Today we recognize September 23, 2022, as Native American Day, the perfect time to honor Cheyenne Culture Hero, Sweet Medicine.
As with most tales preserved by oral tradition, there are different versions regarding Sweet Medicine’s origin. One version (from Cheyenne Memories by John Stands in Timber and Margot Liberty) tells of a young woman who lived with her parents. She had a dream where someone said, “Sweet Root will come to you, because you are clean, and a young woman.” She thought it was just a dream, but it repeated the next three nights. At this point she told her mother who said it was nothing and not to worry.
But as time passed, she began to feel as if she were expecting a baby, which her parents noticed as well. Yet this made no sense, since she never met anyone, other than the voice in the dreams.
When it was time to give birth, she left the village and went down by a creek where she built a small shelter and had a baby boy. Rather than take him home, however, she left him there, since she and her parents were ashamed.
Later that day an old woman was down by the creek collecting rye grass as bedding when she heard the baby crying. She found him and brought him home. Her husband was very happy and said “That’s our grandson. And his name shall be Sweet Medicine.”
The similarities to the virgin birth of Christ are hard to miss. Perhaps this shows a Christian influence creeping into later versions of the story. The Cheyenne’s high moral standards encouraged their women to be virtuous, so would embrace such a detail.
(If you’re a fan of The History Channel’s Ancient Aliens program, you may notice parallels to UFO abduction stories, many of which date back centuries. Native American connections with extraterrestrial visitors are well-documented, including Nancy Red Star’s book, Star Ancestors.)
The version of Sweet Medicine’s beginnings in George Bird Grinnell’s The Cheyenne Indians: Their History and Ways of Life (Volume II) is less dramatic. It states that Sweet Medicine was the second born child of a married woman, but nonetheless a very unusual child and individual.
Sweet Medicine was said to have performed various miracles, from conjuring up a buffalo calf when the tribe was hungry, to being able to elude pursuit by covering vast distances in record time, i.e., shades of Superman’s ability “to leap tall buildings in a single bound.”
Specific laws and ceremonies were among his most important contributions to Cheyenne culture. He organized the original four warrior societies, Swift Foxes, Elks, Red Shields, and Bowstrings. He instituted a sophisticated leadership structure that included ten chiefs from each of the four societies, plus four “old man chiefs,” one of whom carried the sacred medicine bundle he gave them. This brought stability to the Cheyenne that other tribes lacked.
“You chiefs are peacemakers. Though your son might be killed in front of your tepee, you should take a peace pipe and smoke. Then you would be called an honest chief. You chiefs own the land and the people. If your men, your soldier societies, should be scared and retreat, you are not to step back, but take a stand to protect your land and your people.“
He admonished chiefs to be examples of peace and courage. As stated in Cheyenne Memories, Sweet Medicine said, “Listen to me carefully, and truthfully follow up my instructions. You chiefs are peacemakers. Though your son might be killed in front of your tepee, you should take a peace pipe and smoke. Then you would be called an honest chief. You chiefs own the land and the people. If your men, your soldier societies, should be scared and retreat, you are not to step back, but take a stand to protect your land and your people.”
Generosity was another requirement imposed on chiefs. “When you meet someone, or he comes to your tepee asking for anything, give it to him. Never refuse. Go outside your tepee and sing your chief’s song, so all the people will know you have done something good.”
The four Sacred Arrows were another gift along with the sacred medicine bundle. Two arrows were for hunting and two for war, a detailed ceremony provided for renewing their power, which was lost should a Cheyenne murder a member of the tribe.
He taught the complex ceremony known as the Massaum, a.k.a. Animal or Crazy Dance, which bears some resemblance to an origin story among Plains Indians referred to as “The Great Race.” The Wolves of Heaven by Karl H. Schlesier is a comprehensive work focused on the Massaum. As an anthropologist, Schlesier places the ceremony’s origins, and thus Sweet Medicine, in the 500 – 300 BCE timeframe.
So where did Sweet Medicine gain his profound wisdom?
The legend states that Sweet Medicine and his wife disappeared for four years, which was spent deep inside the Sacred Mountain where they were taught by spiritual beings known as maiyun. (This is very similar to stories about other important spiritual leaders as expressed on Ancient Aliens, Season 18/Episode 20, “Secrets of Inner Earth.”)
Thus, the tradition arose of fasting on the Sacred Mountain for four days to commune with the holy people. Bear Butte in South Dakota is the Cheyenne’s Sacred Mountain while other tribes have their own versions. There are numerous references to Devil’s Tower in Wyoming in these stories, another location infamous for UFO sightings, as immortalized in Steven Spielberg’s 1977 movie, Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
Before Sweet Medicine died at a very old, but undetermined age, he gave his final address, which included admonitions along with a prophesy:
“I have brought you many things, sent by the gods for your use. You live the way I have taught you and follow the laws. You must not forget them, for they have given you strength and the ability to support yourselves and your families.
“There is a time coming, though, when many things will change. Strangers called Earth Men will appear among you. Their skins are light-colored, and their ways are powerful. They clip their hair short and speak no Indian tongue. Follow nothing that these Earth Men do, but keep your own ways that I have taught you as long as you can.
“The buffalo will disappear, at last, and another animal will take its place, a slick animal with a long tail and split hoofs, whose flesh you will learn to eat. But first there will be another animal you must learn to use. It has a shaggy neck and tail almost touching the ground. Its hoofs are round. This animal will carry you on his back and help you in many ways. Those far hills that seem only a blue vision in the distance take many days to reach now; but with this animal you can get there in a short time, so fear him not. Remember what I have said.
“But at last you will not remember. Your ways will change. You will leave your religion for something new. You will lose respect for your leaders and start quarreling with one another. You will lose track of your relations and marry women from your own families. You will take after the Earth Men’s ways and forget good things by which you have lived and in the end become worse than crazy.
“I am sorry to say these things, but I have seen them, and you will find that they come true.”
So who exactly was Sweet Medicine?
A real person?
Or no more than another figure in the realm of folklore and mythology?
We may never know, but his prophesy’s accuracy is pretty hard to ignore.