Cheyenne Soul Searching
Reservation religion takes many forms

Story by Tom Greene
Photos by Stuart Thurlkill

It's hard to find an atheist in the small town of Lame Deer on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation.

Downtown is a gas station, a trade store, two video stores and a florist. Funerals keep the florist busy. Most of the funerals are Catholic, but seven other denominations operate on the reservation as well. Six were brought to the reservation by white men and the other is the Native American Church, which was brought to the reservation in 1904 after arising among Plains tribes in the late 1880s. A highly personalized religion, whose main foundation is the peyote ceremony, it replaced the vision quests common among many Indian tribes.

Many of its members call the Native American Church the only institutionalized religion that represents and preserves their native identity. And while some religions on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation have tried to adapt to Native American culture, others continue to press ahead with unbending belief that their ways are the only ways.

When Hugh Clubfoot left his home on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation to fight in Vietnam, his father pinned a peyote button above his heart. Referred to in the church as Chief Peyote, it is the unusually large root of a hallucinogenic cactus and it serves as the focal point of a peyote ceremony. It holds spiritual significance to followers of the Native American Church comparable to that of a crucifix for a Catholic.

This Chief Peyote was an heirloom that had belonged to Clubfoot's father, but to the U.S. Army it was an illegal drug, Clubfoot says, and its discovery would have meant a dishonorable discharge and possible imprisonment. Clubfoot kept his father's keepsake pinned above his heart, but concealed under his uniform.

"I brought it out and prayed when I needed to," says Clubfoot. "Chief Peyote kept me safe from my enemy's bullets. Chief Peyote brought me back home whole."

Clubfoot did his tour of duty in Vietnam and returned home to his father. When he tried to give the peyote back, his father shook his head and told him it was his. He told him he had earned it.

Clubfoot keeps the Chief Peyote in a special box these days. He says he brought it out many times when he struggled with an alcohol problem. Now he brings it out when he is asked to lead a peyote meeting.

Vern Sooktis, who is both a Sun Dance priest and a member of the Native American Church, recalls how his family viewed religion.

"We were exposed to all the religions and chose what we wanted to do," he says. Sooktis says the Northern Cheyenne make little distinction between their spirituality and their daily life. For them, belief in God is as natural as breathing.

"We were all baptized Catholic," Sooktis says. "We went to school, did our chores, washed the dishes and then had Bible study from 8 to 9. In the summer, we had peyote meetings and Sun Dances. When we grew up we each took different routes. One of my sisters is a Quaker, one a Baptist, my brother goes to peyote meetings and I'm a Sun Dance priest. I didn't decide it, it was decided for me by the creator."

Sooktis crosses his legs casually and smokes a cigarette. It is the day after he attended an all-night peyote meeting led by Clubfoot, and as he speaks his red eyes occasionally turn toward sights outside the window. He is visiting with his father in the house where the meeting was held. His father, who is 76, nods off next to him on a sofa.

Sooktis says that his role as a Sun Dance priest carries no weight in the peyote meeting. He explains that the Native American Church is a separate entity that revolves around taking "the medicine" and being a member can sometimes mean bearing a stigma. It rarely happens, he says, but he acknowledges peyote has been abused.

"There are some people out there who don't know what it is," Sooktis says of the peyote ritual. "They take it for the wrong reasons. They take it for a drug."

Sooktis says peyote has been criticized as being a new practice that does not have the tradition of the ceremonial sweats and Sun Dances. The Sun Dance ceremony has a history as old as the Northern Cheyenne and is fundamental to their culture, unlike the peyote ceremony whose newer Native American Church members are required by law to carry a card in order to participate.

Usually held in the summer, the Sun Dance can attract thousands of people and involves prayer and song over a four-day period. Participants fast, avoiding even water, and will pierce themselves as part of the ritual of purification. Although some people at the Sun Dance take peyote, it is not part of the ceremony. Peyote is a sacrament distinct to the Native American Church.

