Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor


Between 1820 and 1869 the Cheyenne nation was the most powerful Indian military force in the Central Great Plains, despite comprising only about 3,500 people. They achieved a dominant military position by allying with the Arapahos and Lakotas, then driving the Shoshones toward the northwest and the Kiowas and Comanches to the south, while keeping the Crows and Pawnees at bay by continual attacks against their villages. Thus, they gained control of the prime bison-hunting areas between the forks of the Platte and on the upper reaches of the Republican and Smoky Hills Rivers, and achieved preferred access to trading posts on the Arkansas and South Platte Rivers.

The Cheyennes were also successful during this period in their warfare against the U.S. Army, which could not catch them on the open Plains, or was often sorry when it did, as at the Fetterman Fight in Wyoming in 1866 and the Battle of Beecher's Island in Colorado in 1868. The military success of the Cheyennes can be attributed mainly to four factors: they could mobilize up to 1,500 warriors, all the active men in the tribe, for a single engagement; their bands were dispersed most of the year so that they could observe anyone entering their territory; their warriors traveled light and took along spare horses for attack, pursuit, and escape; and they maintained ferocious war traditions, which included suicide warfare, dog ropes, medicine lances, and a complex system of war honors that encouraged quick and decisive combat.

The Cheyennes, who speak a language of the Algonquian family and call themselves Tsistsistas, did not see themselves as primarily a militaristic people, however, but as a religious people. Even today their traditional culture is organized around the annual Sun Dances, performed on their Oklahoma and Montana reservations, and the Arrow Renewal Ceremony, performed in Oklahoma. In addition, most Cheyennes are involved in the Native American Church, or peyote religion, as well as Christian denominations, especially the Catholic Church in Montana and the Mennonite Church on both reservations.

The Cheyennes entered written history during the seventeenth century in Minnesota around the shores of Mille Lacs, where they collected wild rice and made occasional trips to the Plains to hunt bison on foot. By 1766, however, some Cheyenne bands had acquired horses and moved their base to the Minnesota River to become mounted bison hunters, while at least one other band occupied an agricultural village on the Sheyenne River in North Dakota, a river that bears the name applied to them by their Dakota neighbors, meaning "red talkers," or people of foreign language. Several decades later the various Cheyenne bands were reunited along the middle Missouri River, where they pursued an economy of mixed agriculture and hunting, based in fortified villages on the riverbanks.

Later still, probably about 1790, the Cheyenne bands moved to the vicinity of the Black Hills, where they acquired more horses, which ultimately enabled them to give up agriculture for a nomadic life of full-time bison hunting. They were urged to do this by their prophet Sweet Medicine, who was given four medicine arrows by sacred persons whom he met in a cave at Bear Butte in South Dakota, known to the Cheyennes as Nowahwas, or Sacred Mountain. Two of the arrows were for killing bison by magical means, and two for killing their enemies.

The Cheyenne political system had two aspects, war and peace, and two kinds of chiefs, war chiefs, or notxevoe, and peace chiefs, or vehoe. The peace chiefs led the nation's ten or so bands, supervised their trade, and adjudicated disputes. When war threatened, they gave control of the nation to the war chiefs, who planned strategy and tactics and led the attacks. Ideally, there were forty-four peace chiefs in the Chiefs' Council, four of whom were senior, or "Old Man Chiefs," and each of the seven to ten military societies was led by one to four "Big War Chiefs" and four to sixteen "Little War Chiefs."

Most of the daily work in Cheyenne society was done by women, organized along matrilineal lines. A woman usually worked alongside her mother and mother's sisters, her own sisters, her daughters, and her sisters' daughters for her entire life. Women "ruled the camp" and owned the tipis and furnishings, as well as a number of horses. As workers, they organized guilds that honored women who had made tipi covers and liners, clothing, quillwork, and beadwork. Honorable women received the privilege of smoking a pipe after menopause.

Young women were married by ages sixteen to eighteen, the oldest daughter first. Because of warfare, there were more women than men in Cheyenne society, so if possible a second sister was married to her older sister's husband (sororal polygyny). If a man died, his brother was required to marry his widow to maintain ties between the two extended families. If a woman died, an unmarried sister was required to marry the widower, to take care of the children and maintain ties between the families. If there were no unmarried sisters, then a married sister or other woman related in the female line adopted the children. Modern Cheyenne women often "co-mother" their children, playfully calling the practice "Cheyenne health insurance.

The military societies founded in Aboriginal times are still active. They sponsor dinners and powwows to honor their members and families and raise money for the annual ceremonies. Also in existence are local groups of "War Mothers," which were first organized during World War I to honor servicemen and -women and veterans.

Concerning treaties, the U.S. government now admits its failure to live up to the treaties of Fort Laramie (1851) and Fort Wise (1861), and in 1968 paid compensation of approximately $2,000 to each Cheyenne, far less than the actual value of the land taken and annuities not received. In addition, the government has admitted to defrauding Cheyennes of their reservation land through the Jerome Commission, which was certified by the infamous Lone Wolf decision in 1903. The Cheyennes were never compensated for that fraud or for the 200 noncombatants killed and horses and belongings stolen in 1864 during the Sand Creek Massacre. The descendants of those attacked were promised indemnities under the Treaty of the Little Arkansas in 1865, which have not yet been paid as of 2001, although the Cheyenne Sand Creek Descendants Association continues to make legal efforts to collect the funds.

On their reservations, beginning in the 1870s, the Cheyennes were subjected to an unending series of programs, ostensibly intended to better their condition. Missionary and government schools were set up, and some have continued to modern times. After the passage of the Indian Reorganization Act in 1934 and the Oklahoma Indian Welfare Act in 1936, Cheyennes were able to organize an o.cial government on each reservation and to practice their religion and speak their language freely.

In recent years, the Cheyennes have taken steps to achieve economic self-sufficiency. They have inaugurated bingo halls in Oklahoma and tourist facilities in Oklahoma and Montana. They are presently negotiating with private corporations to bring manufacturing jobs to the reservation areas. Their present population consists of approximately 7,000 Northern Cheyennes enrolled on their reservation in southeastern Montana and another 7,000 Southern Cheyennes enrolled on their reservation in west-central Oklahoma.

See also GENDER: Native American Gender Roles / LAW: Lone Wolf v. Hitchcock / WAR: Sand Creek Massacre.

John H. Moore University of Florida

Berthrong, Donald J. The Southern Cheyennes. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1963.

Grinnell, George B. The Cheyenne Indians. New York: Cooper Square, 1962.

Moore, John H. The Cheyenne Nation. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1987.

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