Ve’stahe’m, or volunteerism, among the Northern Cheyenne people is perhaps best understood through story. My best understanding of life on the rez usually starts with some aspect of history—what happened when, or who did what—before moving on to the lesson. There are always lessons to the story, some good and some bad. This is how we learn our history, lessons in life, the roles of different people and animals, and who we are related to.
Recently I visited a cousin who has given me some of the best advice in my life. I heard that she wasn’t feeling too good and I wanted to drop off some food and check on her. She was glad to see me and we shared our stories and laughed about things that were out of our control. I told her that I was writing an article on volunteerism for the Tribal College Journal. We sat quiet for a while and I waited to see if she wanted to say anything about this before our conversation moved on. She went on to talk about our mothers. Our conversation was wide-ranging and ended up where we usually did, with our concerns about tribal government. As I got ready to go she said, “Why don’t you tell that story about that man who built that community hall for the Ree district and he never asked for anything in return? I remember the people had a big giveaway to thank him.” I told her that I would ask our relatives from Rosebud about that story and gave her a hug as I left.
On the reservation, it’s what good you’ve done for the tribe, not for yourself, that marks accomplishment.
In short, the story about Henry Littlewhiteman volunteering to build a community hall for the Ree district reflects many lessons for contemporary life. The fact that he received a vision to help his people, and that he lived his life attempting to carry out that message, is perhaps his personal legacy. But it is more than that. It can be a source of pride and inspiration for our Cheyenne people today. For many people, it is not what they have accomplished for themselves, but what good their efforts have resulted in for the tribe—that seems to be the mark of accomplishment on the reservation, versus the Western concept of individualism. Littlewhiteman volunteered to help his people, and in the process he established community—a sense of community, not just a place where people could gather. Community is something that many in America are desperately seeking, needing a sense of belonging and identity.
Community is a concept, like volunteerism, that many take for granted. We are born into a tribe with large extended families, and we have a homeland and culture. In a sense, our identity is already formulated when we are born into the tribe. If you are raised on the reservation you develop a certain slant on life, a certain worldview. It is a unique world of kinship, homeland, and cultural protocols. It is a reality that has both beauty and harshness as our culture shifts in order to adapt to contemporary America. Like Henry Littlewhiteman, one has to see the beauty in what life can be. To be able to build a great hall and have people come from all villages to share a good time is beauty.
I close with thoughts about the young non-Indian students who come to the reservation every summer as volunteers to paint our houses. They come from all over the country to learn about Indians and to experience the reservation. I often visit with them and they are usually puzzled about why we have such poverty, litter, stray dogs, and horses everywhere. I tell them to open their eyes to the beauty around them and to see beyond the surface. One of my daughters, who graduated from Stanford University, was introducing herself to a class there when one of the young men told her that he had been to Lame Deer. He couldn’t believe that she was from there. She asked him what he was doing in Lame Deer, and she guessed right—he was one of the volunteers who came out to paint our houses.
Today at Chief Dull Knife College we nurture this pedagogy of cultural volunteerism in many ways. It is a concept that some believe is rooted in Western culture. But I believe it originates in tribal cultures like ours where helping each other is a way of life.
Gail Small, J.D., whose Cheyenne name is Vehona’e (Head Chief Woman), is the elected board chair of Chief Dull Knife College and an assistant professor of Native American studies at Montana State University.
Editor’s Note: Read a full transcript of Henry Littlewhiteman’s story.