Geographic Region: Plain and Praries
Linguistic Group: Algonquian
The oldest traces of Cheyenne culture are from the 13th century. This
people were farmers, gatherers and hunters. There is evidence revealing
that corn, tobacco, beans and pumpkins were cultivated along the rivers
from South Dakota to Texas. The people were settled and seldom left their
homes, except for when they went hunting buffaloes.
In the late 17th century, the Cheyennes were
driven from the area by the Sioux and Ojibwa. They gradually migrated
westward along the river that now bears their name. They settled on the
Cheyenne River in North Dakota, living in earth lodges, and farming. The
Ojibwa destroyed this settlement about 1770, and the Cheyenne moved south.
As time when on the Cheyenne people started to
get a growing interest in hunting, which soon forced them to give up their
feeling of security and the peaceful farmer life. During the periods of
hunting they had to keep pace with the buffaloes, and therefore moved
from one place to another all the time.
Cheyenne comes from the word Shai-ena, meaning people with a foreign language.
The language Cheyenne belongs to Algonquian, the same proto-language as
Shawnee, Ojibwa and Blackfoot.
almost every Indian tribe, the people were divided into smaller tribes
or clans, all with their specific duties and rights. In Cheyenne for example,
the children always got the same clan as their father. Two people within
the same clan could not get married, and this system kept the people from
ever worrying about wedding between those who were close relatives. The
first houses of the Cheyenne was small mud houses, but they were later
replaced by the tipi, which I suppose were more practical to carry along
at times when they had to move often.
The Cheyenne wore clothes in form of tanned leather, from all different
kind of animals. Both men and women wore breech clothes with leggings
tied to the belt and moccasins with different length depending on the
season. In cold weather, they usually put a buffalo robe on.
Religion and ceremonies
It might be difficult for a "non-Indian" people to get a clear conception
of what the reality of Indian belief is. What we are most familiar with,
is the so-called "Indian lore", which is largely borrowed from European
folklore and witchcraft, and does not have much to do with the "real"
One has to be raised as a Cheyenne to really
understand all ceremonies and the cosmology of the Cheyenne beliefs.
Story telling was a common tradition among all
native Americans, so also among the Cheyennes and the Haidas. Knowledge
was passed on from one generation to another through the elders telling
stories about creation, the animals in nature, fables, folktales and the
The highest and most sacred of the Cheyenne spirits
is Maheo, manifested in the Sun and the Moon and in the spirits of cardinal
directions , who are in turn represented by such lesser manifestations
as the rain spirit: Hoimaha and Nemevota. In addition to the classical
stories about gods and their struggles and love affairs, Cheyenne stories
deal with spiritual forces with humans. One special kind of spirit is
the hematasooma, which is a soul-force. It inhabits the human body, and
usually a human have four of this spirit; two good ones and two bad ones.
The good forces sometimes struggle physically within the body against
the bad forces. Each of these four spirits can whenever they want to leave
the body for a while. If all four leave, a person dies, and the immortal
soul, Seoto takes over.
Most Indian groups had at least one shaman in
each tribe. The shaman, or the medicine-man was one of the most important
people in the tribe. The shaman could be either male or female. The shaman
was the people's gate to the spirit world. He or she could among many
other things heal those who got sick through indicated rituals of dance,
chanting and sleight of hand. The shaman was the one to protect the village
from evil spirits.
The organisation and logistics of Indian ceremonies
and rituals are often very complex. The Arrow Ceremony, which is unique
to the Cheyenne, is one of the most important ones built around the four
sacred arrows, which are called mahuts, once given to the Prophet Sweet
Medicine. These arrows represent the nation, and the purpose of the ceremony
is to purify the arrows and thence the nation so that they are worthy
of receiving the blessings of Maheo during the Sun Dance. During the ceremony,
the participants increase their control of energy; the whole tribe becomes
renewed and prepared for the Sun Dance.
The Sun Dance is unlike the Arrow Ceremony shared
among nearly all Indian nations. There are three standard practices for
the tribes that are celebrating the Sun Dance. They require the attendance
of the whole tribe, they have a central arbor for the performance of the
ceremony and they incorporate the dancing of painted, fasting supplicants.
The Cheyennes do not call their ceremony a Sun Dance, except for when
they are speaking to white people. They usually call it the New Life Lodge
or Life Generator Lodge.
In 1970 there was about 10 000 cheyenns living in reservations. Most of
the Cheyennes live in reservations, and most do not have a telephone.
Poverty and unemployment are big problems here as well. There is a special
authority dealing with these kinds of questions, but it is still an unfair
system. Young people are offered education, but not at all on the same
conditions as the white people.
Everywhere in the United States and Canada, special
"Indian Days" are arranged each year, partly because of the commercial
interest, but also for the Indians' sake. The Indians themselves has also
kept many of their traditions and ceremonies. The Cheyennes, for example
still keep the four arrows and they are still doing the Sun Dance.
Written by Lena Larsson