Dr. John Woodenlegs

Dr. John Woodenlegs, Northern Cheyenne Visionary

In 1981, my friend, Dr. John Woodenlegs, died at the age of 71 years. The visionary leader had worked as a cowboy, road worker, coal miner and rancher. He also served as president of the Northern Cheyenne Tribe from 1955-1968.

John was the first Native American to receive an honorary degree from the University of Montana, a Doctorate of Humane Letters. He was also President of the Northern Cheyenne branch of the Native American Church from 1946-1975.

John got into trouble in his younger years, but later he was adopted by Chief Woodenlegs, a young warrior who witnesses the Battle of the Little Bighorn. John went on to serve his people as one of the greatest Cheyenne leaders of the 20th century.

In the 1960s and ’70s, Father Emmett had the pleasure of working with John to provide a factory where 150 tribal employees held full time jobs. For many of them, it was the first time they had regular paychecks and bought cars, furniture and new clothes for their families.

Like Chief Dull Knife before him, John valued education. “The time is past,” he told his tribe, “when we have to keep living in some old, broken down way…Education is the key to our future.”

As Tribal President, Woodenlegs started off with $600 a year for a total education budget and ended up with a full college budget for Dull Knife Memorial College, a two-year community college located at Lame Deer, Montana. He had lived to see his dream come true. “We have been mistreated in the past,” he told graduates, “but we can forgive and forget because God forgives all people.”

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