Cheyenne Indian Customs

Under their old system, before the division of the tribe, the Cheyenne had a council of 44 elective chiefs, of whom 4 constituted a higher body, with power to elect one of their own number as head chief of the tribe. In all councils that concerned the relations of the Cheyenne with other tribes, one member of the council was appointed to argue as the proxy or “devil’s advocate” for the alien people. This council of 44 is still symbolized by a bundle of 44 invitation sticks, kept with the sacred medicine-arrows, and formerly sent around when occasion arose to convene the assembly.

This set of 4 medicine-arrows, each of different color, constitutes the tribal palladium which they claim to have had from the beginning of the world, and is exposed with appropriate rites once a year if previously “pledged,” and on those rare occasions when a Cheyenne has been killed by one of his own tribe, the purpose of the ceremony being to wipe away from the murderer the stain of a brother’s blood. The rite did not die with the final separation of the two sections of the tribe in 1851, as has been stated, but the bundle is still religiously reserved by the Southern Cheyenne, by whom the public ceremony was performed as late as 1904. Besides the public tribal ceremony there is also a rite spoken of as “fixing” the arrows, at shorter intervals, which concerns the arrow priests alone. The public ceremony is always attended by delegates from the northern body. No woman, white man, or even mixed blood of the tribe has ever been allowed to come near the sacred arrows.

Their great tribal ceremony for generations has been the Sun dance (q. v.), which they themselves say came to them from the Sutaio, after emerging from the timber region into the open plains. So far as known, this ceremony belongs exclusively to the tribes of the plains or to those in close contact with them. The Buffalo head ceremony, which was formerly connected with the Sun dance but has been obsolete for many years, also came from the Sutaio. The modern Ghost-dance religion was enthusiastically taken up by the tribe at its first appearance, about 1890, and the Peyote rite (q. v.) is now becoming popular with the younger men. They also had until lately a Fire dance, something like that credited to the Navaho, in which the initiated performers danced over a fire of blazing coals until they extinguished it with their bare feet. In priestly dignity the keepers of the Medicine-arrow (Cheyenne) and Sun dance (Sutaio) rites stood first and equal.

At the Sun dance, and on other occasions where the whole tribe was assembled, they formed their camp circle in 11 (?) sections, occupied by as many recognized tribal divisions. As one of these was really an incorporated tribe, and several others have originated by segregation within the memory of old men still living (1905), the ancient number did not exceed 7. One authority claims these divisions as true clans, but the testimony is not conclusive. The wandering habit each band commonly apart from the others, with only one regular tribal reunion in the year, would make it almost impossible to keep up an exogamic system. While it is quite probable that the Cheyenne may have had the clan system in ancient times while still a sedentary people, it is almost as certain that it disappeared so long ago as to be no longer even a memory. The present divisions seem to have had an entirely different genesis, and may represent original village settlements in their old homes, a surmise rendered more probable by survivals of marked dialectic differences. As it is now some 70 years since the whole tribe camped together, the social structure having become further demoralized in the meantime by cholera, wars, and intermixture with the Sioux, the exact number and order of these divisions is a matter of dispute, even among their own old men, although all agree on the principal names.

The list given below, although subject to correction, is based on the best consensus of opinion of the southern chiefs in 1904 as to the names and order of the divisions in the circle, from the east entrance around by south, west, and north to the starting point. The name forms vary considerably as given by different individuals, probably in accordance with former dialectic differences. It is evident that in some instances the divisions are older than their existing names:

