Language: Cheyenne is an Algonquian Indian language
spoken by about 1500 Native Americans in Montana and central Oklahoma. It is related to
Arapaho but has a much more complex phonology, with vowel devoicing and tones.
Some children are still learning Cheyenne as a native language, but due to the small number of speakers there is fear
that the language may die out if effort is not put into revitalizing it.
Cheyenne is a verb-based polysynthetic language with long words, complex morphology, and fairly free word order.
People: Cheyenne Indians call themselves Tsitsistas; 'Cheyenne' is a mistake, a Sioux word for
Cree. 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.
History: Many Native American tribes were victims of their small size, as smallpox
and other European diseases left too few survivors to withstand colonization. The Cheyenne
were victims of their own large size, for factions within their nation 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 some 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 one 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.
"Nits," he famously proclaimed, "breed lice." The most egregious massacre in American history--none
of the participants even attempted to claim that the victims were armed or dangerous--Sand Creek was
condemned as an atrocity even by the media of the time. 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 "broke out" to flee back to
the north, led by Chiefs Dull Knife and Little Wolf. Though many of the escapees were killed by the
US Army en route, the rest reached safety and their descendents still live in Montana today.