Cheyenne People: History, Culture, and Current Status

Southern Cheyenne Stump Horn and his family outside home in 1890.
Southern Cheyenne Stump Horn and his family outside home in 1890.

Corbis / Getty Images

The Cheyenne people or, more properly, the Tsétsêhéstaestse, are a Native American group of Algonquin speakers whose ancestors came from the Great Lakes region of North America. They are known for their partially successful resistance to the United States government's attempt to move them to a reservation far from their home territories. 

Fast Facts: The Cheyenne People

  • Also Known As: Tsétsêhéstaestse, also spelled Tsistsistas; currently, they are divided into Northern and Southern Cheyenne
  • Known For: The Cheyenne Exodus, after which they were able to negotiate a reservation in their homelands
  • Location: The Cheyenne and Arapaho Reservation in Oklahoma, the Northern Cheyenne Indian Reservation in Wyoming
  • Language: Algonquin speakers, language known as Tsêhésenêstsestôtse or Tsisinstsistots
  • Religious Beliefs: Traditional Cheyenne religion
  • Current Status: Approximately 12,000 enrolled members, many residing on one of two federally recognized reservations

History

The Cheyenne people are Plains Algonquian speakers whose ancestors lived in the Great Lakes region of North America. They began moving westward in the 16th or 17th century. In 1680, they met the French explorer René-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle (1643–1687) on the Illinois River, south of what would become the city of Peoria. Their name, "Cheyenne," is a Sioux word, "Shaiena," which roughly means "people who speak in a strange tongue." In their own language, they are Tsétsêhéstaestse, sometimes spelled Tsistsistas, meaning "the people."

Oral history, as well as archaeological evidence, suggests that they moved into southwest Minnesota and the eastern Dakotas, where they planted corn and built permanent villages. Possible sites have been identified along the Missouri River, and they certainly lived at the Biesterfeldt site on the Sheyenne River in eastern North Dakota between 1724 and 1780. An outlier report is that of a Spanish official in Santa Fe, who as early as 1695 reported seeing a small group of "Chiyennes." 

Around 1760, while living in the Black Hills region of South Dakota, they met the Só'taeo'o ("People Left Behind," also spelled Suhtaios or Suhtais), who spoke a similar Algonquian language, and the Cheyenne decided to align with them, eventually growing and expanding their territory. 

Culture

Origin Myth

By the late 18th century, the Cheyenne had fashioned what must have been an earth-shattering adaptation away from farming to hunting and trading; that transformation is recorded in an important Cheyenne origin myth. In this story, two young men, called Sweet Medicine and Erect Horns, approach the Cheyenne camp, painted and dressed by their grandmother, an old woman who lives under the water. She calls them, saying, "Why have you gone hungry so long, why didn't you come sooner." She sets out two clay jars and two plates, one set with buffalo meat for Sweet Medicine, and the other with corn for Erect Horns. 

The grandmother tells the boys to go to the village center and put the meat there into two large bowls. After the people are fed, a buffalo bull leaps from the spring, followed by a great herd which continued all night long. Because of the new herd of buffalo, the Cheyenne people were able to camp through the winter, and in the spring they planted corn from the original seed of Erect Horns.

In one version of the tale, Erect Horns learns that the people have been careless and let others steal their seeds, so he takes away the Cheyenne power to raise corn, after which they must live on the plains and hunt bison. 

Cheyenne Language 

The language of the Cheyenne people is an Algonquin based framework known as Tsêhésenêstsestôtse or Tsisinstsistots. A Cheyenne Dictionary is maintained online by Chief Dull Knife College in Lame Deer, Montana. Over 1,200 Cheyenne today speak the language. 

Religion

The traditional Cheyenne religion is animistic, with two principal deities, Maheo (spelled Ma'heo'o) who was the Wise One Above, and the god that lives in the earth. Erect Horns and Sweet Medicine are important hero figures in Cheyenne mythology. 

Rituals and ceremonies include the Sun Dance, celebrating the spirits and the renewal of life. In the past, the Cheyenne practiced tree burial, a secondary burial process when the body is placed on a scaffold for several months, and afterward, the cleaned bones are interred in the earth. 

Commitment to a Trading/Hunting Lifeway

By 1775, the Cheyenne people had acquired horses and established themselves east of the Black Hills—some may have explored far and wide following the bison. Later, they adopted part-time trade and bison hunting, albeit still maintaining their agricultural lifeways. 

By 1820, about the time they met the explorer Stephen Long, the Cheyenne lived in bands about 300–500 in size, small economic groups who traveled together. The bands met in mid-June to late summer to allow time for political council meetings and shared rituals such as the Sun Dance. As traders, they acted as middlemen to the Comanche Empire, but in 1830, when Cheyenne tribal member Owl Woman married trader William Bent, the alliance with the Arapahos and Bent allowed the Cheyenne to trade with the whites directly. 

That year, political differences about how to deal with the encroaching Europeans began to split the Cheyenne. Bent noticed that the northern Cheyenne wore buffalo robes and buckskin leggings, while the southern wore cloth blankets and leggings. 

Southern and Northern Cheyenne

Flag of Northern Cheyenne
Flag of Northern Cheyenne. Arturo Espinosa-Aldama / Public

After they had acquired horses, the Cheyenne split: the Northern went to live in present-day Montana and Wyoming, while the Southern went to Oklahoma and Colorado. The Northern Cheyenne became the keepers of the Sacred Buffalo Hat bundle, made up of the horns of a female buffalo, a gift received by Erect Horns. The Southern Cheyenne kept the four Sacred Arrows (Mahuts) in the Medicine Arrow Lodge, a gift received by Sweet Medicine.