  1. Hevǐqs’-nǐ”pahǐs (sing., Hevǐqs’-nǐ’pa), ‘aortas closed, by burning.’ All authorities agree that this was an important division and came first in the circle. The name is said to have originated from several of the ‘band in an emergency, having once made the aorta of a buffalo do duty as a pipe. Grinnell gives this story, and also an alternative one, which renders it ‘small windpipes,’ from a choking sickness sent as a punishment for offending a medicine beaver. The name, however, in its etymology, indicates something closed or shriveled by burning, although it is also true that the band has a beaver tabu. The name is sometimes contracted to Hevǐ’gsin, for which Wee hee skeu of Lewis and Clark’s Journals (Clark, 1804, ibid., i, 190, 1904) seems to be a bad misprint.
  2. Móǐséyu (sing., Móǐs), `flint people,’ from móǐso `flint’, apparently having reference to an arrowpoint (Petter), possibly to the sacred medicine-arrows. Formerly a large division said to have been the nucleus of the Cheyenne tribe, and hence the Dzǐ’tsǐǐstäs proper. The Arrowmen of G. A. Dorsey. Now nearly extinct.
  3. Wŭ’tapǐu (sing., Wfŭ’tap), a Sioux word (wótap) meaning ‘eaters,’ or ‘eat’. A small division, perhaps of Sioux admixture (cf. 0`-mǐ’sǐs). Some authorities claim this division as an offshoot from the Hévhaitä’nio.
  4. Hévhaitä’nio (sing., Hévhaitän), ‘hair men,’ i. e. ‘fur men’; so called because in early days they ranged farthest to the southwest, remote from the traders on the Missouri, and continued to wear fur robes for every-day use after the other bands had adopted strouding and calicoes. A probable explanation, advanced by Grinnell, is that the name refers to ropes which they twisted from the long hair of the buffalo for use in capturing ponies from the tribes farther s. They formed the advance of the emigration to the Arkansas about 1835, hence the name is frequently used as synonymous with Southern Cheyenne.
  5. Oǐ’vimána ( sing., Oǐ’vimán ), ‘scabby people’; oǐ’vǐ ‘scabby,’ mana ‘band,’ `people’ (Petter); according to another authority, ‘hive people.’ An offshoot of the Hévhaitä’nio (no. 4). The name originated about 1840, when a band of the Hévhaitä’nio, under a chief known as Blue Horse, became infected from having used a mangy buffalo hide for a saddle blanket. They became later an important division. According to Grinnell (Social Organization, 1905) the name is also applied as a nickname to a part of the Northern Cheyenne on lower Tongue river, “because, it is said, Badger, a principal man among them, had a skin disease.”
  6. Hǐsíometä’nio (sing., Hǐsǐometä’n), ‘ridge men,’ referring to the ridge or long slope of a hill. Another offshoot from the Hévhaitä’nio. The name is said to have originated from their preference for camping upon ridges, but more probably from having formerly ranged chiefly north of the upper Arkansas, in that portion of Colorado known to the Cheyenne as the “ridge country,” or, according to another authority, from habitually ranging upon the Staked plain, in association with the Comanche. They were said to have originated from some Hévhaitä’nio who intermarried with the Sutaio before the regular incorporation of that tribe.
  7. (?) Sŭtáio (sing., Sŭ’tai), meaning unknown. Formerly a distinct tribe, but incorporated. According to their own statement the people of this division occupied the west of the Cheyenne circle, but others put them south, northwest, or north, the discrepancy probably arising from the fact that they had originally no place in the circle at all and were not admitted until the old system had fallen into decay. The west side of the Cheyenne circle, as of the interior of the tipi, being the place of honor, they would naturally claim it for themselves, although it is extremely unlikely that the Cheyenne would grant it. Their true position seems to have been in the northwest part of the circle.
  8. Ogt6gund (sing., Ogtógŭnă), ‘bare shins’ (?).
  9. Hó’nowă (sing., Hó’nów), ‘poor people.’ A small division, an offshoot from the Ogtuguna.
  10. Măsǐ’‛kotă (sing., Măsǐ’‛kot), of doubtful meaning, interpreted by Grinnell as ‘corpse from a scaffold,’ or possibly ‘ghost head,’ i. e. gray hair, but more probably (Mooney) from a root denoting ‘wrinkled’ or ‘drawn up,’ as applied to old tipi skins or old buckskin dresses; from this root comes masiskot, ‘cricket’ referring to the doubling up of the legs’; the same idea of ‘skin drawn up’ may underlie the interpretation ‘corpse from a scaffold.’ For some reason, apparently between 70 and 80 years ago, all the men of this division joined in a body the Hotámitä’nio warrior society, so that the two names became practically synonymous until the society name supplanted the division name, which is now obsolete, the Hotámitä’nio, with their families, being considered owners of that part of the circle originally occupied by the Măsǐ’‛kotă, viz, next to the last section, adjoining the O’mǐ’sǐs (no. 11), who camped immediately north of the entrance.
  11. O’mǐ’sǐs (sing., O’mǐ’sǐsts),’eaters’; the meaning of the name is plain, but its origin is disputed, some authorities claiming it as the name of an early chief of the division. Cf. Wŭ’tapíu, no. 3. This was the largest and most important division in the tribe and now constitutes the majority of the Northern Cheyenne, for which portion the name is therefore frequently used as a synonym. Before the tribe was divided they occupied that portion of the tribal circle immediately north of the east entrance, thus completing the circle. After the separation their next neighbors in the circle, the Măsǐ’‛kotă, alias Hotámitä’nio, were considered as the last division in order.

Hodge, Frederick Webb, Compiler. The Handbook of American Indians North of Mexico. Bureau of American Ethnology, Government Printing Office. 1906.

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