This review first appeared in the Tally Sheet (Autumn 2016, Volume 63, Number 1)

MA’HEO’S CHILDREN: The Early History of the Cheyenne and Suhtaio Indians from Prehistoric Times to AD 1700

By Brian Keefe. The Choir Press, 2014. xxi, 375 pages, inc. illustrations, maps, notes and index. Hard cover. ISBN 978-1-909300-69-9. £26.95/$39.95.

In March 2006, I spent an enjoyable afternoon in conversation with EWS editor Peter Harrison and Cheyenne Chief John L. Sipes – sadly, both now deceased – in Norman, Oklahoma. Our talk covered a whole host of topics relating to Cheyenne history, but one subject discussed by John particularly caught my interest. This was what John called the ‘lost Cheyennes’. It concerned the Cheyenne migration south onto the Great Plains from what is now the northern United States or southern Canada. The movement is not of itself a contentious subject. The interesting point raised by John Sipes was that a band of Cheyennes had become stranded in the north as the ice upon which they were crossing a river or lake had cracked. John believed that the Canadian Crees were the ‘lost Cheyennes’ and pointed to the fact that the Cree language was related to Cheyenne. This Cree link is dealt with by other students of the tribe, including Grinnell, but not in any great detail. I was therefore interested to see that it is one of the aspects of early Cheyenne history considered in some depth in Brian Keefe’s latest book.

Ma’heo’s Children is a study of the origins and early history of the Cheyenne tribe. As the title indicates, it covers the period from prehistoric times to the beginning of the eighteenth century. The author is a member of the English Westerners’ Society and has been researching his subject for fifty years. Members will be familiar with his contributions to Society publications, including his two Brand Books, ‘The Battle at Rainy Butte’ and ‘Making Pacts With Old Enemies’. Early Cheyenne history has been the subject of other books – most notably John H. Moore’s The Cheyenne Nation. What makes Brian Keefe’s work original is his blend of sources and the unique perspective that he has brought to the subject.

Keefe’s book is based not only upon traditional written histories, but also the oral histories of the Cheyennes and other tribes, assessed in the light of archaeology, and other scientific sources, such as linguistics, climatology and DNA studies. This has led the author to reach two conclusions that are particularly controversial. Firstly, he posits what seems (at least to this reviewer) to be a wholly new theory regarding the peopling of the Americas. Secondly, he suggests an eastern North American – as opposed to central northern – location for the original homeland of the Cheyennes in North America.

What is known as ‘the Bering Strait Theory’ has been the accepted explanation for the peopling of the Americas for decades. Very briefly, this theory holds that Paleoindians walked eastwards from Asia to North America, and thence to South America, over an ancient land bridge in the Bering Strait, between the two continents during the last Ice Age, approximately 10,000 to 15,000 years ago. The theory has been subject to a number of challenges over the years, but has generally been staunchly defended by the scientific hierarchy. This defence appears to have been aimed predominantly at maintaining the idea that humans are relative new-comers to the Americas. Most Native Americans believe that this stance is intended to undermine their traditional claims to the land. Indeed, it is difficult to argue that they are wholly wrong in reaching this conclusion. Other explanations for man’s expansion into the Americas include visitors from across the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, plus, of course, traditional Native American accounts. Against this, Keefe argues that at least some peoples – including the ancestors of the Cheyennes – entered North America travelling westwards from the east, across the Arctic. Whilst the reader may not necessarily agree with Brian Keefe’s theories, it has to be conceded that he has put forward an interesting argument which goes someway to reconciling science with Indian tradition.

An important point in these theories is timing. Put shortly, scientists have long argued that the oldest evidence of human technology in North America is a spear point known as the ‘Clovis Point’, discovered in New Mexico (over 8,000 miles south of the supposed crossing point) and dated to approximately 13,500 years ago. In very simplistic terms, this forms the basis for the dating of the Bering Strait migration to about 15,000 years ago (to allow for migration southwards). According to traditional Bering Strait and Clovis Point theorists, this means that there is no evidence of human occupation of the Americas earlier than 15,000 years ago. The trouble with this dogmatic approach is that until the 1920s, scientists were adamant that man had migrated to the Americas only 5,000 years before. It was only the discovery of man-made artefacts – such as the Clovis Point – associated with earlier dates that led to the timing being re-evaluated. Even then, there has been a marked reluctance to accept that humans might have been on the continent more than 15,000 years ago.

