family: Grass (Poaceae)
vé'hó'ȯhtse, "dried plait" ?
Sweetgrass is perennial, densely bunched grass, 20 to 90 cm tall. Leaves are to 10 mm wide. Inflorescence is a panicle formed by spikelets. It blossoms from April to June. Faded, sweetgrass smells intensively sweet after coumarin. It grows in bogs, on wet sandy soils, and wet prairies. It ranges from Labrador to Alaska, south to New Jersey, Ohio, Illinois, Iowa, South Dakota, Washington, in the mountains as far as New Mexico and Arizona; rarely in the Black Hills area and Albany County of southeast Wyoming. Its habitats disappear owing to cattle grazing.
Almost all native tribal nations living in areas of its presence take sweetgrass for an important ceremonial plant but it has any more crucial importance for Cheyennes. Sweetgrass is linked to the Cheyenne creation story and the culture hero Motsé'eóeve (Sweet Medicine). It is sacred fruit of Grandmother Earth. Plait of dried sweetgrass leaves symbolizes vibrant life, growth, and renewal (Hart 1976: 55).
Jim Spear, a Northern Cheyenne, narrated following creation story in which sweetgrass is mentioned:
The first things made were the stars, sun, and moon. This creator, whom we call Ma'hēō'o in our language, held out his left hand, and his power being such he got five strings of sinew. He laid them down. And next he put down sweet grass, this being laid down the same way as he had sinew. Then he produced buffalo tallow. Than he produced red paint. He put that on there. Then he started to put these things together. He rolled that into a ball. Then he blew on it four times. The fourth time he let it go. And it grew and grew. This is the earth. This is the first one. So we have this earth. There was water on it, grass, trees, and everything that grows. Ma'hēō'o has the power to do that (Hart 1981: 9).
Sweetgrass was and is used as a ceremonial plant for purification chiefly. One of the most important ceremonies, in which Cheyennes use it, is the Sacred Arrow Renewal Ceremony (maxėhóotōnėstova, "big renewal"). Jim Spear said about it:
According to history, the Sacred Arrow ceremony was performed at the beginning of time. The thing that stands out in this ceremony is sweet grass itself. It is very sacred to use. It is used to purify the pledger, the members of the Sacred Arrow Lodge, the Arrows, the Medicine Bundle, the Earth. We burn sweet grass on charcoal 445 times. This was the length of time in which Sweet Medicine lived. So we retrace that. We renew the life of the Cheyenne people through the use of this sweet grass (Hart 1981: 9).
This burning of sweetgrass origins of the time when Motsé'eóeve, the Cheyenne culture hero and prophet, brought four sacred arrows from a cavern inside sacred mountain inhabited by sacred beings (Ma'heono). He burned sweetgrass to purify the material world before the sacred arrows would come from the spiritual world. This event is repeated in acts of the Arrow Priests to this day. Second day of the ceremony, before the Arrows are unwrapped they cleanse air with sweetgrass smoke. Third day of the Arrow Renewal ceremony, the burning of sweetgrass plays an important role in certain rituals inside the Sacred Tipi. It is put on live charcoals 445 times. It evokes 445 years of Motsé'eóeve’s life. Inside the Sacred Tipi, priests, shamans, and warriors renewed the power of their medicine bundles, scalp shirts, sacred spears, warbonnets or thunder bows in the sweetgrass smoke (Hart 1976: 55) but, chiefly, the Arrow Priests cense hundreds of sticks in the sweetgrass smoke. Each of these sticks represents a Cheyenne family. This ritual should bring blessing and prosperity to each family (Hoebel 1960: 9).
Sweetgrass is burned in some night ceremony during which shamans summon spirits and ask them for help and guidance. According to the Cheyenne tradition, Motsé'eóeve brought this ceremony, called "mȯxe'éome" in Cheyenne (freely transl. "place where [spirits] draw [something]") too. It is a part of the Arrow Renewal to this day (Schlesier 1987: 58–62). Sweetgrass has even another use during the Arrow Renewal ceremony. They paint five pieces of sweetgrass red and wrap them around a ball of tallow; next they paint sacred straight pipe red with it (Hart 1981: 9).
Sweetgrass was used to paint ceremonial pipe in the Sun Dance too. Jim Spear said about the role of sweetgrass in the Sun Dance:
It is used in the Sun Dance. We have eagle and deer paint. We use a cane. We stand there all night. Just before the sun sets on the last night and before we step in there, we use this sweet grass. Then we put our blankets over that and purify ourselves. The way we step in there is the way that we stand all night. …we don’t move. This is a sacrifice for your family, your parents, children (Hart 1981: 9).
Sweetgrass was used frequently in warriors’ rituals before battle. These rituals ough to renew protective power of shields (hóahnōnėstse) and other sacred objects. For example, men of Hevèškėsenėhpȧhō'hese (Closed-by-heat Aortas) Band censed their sacred painted shields in the smoke of sweetgrass, sage, and other medicine. All was tied to the shield. They passed the shield through the smoke four times, then raised it to the sun and shook it. They made four motions toward their body and put it on their arm in the fourth motion. Men who owned shields performed special preventative measures to keep clear of menstruating women’s influence. If he was about to enter some tipi where such woman resided a special purification ritual was performed in which sweetgrass and cedar (Juniperus sp.) leaves was burned. Not until the shield owner could enter (Grinnell 1923 I: 131, 197).
Contrary (hohnohka) purified his bow-spear or thunder bow in sweetgrass smoke any time before battle (Grinnell 1923 II: 82). He had to do the same if some warrior wanted to borrow the bow-spear (Hart 1976: 55).
Rattle was purified repeatedly in sweetgrass smoke during the Cheyenne curing ceremonies. Also, Cheyennes burn sweetgrass in their homes frequently to keep evil powers off (Hart 1981: 10).
Some interesting tradition existed between a woman and her son-in-law. Great respect in this relationship is an ancient rule, living to this day in traditionalist families. A woman and her son-in-law avoid each other and don’t communicate directly. If they wanted to change it mother-in-law presented buffalo robe decorated with porcupine quill or bead embroidery to her son-in-law. She blessed the robe even her son-in-law with sweetgrass smoke during some small ritual and then they could talk one with other face-to-face (Hart 1976: 55).
Sweetgrass was used in the ceremony of first menstruation (Grinnell 1923 I: 130–1) and was stuffed into babies’ amulets containing umbilical cord (www.denverartmuseum.org/cheyennevisions2/CVII_turtles.htm). Cheyennes sew a piece of umbilical cord (hésta'he), which fall off newborn baby a few days after delivery, into these buckskin pouches, mostly turtle or lizard-shaped. Cheyenne children carry these amulets with them in first years of life. Cheyenne believe it’s a prayer for strong, healthy, and long-lived offspring. They believe this amulet helps to a child become quiet, kind-hearted, and virtuous person (Hilger 1946: 65).
During certain healing ritual, which helped people affected with paralysis, the patient was steamed with sweetgrass tea (Marriott 1956: 24). Sweetgrass was used as a perfume too. It was wrapped up with objects which people desired to perfume (Grinnell 1923 II: 170).
Cheyenne remarked sweetgrass was not so abundant as it had been formerly. At the end of 1970’s, Jim Spear, a Northern Cheyenne elder, alleged about it that "part of this is for the reason that we are losing our old ways" (Hart 1981: 10).