new Mennonite Life logo    September 2006     vol. 61 no. 3     Back to Table of Contents

Corn Stalk

by Raylene Hinz-Penner

Raylene Hinz-Penner, Topeka, Kansas, teaches literature courses in prison arts programs and lectures in the Washburn University English Department in Topeka. She taught English at Bethel College (Newton, Kan.) for many years. A published author of poems, essays, and prison arts collections, she gives many public readings and addresses literature’s impact on human life. Hinz-Penner has special interest in the role of literature in building and nurturing community and bridging cultural boundaries and has served as a scholar for the humanities working on behalf of the Kansas Humanities Council.

In everything that I do I give thanks to the God who gave life to everyone—who created all things. His Greatness is manifested everywhere. I put God first in everything that I am going to do. (Here she meant that even in the practice of the rituals of the Indian religion, God is placed first, and it is He that is prayed to). I will not do away with anything that is of the Indian. I am an Indian, and I do not know any English. Why should I forsake the life that I have known all my life. These things that the Indian has was given by God. . . .
      —Corn Stalk, from a translated interview by her grandson Samuel Hart for his paper, "Christianity and Indian Religion," in the course, "Our Christian Heritage," Bethel College, 1960.

Three years after the Washita attack on the Cheyennes, Lawrence Hart's paternal grandfather, John Peak Heart, was born, son to Afraid of Beavers who had fought and survived on the Washita protecting his wife and his baby girl Walking Woman. John P. Hart, who had by then altered his name and its spelling, would marry Corn Stalk (Anna Reynolds) who was born in 1875, seven years after the attack on the Washita. Corn Stalk lived a long time: when she passed in 1975, she had seen 100 years of change for the Cheyenne people. A midwife, she helped lots of Cheyenne babies in the Red Moon tribe from their mothers' wombs into the lives they would lead in and around Hammon. Indeed, it was Corn Stalk who brought her grandson Lawrence into the world on a late February day in 1933. Because Jennie Hart, Lawrence's mother, was very ill after his birth, his grandmother, the midwife Corn Stalk, took Lawrence across the yard to her own house to care for him.

Lawrence remained with his grandparents until his parents realized that it was time for him to go to school. Then his parents, Homer and Jennie Hart, realizing that Oklahoma law required him to be in school as well as being strong advocates for education, made the necessary preparations to go across the yard and bring Lawrence home.

When Lawrence tells these stories, I recognize the care with which he describes the ceremony necessary to the act, the importance of "making the necessary preparations." These Cheyenne ceremonies mark events in time and preserve memory. Coming to take the young boy Lawrence home to begin his schooling was such an event. Today, as Lawrence recalls the event, he tells it carefully, deliberately. Clearly, Lawrence understood that something momentous was happening: his parents had arranged with his grandparents for an appointed time at which they will come across the yard with gifts to take him home, to thank his grandparents for their care for him. What were the gifts? He believes they would have been traditional Cheyenne gifts—a blanket or shawl, food items, perhaps the usual gifts of cloth for a ceremonial leave-taking. Lawrence would then move from his grandparents' home to live with his brothers and sisters in his parents' home.

By that time, however, in so many ways, the destiny of the six-year-old Cheyenne boy had been set. For example, he spoke only Cheyenne. Once, when I pressed Lawrence for what kind of stories he remembered Corn Stalk telling him, he mentioned bedtime stories and the stars. Traditional Cheyenne mythology referred to the Milky Way as the Cheyenne heaven, the place of the dead "where the Cheyennes chased buffalo, hunted game, played games, went to war, and lived in white lodges as they did before death."(1) His grandfather too "kept back" this grandson to be instructed in Cheyenne ways.

