The Peace Blanket: A Cheyenne Tale of Reconciliation

Lawrence Hart was angry and cold and ready to go home. He and the other younger Cheyenne were waiting while the elders consulted about how to close the day’s ceremonies, which Hart had found humiliating and infuriating.

Hart had recently been elected as a Peace Chief among the Cheyenne. He was also a Mennonite pastor, but despite the Mennonite commitment to nonviolence and peacemaking Hart knew he still had a lot to learn from the elder Cheyenne Peace Chiefs. Right now, for instance, he was not feeling too peaceful.

In 1868 a Peace Chief named Black Kettle had been killed, along with at least a hundred other Cheyenne, by the Seventh Cavalry. The Cavalry had attacked their village at dawn and Black Kettle had refused to take up arms to defend the village. The Cavalry had charged the village singing their traditional battle song, “Garry Owen”. Hart’s family had been in that village. His great-grandfather had survived by hiding in a snowdrift.

Today the local non-Indigenous population in Western Oklahama had decided to commemorate the anniversary of the attack. The Cheyenne had been asked to participate in a re-enactment. At first they had refused. Pressured by their neighbours they eventually agreed on the condition that they be permitted to bury the remains of a Cheyenne child being displayed in a local museum.

The Cheyenne had gathered in a temporary tepee village on the day and quickly felt deceived. Unknown to the Cheyenne, the planners had invited the “Grandsons of the Seventh Cavalry”, a group based in California, to dramatize the attack. The re-enactment quickly began to feel all too real.

Dressed in authentic uniforms and playing the chilling “Garry Owen” the fighters rushed the tepee village on horseback, firing blanks from real guns. The Cheyenne felt angry and betrayed. Nevertheless they went through with the daily schedule, looking forward to the burial of the child’s remains. Finally it was over. All of the chiefs left the museum carrying the small coffin and chanting burial hymns through the falling snow.

Suddenly they heard the arrival of the Seventh Cavalry on the scene, as someone yelled, “Present arms!” How dare they intrude on the funeral? Hart and others felt their anger growing. They continued with the procession.

A Cheyenne woman, Lucille Young Bull, took a beautiful new woollen blanket and laid it over the coffin as it went by. According to tradition, the blanket would later be given to the most honoured guest present. After the burial the older Peace Chiefs gathered to decide who to present the blanket to. They came to a conclusion and called Hart over. They asked him to present the blanket to the captain of the Grandsons of the Seventh Cavalry. Hart was stunned. His whole body tensed and his brain was on fire. These people were the enemy! They had tried to kill his family! Even today they had terrorized the Cheyenne and disrupted the funeral.

Hart steeled himself and took the blanket, presenting it to the captain by draping it over his shoulders. It was a shocking and awe-inspiring moment for all present. Hart said what followed was “hard to describe… people broke down and cried.”

The Grandsons of the Seventh Cavalry followed the chiefs back to the museum. They embraced. Some apologized. The captain removed a pin from his uniform with the name of the regiment’s war song, “Garry Owen”, and gave it to Hart. “Never again will your people hear ‘Garry Owen’”, he promised. Hart said he had learned his first hard lesson about being an agent of peace and reconciliation that day from his elders.  

 
Source: “Through Water and Fire” by Steven Nolt and Harry Loewen. Herald Press, 2010. Re-told here by Matthew Gindin.