By the mid-19th century, the fears of white aggression were being felt across the country. In 1864, the Sand Creek massacre occurred, in which Col. John Chivington led the 1,100-strong Colorado militia against a Northern Cheyenne village in southeastern Colorado, killing over 100 men, women, and children and mutilating their bodies.  

By 1874, nearly all of the Southern Cheyenne began living with the Southern Arapaho on a reservation in Oklahoma that had been set up the by U.S. government five years earlier. In June 1876, the Battle of the Little Bighorn occurred, in which the Northern Cheyenne participated and the U.S. calvary leader George Armstong Custer and his entire force was killed. The primary leaders of the Northern Cheyenne, Little Wolf and Dull Knife, were not there, although Dull Knife's son was killed there. 

A drawing by Cheyenne warrior White Bird of the Battle of Little Big Horn, Montana, in which he took part
A drawing by Cheyenne warrior White Bird of the Battle of Little Big Horn, Montana, in which he took part. MPI/Getty Images

In retribution for the loss of Custer and his men, Col. Ranald S. Mackenzie led an attack on Dull Knife and Little Wolf's village of 200 lodges on the Red Fork of the Powder River. The Battle on the Red Fork was a devastating loss for the Cheyenne, fought hand-to-hand amid snowdrifts and subfreezing temperatures. Mackenzie and his band killed about 40 Cheyenne, burned the entire village and seized 700 horses. The remaining Cheyenne fled to stay (temporarily) with the Lakota led by Crazy Horse.

Cheyenne Exodus

In 1876–1877, the Northern Cheyenne migrated to the Red Cloud Agency near Camp Robinson, where Standing Elk and a couple of others said they would go to Indian Territory (Oklahoma). By August, 937 Cheyenne had reached Fort Reno, but several dozen of the Northern Cheyenne left the group on the way there. When the Cheyenne arrived at the reservation, the conditions were bad, with disease, limited food and housing, problems over ration disbursement, and cultural differences with the people living there.

A year after their arrival in Oklahoma, on September 9, 1878, Little Wolf and Dull Knife left Fort Reno with 353 others, only 70 of whom were warriors. They were going home to Montana. 

Re-Establishing a Home

By late September 1878, the Northern Cheyenne, led by Little Wolf and Dull Knife, entered Kansas, where they had fierce battles with settlers and military at Punished Woman's Fork, Sappa Creek, and Beaver Creek. They crossed the Platte River into Nebraska and split into two groups: Dull Knife would take the sick and elderly to the Red Cloud Agency, and Little Wolf would take the rest to the Tongue River. 

Dull Knife's group was captured and went to Fort Robinson, where they stayed over the winter of 1878–1879. In January, they were taken to Fort Leavenworth in Kansas, where they were treated poorly, and led a hunger strike. About 50 of the group escaped and gathered at Soldier Creek, where they were found, hiding in snow and cold. In January 1879, 64 Northern Cheyenne died; 78 were captured, and seven were presumed dead. 

A New Resistance

Little Wolf's group, whittled down to about 160, wintered in the Sand Hills of northern Nebraska, and then left for the Powder River, where they arrived in spring 1979, and soon began raising crops and cattle. Little Wolf quickly surrendered in March to Lieutenant William P. Clark at Fort Keogh, who wrote to his superiors in support of the band staying in Montana. Recognizing what was needed to do to stay in Montana, Little Wolf enlisted as a "sergeant" in the federal army's campaign against the great Teton Dakota leader Sitting Bull—others in the Two Moon's band signed on as scouts. Little Wolf also cultivated relationships with the military, working with Clark on a book on Indian sign language, and creating an alliance with Fort Keogh's commander Nelson Miles, to demonstrate how the Cheyenne were supporting themselves without annuities. 

In 1880, Miles testified to the Senate select committee that by the end of 1879, the tribe had cultivated 38 acres. In late 1879, Miles lobbied for the transfer of Dull Knife's band to Montana, although that put stress on the economics of the newly combined band. Miles had to let the Cheyenne forage for game outside of Fort Keogh.

Death of Starving Elk

A more permanent arrangement occurred after December 1880, when Little Wolf killed Starving Elk, a member of the Two Moons band, over a dispute about Little Wolf's daughter. Ashamed and disgraced by his actions, Little Wolf moved his family away from the fort to settle in Rosebud Creek, south of Keogh and west of the Tongue, and many Northern Cheyenne soon followed. 

In the spring of 1882, Dull Knife and Two Moons' bands were settled in the vicinity of Little Wolf's band near Rosebud Creek. The band's self-sufficiency was regularly reported to Washington, and, even though Washington had never sanctioned allowing Cheyenne to homestead off a reservation, the pragmatic approach was working. 

The Tongue River Reservation

Despite—or more likely because—the white settlers in Wyoming vied for the same property being homesteaded by the Northern Cheyenne, in 1884 U.S. President Chester A. Arthur established the Tongue River reservation for them in Wyoming by executive order. There were struggles ahead: Tongue River, today named the Northern Cheyenne Indian Reservation, was still a reservation, and putting boundaries on their property increased their dependency on the federal government. But it was a land much closer to their home territories, which allowed them to sustain cultural ties and practices unavailable to them in Oklahoma. 

The Cheyenne Today

Today there are 11,266 enrolled members in the Cheyenne tribe, including people on and off the reservations. A total of 7,502 people reside on the Tongue River in Wyoming (Northern Cheyenne Indian Reservation), and another 387 live on the Cheyenne and Arapaho reservation in Oklahoma. Both reservations are recognized by the U.S. government, and have their own governing bodies and constitutions.

According to the 2010 U.S. census, 25,685 people identified themselves as at least partly Cheyenne. 

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