When I stood before Corn Stalk's grave in the little Red Moon country cemetery not far from Hammon, next to where the Red Moon Indian Mennonite Church used to be, hers was the largest, most beautifully cared-for plot and marker. She appears here as the matriarch of this village of the dead, her grave place centrally located as one enters the cemetery gates. As I stood before her plot I remembered that she was the midwife for this people; she rests here as a kind of axis mundi in this little circle—her grave a visual embodiment of the matriarchal elements of Cheyenne culture. The large stone reads:

Corn Stalk
Anna Reynolds Hart
The God of My Rock in
Him Will I Trust
II Samuel 22:3

Chief Hart has told me that the cemetery needs to be expanded, needs to be carefully marked for those buried there. In fact, the day we visited, I noted the tiny, almost unidentifiable markers of those ancestors so prominent to the Cheyenne story hidden in the long grass blowing in the sharp March wind: Afraid of Beavers 1843-1927 At Rest . . . High Chief Howling Water 1864-1925 . . White Buffalo Woman.

One must kneel beside the tiny stone to read the years of Chief Red Moon, who settled these people in this place: 1812-1901. I know that the old chief reached nearly ninety years of age and paved the way for cooperation between Mennonites and Cheyennes on this site. One of the oldest graves is the child of the missionary H. J. Kliewer and his wife Christina, the child who died and was buried here in 1905. The child's grave is perhaps the only non-Indian site in the cemetery.

The cemetery grass around the graves was not cut but allowed to grow to its natural length, long grass waving in the wind between graves. Marked individually, families practiced distinct ways of commemoration, some using short posts, like sharpened pencils, others outlined in stones, some large, some small, the artifacts and markers never uniform but individual, some with pictures and memorabilia I had no way of understanding: a pair of work gloves, glass cherubs, a white hard hat. A young man's grave (1979-1997) was fenced in the short post corral which Chief Hart explained was built in the Northern Cheyenne tradition. Beside the grave marked with the name of Whiteskunk lay a crucifix, a teddy bear, and a Mardi Gras mask. There were many beaded crosses. The cross on "Taco" Richard Ridgebear's grave (a more recent death in 2001) was graced with sunglasses. Alongside such adornments, intimate feeling made public here, I suddenly felt myself an interloper.

The traditional Cheyenne way to bury their dead was "body extended full length with arms at the side, wrapped in skins and placed upon a scaffold or in a crotch of a tree, or covered with rocks on the ground, depending upon what was available."(2) Furthermore, the "deceased's favorite horse was shot and left at the grave site, along with his weapons, if a man, or if a woman, her utensils."(3) There was still present such individuality in the cemetery, objects I did not recognize, or perhaps memorabilia of a certain sport.

Corn Stalk's beautifully marked grave was ringed by stones and lovingly cared for by her daughter, Blanche Whiteshield, born herself in 1914; she has readied her own site nearby. Chief Hart believed the old lilac bushes were brought to the Kansas Mennonite settlements from Persia, then brought here by the Mennonite missionaries.

Anna Reynolds Hart, 1875-1975. Born in the decade after Black Kettle's demise on the Washita, Corn Stalk outlived by many years Lawrence's own mother, Jennie Hart, as well as many of the babies she had delivered. Both these women's stones are substantially larger than their more prominent husbands' stones. Corn Stalk, the Hart family matriarch, lived to give Cheyenne names to all three of Lawrence and Betty's children.

Once, when explaining to me the matriarchal elements of Cheyenne family life, Betty smiled and noted that when Lawrence made the decision to continue his studies at Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminaries in Elkhart, Indiana, several years after Lawrence and Betty were married, she guessed he probably talked with Corn Stalk about that decision even before he spoke with Betty! He would have had to discuss his decision with Corn Stalk in Cheyenne, for she never learned to speak English. But of course it would be only right that he speak to her in the language she had taught this grandson as his first language.

