Friendship in the heart of Indian Territory
by Rachel Coleman
Liberal oil man Don Rash spent the last 50 years building up Rash Oil Company and running the service station that greets visitors who come into town from east Highway 54. He's known as a mover and shaker in local politics, having served as Seward County Commissioner and participated in key community projects — Southwest Medical Center, the county activity center, Coronado Museum and more.
Yet if you ask Rash what he loves the most, the answer is far older than modern-day civic projects.
"One of the greatest accomplishments of my life," he said, "is my relationship with the Native American Indians."
Rash is closest to the Southern Cheyenne tribe, whose members live on reservation land in Oklahoma; their relatives, the Northern Cheyenne, live in Montana. For years, Rash has visited, traded and befriended members of both branches.
"I go to visit them, and they come to see me sometimes," he said. "Recently, one of the elders had fallen ill and they came through from Montana. I help them on their journey, help them with their needs for petroleum products so they can get back and forth to their destination. They usually have something to give back in return for my help."
This friendly trading arrangement, so traditional in feeling, dates back to the start of Rash's interactions with the Cheyenne more than 20 years ago. A founding member of the Seward County Historical Society's Coronado Museum, Rash traveled to Oklahoma in search of artifacts for the newly-formed museum.
"We wanted to display some items that would reflect the original people," he said. "The Plains tribes were right here, where we are, today, in Liberal, Kansas." Rash traveled to Oklahoma, where, he recalls, he "sat down with the tribe and asked if I could help in any way. I told them I would like to purchase some artifacts to put into the Coronado Museum. I went as a member of the museum. The friendship blossomed out of that into a relationship that I feel very honored to be a part of."
Over time, Rash became more involved with the Southern Cheyenne. From the herd of bison he raised on his eastern Colorado ranch, he offered an annual gift: a buffalo bull for the annual Sun Dance.
The significance of such a gift was profound. In the Southern Cheyenne tradition, as with many Plains Indian peoples, the Sun Dance lies at the center of the calendar year, religious life and community-building. Traditionally, it was held in late June or early July. A small number of the tribe fasted and purified themselves in a sweat lodge before taking part in the ritual and dance, which stretched for days. Meanwhile, the tribe gathered to celebrate, feast and socialize. Gift-giving was an important part of the tradition, with elaborate meals prepared and served both to the dancers and to their mentors.
The Sun Dance became a point of contention during the long struggle between the United States government and the native peoples. From 1881 to 1934, Sun Dances were prohibited by law. However, tribes continued the ritual in secret until the Indian Reorganization Act in 1934. By then, however, the buffalo, a central part of the event, had largely disappeared.
"By killing the animal that meant more than any other thing, the white man killed the Plains Indians," Rash said. "The buffalo meant food, clothing, shelter. Those three things are still missing today in the lives of the Cheyenne who live on the reservation."
Modern-day Cheyenne have maintained the Sun Dance, but finding a buffalo for the ritual remained a problem.
"They need a buffalo skull, and it has to be a bull," Rash said. "By giving them the whole buffalo, they can also have the meat and the hide for their ceremony."
Rash was happy to offer his help, not only to build the relationship but to do what he could to make amends for the wounds of history.
"I'd like to see them preserve a record of history that's gone, and I'm trying to do something beneficial for people who remain here," he said. "It's so sad. The U.S. government has never kept a treaty. There's never been a treaty that was kept like it was written, like it was told to the people. Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse, they didn't sign treaties because it didn't make sense to them. They looked at the world around them and said, 'This is Mother Earth and Father Sky, it's everybody's land.' Of course, they had scrapes within their own tribes, but what we did to the Indians is terrible."
Rash rattles off key events in American and Native American history: the time 31 Indians were hung in Minnesota, by presidential order of Abraham Lincoln; the exploits of George Custer, the general who was kicked out of the army but reinstated because his wife's uncle sat in the U.S. Senate; the massacres at Sand Creek — just miles from the ranch where Rash raised his buffalo — and Wounded Knee.
