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Tribal values held dear

In some ways, life for the Northern Cheyenne Tribe seems as bleak as the landscape captured in Leo Killsback’s film “The Chiefs’ Prophecy, Survival of the Northern Cheyenne Nation.”

Drugs and alcohol are ongoing problems on the southeastern Montana reservation. Unemployment and poverty ensnare people who can’t seem to break the cycle.

And the tribe has strayed far from its roots, said tribal members interviewed in the film by Killsback, a Northern Cheyenne and a doctoral student at the University of Arizona. But the American Indian studies major also gives reason for hope, if the tribe returns to the old values early tribal leaders held dear.

Killsback, 29, grew up in Busby and witnessed firsthand the problems of alcoholism, poverty and depression.

“As a collection of people, the reservation system hasn’t worked for us,” Killsback said while in Montana to preview his 60-minute movie for members of the tribe.

In his film, Killsback traces the history of leadership in the tribe, the original warrior societies and the complex Cheyenne Council of 44 that relied on values such as peace, dignity, honor, compassion, cooperation and Native spirituality. In the second section of the four-part film, viewers learn that after a series of wars, the tribe was forced onto a reservation in 1884.

All practices of the Cheyenne religion were outlawed, and a BIA-established police force diminished the tribe’s warrior system, according to Killsback. The BIA appointed its own leaders, also undermining the warrior society system, and spiritual leaders had to compete with the Christian churches.

Perhaps one of the biggest changes, Killsback tells through his film, came in 1935 when the Northern Cheyenne adopted a new form of government under the Indian Reorganization Act. Now competition replaced cooperation as members had to run against one another for office, and it’s every man out for himself.

The further members got from the old ways, the less they understood their ancestral roots and ways, according to the film. But a prophecy made by a spiritual leader in the early reservation period predicts the old chiefs will return after 100 years, and will return the tribe to its original values.

Killsback believes that over the history of the tribe, the tribe’s loss of identity has caused its members to become marginalized and stereotyped for so long – from outside the tribe and within it – that this way of thinking has permeated both the tribe’s leadership and its mentality.

“A lot of things I talk about in the movie, people don’t want to talk about,” he said. “We’re not meeting our full potential as a sovereign nation.”

For at least some tribal leaders, he said, personal gain outweighs the desire to work for the good of all the people. Pettiness, egotism and jealousy hamper cooperation.

“We have an imposed government, created by the Indian Reorganization Act and promoted by a capitalist way of doing things where greed was the value system that was at its core,” he said. “And there are a lot of people who understand this and have been wanting positive change for a long period of time.”

This new generation of leaders is unique in that the leaders are both educated and want to return to the traditional philosophy of the Northern Cheyenne, Killsback said.

He has examined all of this in-depth in his dissertation. Killsback originally was scheduled to graduate this spring, but he decided to take off the spring semester to make the movie, so more people could be exposed to his ideas.

Killsback took two weeks to film the movie, which intersperses interviews with winter shots of the reservation. He used the next three months to edit the film.

It has been shown on public television in Arizona. Recently, Killsback brought it to Chief Dull Knife Memorial College for students to see.

It was also screened for the tribe. Killsback hopes members of the tribe, and many others will see the film and talk about it. He knows some will disagree with his premise and conclusions.

But only through understanding will change come, Killsback said. It will take preparing future leaders and shedding light among people outside of the tribe for that to happen.

Reprinted with permission of The Billings Gazette.