mane, and to its tail.
At last the fighters went toward the Crow camp. Two Twists led them, armed only with a saber. When they were before the enemy, he ordered his followers to hold back; he had his promise to fulfill. And so they all watched as he rode out alone toward the waiting enemy.
Straight at the tipis and into the breastwork he charged, slashing off the head of a Crow warrior as he broke through. He wheeled about, charging into the thick of them again, working havoc where his sword fell. The Crows shot, but missed and missed. Then our people saw Two Twists disappear among them in hand-to-hand struggle.
Then the Cheyennes charged into the Crows killing them on all sides. Red Robe’s wife charged with an ax. Wherever she found a Crow dead or wounded she split his skull to smear the blood of the enemy upon her face and arms [pantomimed by the informant with proper gusto]. Red Robe joined in by cutting the arm from a dead Crow. He carried it into the scalp dance to scare the women with. E-E-E-E—he would hit them in the back with it; they would run screaming.
Two Twists was not killed, and from his deeds he derived the greatest honor. People said he had done his work; they would never let him do so again; he need not fulfill his vow to die. Back in camp, Two Twists sent for Red Robe and his two wives and children. He himself stripped them of their mourning rags and dressed them well. Many things were given to the women, and now Red Robe took back his horses. They, too, participated in the victory joy of the camp.
Red Robe went back to his lodge and in his turn sent for a crier to get Two Twists. Red Robe was accepting felicitations from everybody. To each person who came to greet him he gave a horse. He painted the faces of all adult comers with black charcoal—the symbol of joy in the death of the enemy. Of all his horses he kept only a few for himself, and this time he was not stopped by the soldiers.
At the end, he adopted Two Twists for his son. Two Twists was not a tribal chief then, only the leader of a soldier society; later he was made a big chief, but on that one occasion he had charge of the whole tribe. He had wanted to wear the Medicine Hat in the battle, and he had told the keeper he wished to wear it, but the keeper gave no answer. It was the keeper’s wife who refused him. “You are going to war never to return. I do not think it right for us to give you the Hat. You will get it bloody; you would bring us great trouble; blood on the Hat would mean blood for all the tribe.”
Suicide is self-inflicted homicide and very much a cultural fact expressing definite social patterns rather than a mere individual urge. While to the Pueblo Indians of the Southwest the notion of self-slaughter is so alien that one is reliably informed that the Pueblo imagination cannot even formulate a conception of the act, among the Cheyennes, as with the other Plains Indians, suicide played an important social role. Death courted on the field of battle could be sought as an act of great public service… as a means of self-effacement when life appeared empty and point less, and above all as a face-saving and protest device with legal repercussions; so also, death by self-violence…
…Death was not thus the inevitable result of the declared intentions to die in battle. And the Cheyennes did not demand it when the end to be served by the announcement of the intention had been fulfilled. But what a difference is seen in the social reaction to the circumstances under which death was missed without honor. … (One thinks of the Crow woman’s warning to her brother, “If men become Crazy Dogs and are not killed, they become a laughing stock, they are said to be worthless.”)
Possessed of more fortitude …was the maiden of whom High Forehead’s father-in-law told him long ago. Her lover was killed charging through the enemy. She dressed in her best elk-tooth dress and walked backward off a cliff, singing with her face to the camp, of the greatness of her love and the barrenness of life without him whom she loved alone.
Touching, too, is the story of the old blind man, Spit, who at the Wagon-Box Fight with the United States Army said he was always looking for just such a chance to die, for he was tired of only half seeing his way; where were the soldiers? Young ones took his hand, lined his face toward the firing enemy. Serene, he walked toward death, until a bullet brought it to him. Whenever we led Walks Last by the hand, he in his blindness muttered, “If only I had been brave as a youth, I would never have come to this.” He would have died in glory, in his prime.
Cheyenne suicide as a legal, or better, extra-legal proceeding, involved more than shame or grief or weariness or glory; it was an appeal, direct and extreme, to justice beyond the law—and so, in its groping way, for better law.
[#16] Cheyenne: “Two Twists in Battle,” from Karl N. Llewellyn and E. Adamson Hoebel, The Cheyenne Way: Conflict and Case Law in Primitive Jurisprudence. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1941, pp. 3-6, 158—165.