Sooktis says that peyote is misunderstood and that "I can't tell you about my religion unless you participate -- it's really your own experience."

Some religious denominations criticize Northern Cheyenne practices that have been in place for years and, Sooktis says, condemn what they don't try to understand. He says detractors have falsely denounced peyote as a Mexican religion adopted by Native Americans and claim peyote is a new cult lacking Native American roots.

"But ask that old man how long he has been taking peyote," says Sooktis pointing to his father who has quietly awakened.

"Oh, just about 70 years," says his father with a mischievous smile before closing his eyes again.

The most recent addition to the company of denominations on the reservation is a Southern Baptist Church run from a trailer. The trailer sits among tall weeds and worn houses on the outskirts of Lame Deer. Preacher Harold Wilmont says he and his wife, Cindy, opened it six months earlier because "nobody else was going to do it." Wilmont works full time as a coal miner to support their fledgling church, but says they are in a constant struggle to hold on to what they have since "they (Northern Cheyenne neighbors) will steal just about anything they can."

"And you can't go to the cops because everyone here is related," says Wilmont.

He says the church expects to receive financial help in July from Southern Baptists in Florida to help build a stable house of worship. The spot where it will be erected lies in the shade of an abandoned Catholic Church.

"Like everything else, it's been up and down since we started," says Wilmont in a no-nonsense voice as he changes the tire on a beat-up van in the front yard. "Denominations don't mean much to them. The Indians can't distinguish between any religion."

Cindy Wilmont hurries in and out of their house nervously as her husband works. A man from the reservation, who could be any age from 30 to 50, silently watches Wilmont as he spins a wheel to expose a lug nut. Cindy Wilmont finally decides to stay outside and pull her 4-year-old boy around the yard on a wagon.

"They're a real spiritual people as far as God goes," Wilmont says. "But they go on emotion more than they do facts. Going on emotion is bad because if you eat too much sugar or something and get upset you can just lose it. They'll just get up and leave when they get upset. Being there's no jobs or bases, they just kind of move around."

Wilmont stands up and violently jerks the jack out from under the van. It slams back to earth, causing his son to clap his hands with laughter and Cindy Wilmont to jump back. The man from the reservation slowly walks around the van and gets in the driver's seat without a word.

"This guy here," says Wilmont, indicating the man from the reservation who has started driving the van down the long driveway. "He has got a job now but he's an alcoholic and can't keep a job. He gets fired every six to eight weeks."

The van cruises down to the main road, stops to pick up a woman who had walked up from a neighboring house, turns around and comes back up the driveway. Wilmont says that he and his wife will let their neighbors take showers at their house, give them food and even pay the occasional heat bill if a family is really in need. Cindy Wilmont explains she helps them one at a time and hopes it does some good but she says, "Sometimes I wonder... ."

"We are trying to teach them to work for what they get," says Wilmont as he watches the van repeatedly drive up and down the driveway. "They are used to it the other way around."

Wilmont says that by bringing Jesus Christ into the lives of those on the reservation he hopes to get them away from alcohol and drugs. He says that he respects them trying to hold on to their identity, but that many of them live in the past and "it's hard to eat that."

"Yeah, they say 'Oh, we want to go back to the old ways,'" says Cindy Wilmont in a hushed voice. "Everything is 'the old way.' But most of these people don't know what 'the old way' is. If they did they wouldn't want to go back to it. It's something they are hanging on to that doesn't make any sense."

She shrugs and gives her son another tug around the yard. Wilmont wipes his hands on an oily rag as he watches the van continue to repeat its loop from the top of the driveway, around the house, and back to the driveway several more times.

"Since there's no economy, it's hard to get a mainline church down here," says Wilmont. "The Catholics moved out, so what does that tell you?"

Cindy Wilmont puts a halt to the wagon ride to stand and watch with her husband as the van goes up and down.

"Just what in the heck are they doing?" she asks.

"I just don't know," Wilmont answers with a confused look on his face.

