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Chapter 3.6: Political Organization

Apsáalooke Writing Tribal Histories Project

The historic Apsáalooke people organized themselves first by families or lineages, then bands followed by tribe. There was a leader over each of these political divisions. A man became a chief by achieving four designated war exploits, termed ashkápe in Apsáalooke and coups in English. The four deeds were, touching a live enemy in battle, capturing a picketed horse from an enemy camp, taking an enemies weapons and leading a war party successfully. A man achieving these deeds was known as a Bacheeítche, Good Man or chief. There were other war deeds as well, known as baleealaxchía, war deeds of the day. The war expedition leader designated these deeds and they varied depending on the decision of the war leader. He often devised these types of deeds for tactical reasons, such as designating the touching of a lodge in one area of an enemy camp as the war deed of the day. Therefore the warriors would want to accomplish this deed and the war leader would be focusing their efforts in the attack. Deeds of this form would not be counted towards becoming a chief.

Due to the emphasis of placed on war deeds to attain status, most Apsáalooke boys longed to be warriors. This process began when a boy was still young. A boy trained to be a warrior by engaging in many types of games including swimming, arrow throwing, shinny, hoop and pole throw, and foot and horse races. These games were often supervised by the boy’s older brothers, or uncles, and were intended to develop the boy’s physical abilities and train him to understand the rigors of being a warrior.

The boys would start to accompany war expeditions when they reached the age of puberty. Boys who accompanied war expeditions were referred to as Ichkaaté, Little Toe. They acted as assistants. Their duties included carrying the weapons and medicine bundles, taking care of the horses, cooking and constructing temporary shelters. The Apsáalooke constructed two types of temporary shelters. The first was called Ashdaxpushéeo. This form was made by taking an even number of little poles and setting them evenly in two rows, then the tops were bent over and tied together, which made a shape much like a Quonset hut. Then hides would be placed over the frame. It could also be made by taking the natural foliage, such as sagebrush or willows, and tying the tops together and putting hides over them to make a temporary shelter. The second type of shelter was called ashdahché. This one was made by placing long poles against a standing tree as a support. In this manner a tipi like structure could be made. This type of lodge could be made by placing poles at the entrance of a cliff overhang or cave to create a wind break.

As the teens matured and developed the strength to master an adult bow, then they were allowed to become dúxxia, warriors. Then men who showed their ability as warriors would often be chosen to serve as scouts. Scouts were called Chiichee, and the leader of the scouts was called Chéetiisaahke Old Man Wolf. To be a scout was a highly coveted position, since these individuals would be the first to see the enemy and possibly engage them.

A man of proven war abilities often chose to lead war expedition. If other warriors trusted this man and if his initial expedition was successful, then he would be declared a war leader. A successful war expedition was one in which no one was wounded or killed.

Successful war leaders were often chosen by elder leaders. The older men would provide their charges with spiritual as well as practical advice. Included in the spiritual gifts were usually war or straight pipes. These pipes were believed to contain spiritual power which would convey information to its possessor about the whereabouts of the enemy. For this reason these war leaders were called pipe carriers or Iipchiiaké, Owner Of The Pipe.

The next level of political status was to be a chief. A chief was one that had attained the four recognized war deeds ashkápe: capture an enemy’s horse, capture an enemy’s weapon, strike a live enemy, and leading a successful war expedition. These four deeds made the warrior a chief.

If a chief displayed other outstanding qualities, including generosity, kindness, fortitude, farsightedness, wisdom, and dependability, then the people would naturally desire to follow this man. The people would make public declarations about their choices. They would say things like, "On this day I will walk with Sits In The Middle Of The Land". The people through this process chose their own leaders. If the person was a good leader then the camp would be fortunate. The members of that camp would live well which meant without threat from enemies and being able to locate enough game for food and grass to feed their horses.

A band chief is called Ashbacheeítche, Chief Of The Camp. The best of the Ashbacheeítche would become the Ashakée, Owner Of The Lodges. The Owner Of The Lodges was the principal chief, he was the chief over all of the chiefs.

The Apsáalooke governed themselves through a representative government or council of chiefs. Only men who had achieved the status of chief could voice their opinions or those of their band in the council. So the council was comprised of those individuals who were at the level of chief and upward; chiefs, band chiefs and the leader of all the Apsáalooke, The Owner Of The Camp. The Owner Of The Camp would conduct the councils whenever the Apsáalooke needed to make a major decision. At times the Pipe Carriers would be asked their opinion, but they did not have a voting position.

When the councils met, whether at the band level or as a whole nation, tally sticks were used as ballots. Each chief would speak in turn about the issue, whether for or against this particular issue. They would smoke the pipe and talk, what is called óopiilaau, smoke and talk in Apsáalooke. The highest-ranking chief convened the council and then the man sitting to his right would light the pipe. This man would then take the pipe to the front of the group, which meant the man sitting to the east and south, since they sat in a circle. That man would receive the pipe and he would smoke the pipe and more often than not conduct the pipe offering ritual. Once completing the pipe offering ritual this individual would speak. As the man spoke no one was allowed to interrupt. The pipe was to guarantee that this person would speak with no interference, because of the fact that Apsáalooke held the pipe in reverence. After this person would get done talking he would pass the pipe to the person on his left. That person would take the pipe, relight it if necessary and smoke and go through the pipe offering ritual and then speak. While they spoke the man who was leading the discussion would place the ballots as represented by the tally sticks either for the issue or against it.

This form of decision making led to a misunderstanding recorded in the 1868 Ft. Laramie Treaty. The leader of the Apsáalooke at that council was Sits In The Middle Of The Land and he was quoted as stating, "We will do whatever the chiefs decide." Chief in the Apsáalooke language are called Bacheeítche, Good Men, and the translator, who was not Apsáalooke, misinterpreted that term to mean simply men. That is why the treaty states that any sale of land must be approved by the majority of adult males, but in fact, Sits In The Middle Of The Land was speaking about how decisions were made through a council of chiefs.

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