Betty, a Kansan of German Mennonite background, remembers the day she was first taken to meet Corn Stalk before she married Lawrence. Trying to be the good prospective granddaughter-in-law, Betty admired aloud the moccasins Corn Stalk was beading in her home that Sunday afternoon. Sometime later when Corn Stalk gave the moccasins to her, Betty protested to Corn Stalk's daughters, who replied, "Well, you asked for them." Betty's admiration had been a signal to the old woman that the moccasins should become a gift.(4)

For many years during their lives on the Plains, the Cheyenne women were in charge of camp life, encouraging the men to complete their necessary duties but certainly letting them know when their plans seemed unwise.(5) For example, there are numerous accounts of how Black Kettle's wife, Medicine Woman Later, filled with fear and trepidation after her husband had been refused protection by the U.S. Government, demanded angrily the night before that fateful morning in 1868 along the Washita River that they move camp to somewhere less dangerous. Moving Behind, a survivor and witness to the battle, described the scene years later:

Black Kettle's wife became very angry, and stood outside for a long time because they were unable to move that evening. She was disappointed. Sometimes your own feelings tell you things ahead; perhaps this was what that woman felt. She talked excitedly, and said, "I don't like this delay, we could have moved long ago. The Agent sent word for us to leave at once. It seems we are crazy and deaf, and cannot hear."(6)

It was late. The night was cold. Moving the camp at that time seemed unwise. But there was authority and prescience in the words Moving Behind remembered Medicine Woman Later speaking that night.

Although Cheyenne women were not welcomed into tribal councils, the women's counsel was apparently heeded when the men went in. Thus, through their open persuasiveness with the men, "Cheyenne women carried their points about tribal concerns."(7)

Many of the matriarchal strengths of the tribe continue to be practiced today by Cheyenne women. Lawrence's Aunt Blanche Whiteshield, granddaughter of Afraid of Beavers, is one of a few select Cheyenne women to hold the sacred task of tepee making. According to Lawrence she is today the matriarch of their extended family. In this role, Blanche is in charge of naming. The traditional task of naming in the Cheyenne tribe is not simply a way of designating a Cheyenne name for the new person born to the tribe. It is also all about making the appropriate connections and, more than that, remembering family connections. Because naming is complicated—Lawrence pointed out to me in the cemetery two of his uncles who do not have the same family name—it was the matriarch's charge to help Cheyenne children know who their cousins are. For example, they must be apprised of which children may be their playmates but not love interests.

Chief Hart's family members all had major ceremonies when they were given the Cheyenne names they carry. These events are significant and ceremonial. They include careful deliberations with the oldest matriarch for information on which names are available and appropriate for the new child. A public announcement in a ceremony (frequently at the church) conveys the name chosen to the community. Thus Lawrence and Betty remember how significant it was that Corn Stalk lived long enough to bestow Cheyenne names on all their children.

In a panel discussion of the new exhibit on "Cheyenne Justice" at the Sovereignty Symposium in Oklahoma City in summer 2004, I heard Lawrence recall that the Cheyenne historian George Bird Grinnell liked to remind the Cheyenne people that Cheyenne women made the decisions: the men went into the tepee and talked all afternoon, but they knew very well themselves that the decisions had been made in discussion with their wives long before they came to the tent to begin deliberations! Lawrence wryly reinforced Grinnell's observations that day. Smiling, he remembered an adage he shared with the audience:

We like to say,
The Arapaho women walk four paces behind their men;
Kiowa women side by side with their men;
Cheyenne women walk all over their men.

Chief Hart consults his Aunt Blanche about decisions. She is the family memory, the history, the extended family's matriarch.


1. Donald J. Berthrong, The Southern Cheyennes (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1963), 51.

2. William Y. Chalfant, Cheyennes and Horse Soldiers (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1989), 313.

3. Chalfant, 313.

4. Betty Hart Interview, June 17, 2003.

5. Berthrong, 36.

6. Theodore A. Ediger and Vinnie Hoffman, "Some Reminiscences of the Battle of the Washita." Chronicles of Oklahoma 33 (Summer 1955): 138.

7. Berthrong, 36.