Standing: John Small and Clinton Small; Seated Horace, Sr. and Melvin Small. Photo courtesy A Cheyenne Voice

Native Sun News: Northern Cheyenne family celebrates history

The following story was written and reported by Clara Caufield, Native Sun News Correspondent. All content © Native Sun News.

Celebrating 347 years of cowboy life
By Clara Caufield
Native Sun News Correspondent

LAME DEER, Mont. –– Four Northern Cheyenne cowboy brothers – among the oldest tribal members – were re-united on Sunday, Feb. 15 at the Trail Creek Ranch, Kirby, Mont., to celebrate Melvin Small’s 90th birthday.

In a rare occasion, observed by over a hundred descendants and many more friends, Melvin was joined by brothers, Horace (Hoo-ray) Small, Sr. age 91; Clinton Small, age 85 and John Small, age 81, seldom nowadays in the same place at the same time. Special arrangements were made, for example, to bring Horace from a VA Nursing home in Sheridan, Wyo. All together the four brothers represent 347 years of cowboy life.

“That’s quite a while,” Melvin grinned modestly. “Seen a lot of things happen and a lot of folks come and go. Been a lot of cowboyin’ during all that time.”

The gathering was also historic for the Northern Cheyenne Tribe in that only five people of the eleven thousand plus enrolled members have reached the age of 90. These venerable tribal members include: Mary Underwood, 96; Oliver C. Sherman, 92; Bertha Beartusk Freeman, 91; Horace Small, Sr., 91 and Melvin Small, now 90.

The four brothers, well known in Indian Country and more specifically the rodeo world are the only surviving children of a family of 13, the offspring of Josephine Rondo, Northern Cheyenne and Tom Small, a Texan. The entire family included: Victor, born 1912 (Eva Hart, Cheyenne); Ed born 1913 (Irene LaRance, Chippewa-Cree); Max born 1916 (Helen, non-Indian); Josephine born 1918 (Buzz Matthews, Athabascan Alaska Native); Ivan born 1920 (Pauline Whitemanrunshim, Crow); Thomas “Tuck” born 1921 (Beatrice Seminole, Cheyenne); Vera (died in infancy); Horace born 1924 (Mabel Woodenlegs, Cheyenne); Ralph born 1927 (Molly Spotted Wolf, Cheyenne); Melvin born 1928 (Violet LaFranier, Cree); Clinton born 1933 (Jackie Big Horn, Sioux); John born 1934 (Betty Pilkington, non-Indian) and Hazel Ann born 1935 (died in childhood).

The large Small clan populates a rich agricultural valley, Kirby Creek on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation having spread out from Dry Creek, where their parents homesteaded. The Small family tree has deep roots, intertwined with much frontier history including both the Northern Cheyenne and Sioux Tribes, Mexicans and white cowboys reminiscent of the Lonesome Dove saga.

Some of that history was shared at the birthday gathering while other details have been provided by Chris Small, unofficial family historian and keeper of the Small family genealogy. She is the daughter-in-law of the late Ed Small, married to Llemuel “Butch” Small, Kirby Creek ranchers.

“The Small family story could be just as good as Lonesome Dove,” Chris commented. “All it needs is someone to put it together.”

Although the family history can be traced back to the early 1800’s and literally wanders all over the west, a good starting point is 1848. That is when the matriarch, Mary High Wolf, Head Woman, was born, daughter of Blind Wolf and Short Horn Woman and granddaughter of High Back Wolf, to whom many Northern Cheyenne trace their lineage. As a young woman, Mary lived with her family in the area of Laramie, Wyoming, part of traditional Cheyenne territory. There, she met and married an army colonel named Bullock and with him had three children, one son and two daughters, Julia and Susie.

An astute business woman, Mary acquired large herds of horses and cattle. According to oral accounts, she divorced Bullock when he sold her livestock without permission and then moved with her children to Sioux Country, specifically Pine Ridge where many Cheyenne were then living.

“She loved her horses, was known to raise some fine ones and would not tolerate that type of behavior,” Butch says.

At Pine Ridge she met and married a Mexican, John Rondo a former law man who came to America to avoid some dangerous repercussions from his “law work” in Sonora, Mexico. For a time he was a “hired gun” during the Johnson County cattle wars in Wyoming. Adverse to the vigilante justice and violence during that western conflict, he moved stakes to South Dakota where he and Mary met and eventually put together a large cattle/horse operation.

When the Northern Cheyenne Reservation was created in 1884, Cheyenne living elsewhere suddenly had the opportunity to “come home” which motivated the Rondos to make the move to Montana, Mary wanting to be enrolled at Northern Cheyenne.

The risky overland trip herding hundreds of horses and cattle took several weeks and Mary personally superintended the move while John stayed at Pine Ridge to take care of last-minute family matters. Two of Mary’s grown daughters, Julia and Susie stayed at Pine Ridge marrying into the Tibbetts and Jacobs families, who also have gained fame as horsemen and rodeo hands.

“Grandma Rondo has some pretty strong genes. She knew good horseflesh, a trait inherited by her descendants, including our Sioux cousins and there’s a bunch of them.” Butch speculates.

John and Mary Rondo had three children in Montana, including a daughter Josephine who as a young maiden was smitten by Tom Small, a cowboy who came to Montana with the cattle drives in the early 1900’s. At the time, the large cattle drives frequently camped on the Northern Cheyenne reservation where the fine grazing allowed them to fatten cattle before the last push to the stock yards in Miles City and Terry, Mont., some 150 miles distant.

It was also a perfect opportunity to trade horses with the Cheyenne, trading trail-weary mounts for fresh ones, the Cheyenne known to have excellent horses. Mary Rondo would have been right in that horse-trading mix and that may have been how Josephine and Tom met. Indeed, quite a number of these Texas cowboys married into the Northern Cheyenne Tribe, the lineage of many contemporary tribal members.

By all accounts, Tom was an outstanding “hand”, very talented with a rope. Melvin says that he taught many Cheyenne the finer points of that business. He was also a very handsome man and athlete, reportedly rarely beaten in a footrace, even into his fifties. Many of his descendants, such as Sterling Small, Melvin’ grandson, a State and collegiate track champion may have inherited that ability from “old Tom”.

When Tom and Josephine married, they carved out a ranch on Dry Creek, aptly named and quickly began producing the 13 children discussed in this article. Josephine died at a rather young age, leaving Tom to raise that large brood by himself, though as Melvin often says “we raised our ownselves mainly.”

Since then, the Small brothers have carved out ranches of their own, the older ones receiving allotments. Indeed, Melvin Small is one of the last of the original allottees who received land under the 1926 Northern Cheyenne Allotment Act, the last Indian Tribe in America to undergo that process.

“By then, we saw what had happened to other Tribes. Losing their lands under allotment,” Melvin earlier remarked. “So, we made up our minds to try and hang on to ours, put it to good use and try to make a living from it. We’ve pretty much managed to do that.”

That sums up a life of achievement from a modest man who has seen nine decades come and go. Happy Birthday, Melvin. We’ll catch up with you on the backside when you hit 100. Until then, keep your loops soft and maybe you could now consider riding broke horses.

(Clara Caufield can be reached at

Copyright permission Native Sun News

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