As a younger, more restless man, Linwood Tall Bull retraced the steps of his ancestors all the way to the Bering Strait, where scientists believe the first humans crossed from Asia into the Americas when the oceans were much lower.
He lived among the indigenous Inupiaq people, but at first they shunned him. “When I first got there, no one would talk to me,” he remembered. “So I went back to my old ways. I loved to bake bread.” Tall Bull would bake dozens of loaves each day, which he would then simply give away to the Inupiaq villagers. “Pretty soon I’d hear a knock on the door” he continued, smiling. “And I’d open the door. Here would be these Eskimos, man and wife, dragging an entire frozen caribou into the house!” From then on, Tall Bull was welcomed into the community.
“See, in my religion, I can’t sell anything,” he explained. “You give it away.”
Last Wednesday, March 30, Tall Bull, a Northern Cheyenne tribal historian and ethnobotanist, was one of the featured speakers for the Sovereign Foods Symposium, a one-day conference and celebration of Native foods. The event was hosted by the MSU Native American Studies Department at the Christus Collegium. The Symposium included a lunch, where attendees could taste a variety of Native foods.
For three hours in the lobby of the Lark Hotel, Tall Bull discussed the complexities of Northern Cheyenne spirituality, told many meandering stories and explained why he liked the idea of President Donald Trump.
Tall Bull lives in a different world than most people. It is a world filled with river spirits, tiny rock people and 72 taboos, “You can’t whistle in the house. It calls spirits. You can’t bounce a ball, you can’t point at anybody with a knife.” It is a world in which everything, “even stones, have life,” where the line between reality and magic is blurred.
One of the most interesting things he has found as a tribal historian is the uncanny similarity between Cheyenne and Christian stories. The Cheyenne prophet, Sweet Medicine, “was born of a virgin also, just like Jesus,” Tall Bull said. He went on to tell a Cheyenne story in which the first woman is made from the first man’s rib, and a flood story very similar to Noah’s.
During his wandering, Tall Bull spent a lot of time in motels. “There were only two books there,” he said. “One was a phone book, the other was a Gideon Bible. I started finding my dad’s [Cheyenne] stories in there. They were almost identical.”
Tall Bull explained the bizarre similarities in a very simple way. “We’re all related,” he said.
From this talk of brotherhood, the conversation shifted to discussing things that Tall Bull paradoxically does not approve of, such as homosexuality and feminism, or “women’s liberation.”
Gay people “bother” him. “I’m a Vietnam vet, and we didn’t have gays that we knew about in the military,” he remembers. He explained that women have cold hands because “they cannot forgive,” and lamented how “women’s liberation came up, and now the women don’t want to do anything. They don’t want to pick berries, they don’t want to pick turnips.”
This desire that people do their share of work is a big part of the reason why Donald Trump resonates with Tall Bull. “Everyone needs to pull their own weight,” he said firmly.
Tall Bull highly values self-reliance, and speaks disparagingly about the abuse of food stamps and disability checks from the government. “When we got put on the reservation, within ten years we were 100 percent dependent on the federal government. We lost a lot of our life skills, and I think they need to be taught again.”
Tall Bull spoke fondly of his father during the Great Depression. Their family “didn’t even know there was a depression, because they ate the same as they always did,” he said, laughing. “I think Trump will be devastating for a lot of the Indian people. And I think that’s what we need.”
In the end, Tall Bull said that he wasn’t going to vote. He said the wisdom to be carried into the future and what will be left behind is ultimately the choice of younger generations.