The Catholics didn't move out -- they just relocated to the middle of town. The Rev. Dan Crosby is the man in charge of the Catholic Church in Lame Deer. He has lived on the reservation for 14 years and just about everyone there knows Father Dan. On Sundays he says Mass in Lame Deer before driving over to Busby to celebrate another Mass, topping out at speeds in excess of 80 mph. When he slows down a little after he picks up an elderly woman who can't make it to Sunday Mass from her rural house he nearly gets mired in the mud. But Crosby is a man who gets things done one way or the other and eventually gets them both to church on time.

The entrance to his church faces east, in the way a tepee does in a Sun Dance or peyote ceremony. He opens each Mass with a prayer to the four directions. A crucifix of Jesus with Native American features hangs on the wall and the main altar is draped with a shawl from a powwow.

"In the past it would be bending the rules," says Crosby after Mass. "But it's not an aberration at all. It is to help them see that Jesus is for everyone and for every culture. You integrate the Catholic aspects with core beliefs. It doesn't matter. All that matters is that Jesus is in your life."

Crosby is a realist. The trappings of Western culture are just that, he says, hollow trappings that have accumulated over the years and serve no purpose. He strives to make his Church relevant to the people it serves and, in doing so, has blurred the typical Catholic image into one that is more accessible to the Northern Cheyenne people. He says that an arrogant Catholic Church has burned Native Americans in the past and he doesn't blame them for turning their backs on it now.

"People leave (the church), and that can be authentic, but it can also be a veiled or not-so-veiled form of retaliation," says Crosby. "They'll say 'We don't need you, jerk, you've done enough already. We used to think we couldn't get along without you, but now we know we can.'"

Crosby frequently goes to sweat ceremonies, sometimes accompanied by a local nun. He says he is willing to participate in just about every ceremony on the reservation except peyote. In the 1960s some Catholic priests ate peyote, he says, but he shuns it because it is a hallucinogen. Crosby sees the Native American Church that has evolved around peyote as a form of institutionalizing Native American spirituality. Even though Crosby won't eat peyote, he is quick to say that he doesn't condemn it or any religion just because it is different.

"I'm Irish and the English did the same thing to us," says Crosby. "There is a verse to an old Irish song that says, 'The English came and scorned us for who we are.'"

Father Dan Crosby will never sit in on one of Hugh Clubfoot's peyote meetings. Although Clubfoot says he would be happy to accommodate him, Crosby says he must set his own limits. And Clubfoot says that in the end it doesn't really matter since they pray to the same God anyway. Crosby hopes those who take peyote include him in their prayers because he believes their prayers are real.

"Why am I here? I believe in Jesus and have much to share with the people," says Crosby. "But I'm here because the land and the people have a way of getting inside you. The hills are home - the people are home. It helps me be authentically who I am. On the reservation you have to be real. You're dealing with raw good and evil and if you wear masks the people will discover that.

"I'm here as much for my own salvation as for theirs."



Agnes Limpy prays in the Busby Catholic Church. The use of cedar smoke, prayers to the four directions, and a traditional prayer in Northern Cheyenne at the end of the Mass are all signs of the blending of Catholic and Northern Cheyenne beliefs.



















Youth from Lame Deer play tag outside St. Labre Catholic Church in Ashland during a wake for a relative. Crucifixes dangling from their necks, they climbed the church until scolded by an elder.



















The Rev. Dan Crosby, who has been a priest on the Northern Cheyenne for 14 years, leaves Agnes Limpy at her home after Mass in Busby. "She insists on going to church even when it is muddy," Crosby says.



















Harold Wilmont changes a tire on the church van while his 4-year-old son plays nearby. The Southern Baptist Church in Birney is run by Wilmont and his wife, Cindy.



















Children play in the ashes that kept the peyote ceremony going just hours before. The ashes from the fire are arranged into a gradual half moon through the night, representing the nine moons during which a woman carries a child. At the end of the evening a woman brings in the water of life.