Cheyenne is pronounced “Shy-ANN.” It comes from the Dakota Sioux name for the Cheyennes, Šahiyenan, which may mean “relatives of the Cree.” In their own language, the Cheyenne call themselves Tsitsistas, “the people.” The Cheyenne were Great Plains people, originally native to the area that is now Colorado and Wyoming. Like many tribes, the Cheyennes were forced to leave their homelands by the Americans during the 1800’s, and today they live in two distinct communities: the Northern Cheyenne in Montana, numbering 6500, and the Southern Cheyenne, who are united with their longtime allies the Arapaho into a single Nation in Oklahoma with a combined 11,000 members. Like most Native American tribes, the Cheyenne tribes are autonomous. That means each tribe has its own government, laws, police, and services, just like a small country. However, only the Northern Cheyenne have their own reservation (land which belongs to them and is legally under their control.) The Southern Cheyenne and Arapaho live on trust lands or in Western Oklahoma towns. In the past, the Cheyennes were led by a council of 44 chiefs, four from each band. The Cheyenne people really valued harmony, so every council member had to agree on a decision before action could be taken (this is called consensus.) Today, Cheyenne council members are popularly elected… but they still work by consensus.
Originally the Cheyennes lived in settled villages of earthen lodges and birchbark wigwams. As their life style became more nomadic, they began to use buffalo-hide houses called tipis (or teepees). Since the Cheyenne tribe moved frequently to follow the buffalo herds, a tipi had to be carefully designed to set up and break down quickly. An entire Cheyenne village could be packed up and ready to move on within an hour. The Cheyenne women were in charge of the home. Besides cooking and cleaning, a Cheyenne woman built her family’s house and dragged the heavy posts with her whenever the tribe moved. Houses belonged to the women in the Cheyenne tribe. Men were hunters and warriors, responsible for feeding and defending their families. A woman might occasionally become a hunter or warrior, but a Cheyenne chief was always male. The Cheyennes traded regularly with other tribes of the Great Plains preferring to trade buffalo hides for tobacco and corn. Both men and women participated in storytelling, artwork and music, and traditional medicine.
The Cheyenne also fought wars with other tribes. Plains Indian tribes treated war differently than European countries did. They didn’t fight over territory but instead to prove their courage, and so Plains Indian war parties rarely fought to the death or destroyed each other’s villages. Instead, their war customs included counting coup (touch an opponent in battle without harming him), stealing an enemy’s weapon or horse, or forcing the other tribe’s warriors to retreat. So the Cheyenne sometimes were enemies of neighboring tribes like the Sioux, Comanches, and Kiowas, and other times they were allies. The Europeans who first met them were surprised by how often the Cheyenne tribe fought with their neighbors, yet how easily they made peace with each other when they were done fighting. The Dog Soldiers were the most famous of the Cheyenne warrior societies. They were also known as the Dog Warriors or Dog Men. They had this name because of a Cheyenne legend about dogs that turned into fierce warriors. Cheyenne Dog Soldiers were especially brave and honorable. When he was defending a Cheyenne village, a Dog Soldier would stake his long belt to the ground, to show that he would not run away but would defend his people to the death.
One of the worst encounters between the Cheyenne and the soldiers occurred at Sand Creek in Colorado.
The Cheyenne were victims of factions within their own tribal clans, which were poorly understood by the American settlers encroaching on their territories. For years, relations between Cheyenne Indians and white Americans followed an ugly pattern of a settler killing a Cheyenne woman from one clan, that clan killing some settlers in revenge, and then angry soldiers killing some bewildered Cheyennes from a different clan–prompting their own kin to take revenge, and starting the cycle anew. This bloody cycle reached its worst point in the Sand Creek massacre of 1864, where Colonel Chivington deliberately attacked a reservation of peaceable Cheyennes and Arapahoes under American protection and killed more than 150 Native American men, women, and children despite their repeated attempts to surrender. Sand Creek was condemned as a heinous atrocity. Eventually the Cheyenne people were forced to move to Oklahoma. The Cheyennes from the south grudgingly accepted this arrangement, but the Cheyennes from the north could not adapt to the hot weather and returned to Montana.