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Who are the Cheyenne Indians?

By Brenda Scott
Updated: May 17, 2024

The Cheyenne Indians, one of the Plains Indian tribes, are a Native American nation which owns two reservations; one in southwestern Montana, where the Northern Cheyenne live, and one in Oklahoma, which is the home of the Southern Cheyenne and Arapaho. The two factions are related as one nation, but they have separate tribal governments. The Cheyenne originally called themselves the Tsistsistas, which meant beautiful people. The Sioux, however, referred to them as Cheyenne which means "red talker," or people with a different speech, and that name which was eventually adopted.

The first recorded European contact with the Cheyenne Indians was in 1680 when a representative of the tribe invited French traders to visit and trap on their lands. At that time the tribe was settled on the Red River in what became Minnesota, where they lived in villages and trapped, traded and farmed. Over time, they were displaced by the Sioux, who were in turn being pushed father west. The Cheyenne migrated across the plains to Wyoming and South Dakota, near the Black Hills. After coming west, they became a nomadic tribe who followed the movement of the buffalo, which quickly became their primary food source.

The tribe had a warrior caste system which was based upon the age of the men. Eventually a caste known as the Dog Soldiers became so powerful that it ruled almost the entire Cheyenne nation. Dissension between the castes gradually developed, and in 1832, the Cheyenne Indians divided into two groups, the Southern Cheyenne and the Northern Cheyenne. The Northern faction stayed along the Platte Rivers while the Southern group moved into western Kansas and eastern Colorado along the Arkansas River.

Though the Cheyenne did have occasional battles with the Sioux, Comanche and Kiowa, they were fairly peaceful and willing to resume friendly relations with former enemies once the fighting was over. As a general rule, the Cheyenne Indians did not fight with the white settlers until 1861. Angered by broken treaties and invasions into land ceded to them, they joined neighboring tribes in attacking white settlements, wagon trains and homesteads in a series of actions referred to as the Indian Wars.

In September of 1864, the Southern Cheyenne Indians met with Major Wynkoop and concluded a successful peace agreement which gave them the right to settle in southern Colorado. Chief Black Kettle withdrew his people to the area along Sand Creek and set up a winter village. To show that they were living under the terms of the agreement, the chief posted both a white flag and an American flag at the village. In total disregard for the peace negotiations, Colonel John Chivington of the Colorado militia led 700 volunteers into the undefended village in what became known as the Sand Creek Massacre.

Furious over the betrayal, survivors joined the Dog Soldiers who were convinced that no treaty with the white man was possible. Northern Cheyenne, who had not participated in the earlier raids, joined Sitting Bull of the Sioux and fought in the Battle of Little Bighorn. In time the southern Cheyenne Indians were captured and forced into lands in Oklahoma, where many died of malaria and starvation. Under the leadership of Chief Little Wolf and Chief Dull Knife, also called Chief Morning Star, a group of Cheyenne Indians left the southern reservation in an attempt to join the northern tribe. Most were captured and eventually killed, though a small band of survivors did manage to make it to Montana where they were eventually granted reservation rights.

America Explained is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
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