A further dispute embroiled the dating of human occupation of the Americas in the 1950s, following the discovery of a campsite in Texas that was radiocarbon dated to approximately 37,000 years ago. Not surprisingly, that evidence was hotly disputed. Interestingly, this dating, although challenged by many scientists, was consistent in one particular with arguments relied upon by those same scientists for denying an earlier date for man’s arrival in North America. This argument ran along the lines that the Bering Strait was made impassable between thirty and ten thousand years ago by the Ice Age. Hence, man could not have come to the Americas more than about ten thousand years ago. Never mind that the Clovis Point was dated to about 13,500 years ago. What seemed to have been overlooked – perhaps because it was virtually inconceivable to the scientific powers-that-be – was that this argument would not stop humans having entered North America more than thirty thousand years ago, a timing supported by the findings in Texas.  

Whereas the Bering Strait Theory tells us that man entered the Americas trekking eastward across the Bering Strait, Brian Keefe argues that the ancestors of the Cheyennes came across the same Arctic Circle, but from the east, moving westward from Asia, across the far north of Europe. He theorises that the early proto-Cheyennes – people of the Algonquin language group – moved firstly down the east coast of what is now the USA, before moving further westwards to the Great Lakes area. This is an attractive theory for two reasons. Firstly, because travel across the Arctic is a logical explanation for the entry of men into the Americas. It is not wholly inconsistent with the traditional view of movement across the Arctic, but differs in that it envisages a westward, rather than eastward migration. The second aspect is where the author’s theory fits in neatly with tribal tradition. If we visualise the Arctic Circle as the spherical cap of the World, it resembles very closely the idea common among Native Americans, including the Cheyennes, that life first formed upon a similarly shaped object; the shell of a giant turtle. This may be stretching a point, but it is certainly food for thought.

Brian Keefe does not address the question of migration from Oceania and other recent theories regarding the populating of the Americas. This is not a weakness of the book. His study is not, after all a survey of the ways in which the Americas were peopled, but a history of the Cheyennes. He focuses instead upon his theories as to how they reached the continent.

The early chapters of Ma’heo’s Children explore the origins of Cheyenne society, recounting creation stories and tribal histories, as well as relying upon archaeological and other scientific sources. To some extent, this part of the book overlaps with the work of the early anthropologists, such as Dorsey and Grinnell, as well as later writer, including Moore and Schlesier. Where the current work differs from earlier accounts, is that the author attempts to provide a more accurate chronology of early Cheyenne history by synthesising the various sources. This is a monumental task and some conclusions are necessarily strained.

The discussion of the Cheyenne/Cree relationship in Ma’heo’s Children is not always easy to follow, as despite the lengthy discussion of this point, the author does not fully assess the conflicting evidence, even though he is clearly familiar with the subject. Additionally, there are occasional seemingly unsourced comments and assertions, to the effect that “we know” certain facts. One example being “...that by the date of 1670, if not before, the Cree were constantly raiding all Cheyenne and Suhtaio villages in northern and central Minnesota...” (page 33). This assertion would certainly seem to contradict the view that the Cheyennes and Crees were one nation until the former migrated south and it would be interesting to know the source of this information.

So, are the Cheyennes and the Crees one and the same? Well, their languages – part of the Algonquin linguistic group – are related. And accounts telling of groups of people becoming separated by cracking ice are a recurring motif among Algonquin peoples, not just the Cheyennes. The two tribes are however generally considered to be separate ethnic groups.

Another aspect of Keefe’s work that breaks new ground is his attempt to provide an accurate dating and source for the introduction of the Sacred Arrows – the tribe’s most important spiritual items. Again, the discussion of this issue, in common with a number of sections of the book, suffers from the lack of a clear narrative, and a number of apparently unsourced assertions leave this reader feeling somewhat dissatisfied.

For those with a particular interest in Cheyenne history, this book will be an essential purchase. I must however sound two notes of caution. The first is that the book is written in academic terms and reads very much like a dissertation. It is not really a book for the general reader, and is not a light read! Secondly, it would also have benefited from careful proof reading and editing. Nevertheless, these matters do not wholly detract from the value of the book. Brian Keefe is to be congratulated on bringing his research to our attention and he certainly raises some interesting points for debate.

Gary Leonard


English Westerners' Society  

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