Published on July 7, 2014 by Amy
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.
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Cheyenne Indians call themselves Tsitsistas; ‘Cheyenne’ is a mistake, a Sioux word for Cree. The Cheyenne were 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.
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.