"What we did to the Indians is terrible," he said. "After the Civil War, things got so much worse for them. They had been massacred — I don't call them battles — and moved over and over. The Northern Cheyenne were brought to Oklahoma, but in 1878, they went back. That was the last Indian raid in Kansas. Dull Knife took his people back to Montana."
Rash's love of history and all things Indian dates to his childhood. He grew up in Dixon Creek, Texas, near the Borger oil patch and the abandoned Adobe Walls trading post.
"Anything south of the Cimarron River was opened in 1874 for the buffalo hunters," Rash said. "As a young boy, I used to walk down to the ruins. My history teacher, Mr. George, told us stories in class about the Indians and how their territory was taken, and the tears would run down his face."
Adobe Walls was the site of a battle fought between several hundred Comanche warriors and 28 U.S. bison hunters who'd moved south from Kansas after wiping out the buffalo there. The Indians had held a Sun Dance before attacking, and they had been promised by their medicine man that they would be bullet-proof in the battle. His prophecy proved untrue, and the battle, history records, was a crushing defeat for the Indians.
"I grew up right in the heart of Indian country," Rash said. "Stories about the Red River War of 1874, the way the Indians hid in the Palo Duro Canyon, the relocation of the Indians."
What stood out to Rash was the injustice suffered by the Indians. While his aspirations to become a history teacher were eventually replaced by a career in the oil business, he never forgot his fascination with the original inhabitants of the High Plains.
"The idea so many people have, that the Indians were just savages, our enemies, and we are finally rid of them," Rash sighed, "that's wrong. The idea that they just want to live on the agency, well, we forced them into that, basically."
Rash, who worked his way up to build a private oil company, is a believer in personal effort and responsibility. But, he notes, "if the Indians had enjoyed the same privileges that people have today, they might, some of 'em, come out of it. Some of them do. But there are so many, many that never get the opportunity."
Rash and his wife Priscilla developed a plan. "Our plan was to give back to the community artworks that would be meaningful," he said. "We started out with the idea to buy one good piece each year, and work on it slowly." When Priscilla died, 18 years ago, Rash said, "I kept collecting. I started with the art first, and then I got into the artifacts. They go together so nicely."
As he purchased items directly from the tribes, Rash's relationship with them deepened.
Some of the Native Americans have created in their art forms a magnificent way to make a living."
Rash supports them, because he loves the work, and because "this is one of the ways I can help them — by telling their story. They tell it with their artwork and they tell it with their artifacts."
Though the Coronado Museum displays a modest exhibit of artifacts, Rash envisions a Heritage Center on the grounds, where his personal collection can find a permanent home. With the support of the Seward County Historical Society and the City of Liberal, fundraising has already gotten off to a start. He hopes to see significant progress in the next few years.
"My problem now is that there's no place in Liberal, to leave this collection of mine," he said. "That's why we want to finish the Heritage Building. It's the hardest thing in the world to sell the idea of this to your own people but I want to see it happen. Tourism is a great benefit to the community. It's the cleanest source of economic development you can hope for. It brings people in, and it connects them to the past."
In the meantime, Rash treasures his connection to the past of his Southern Cheyenne friends, like William Red Hat Jr., who offers his highest praise.
"Don Rash has come among our people for many years, and has come to know us as we have come to know him," wrote Red Hat in a letter. "He knows of our struggle to preserve our ceremonial and traditional ways, our very identity as a people, in a white world. He has seen much that is the very best in our lives — our fine art, our carefully constructed craft work, the love we have for our children and for our elders.
"He has seen the darker side of our lives — the grinding poverty, the rampant diabetes, the powerlessness we feel in our lives. And through all of that, we have come to know him and have opened our hearts and our homes to each other. He is our true friend."
It's not possible to rewrite history, Rash says. But through his friendship with the Southern Cheyenne, it's possible to improve what history has left behind.