Information on the Cheyenne Indians
Recorded by Members of the Lewis and Clark Expedition 1804
The following excerpts from the journals of Lewis and Clark and their men present a picture of the Cheyenne people as the Anglo-Americans saw them. The modern reader must be careful to understand that what these white men saw and recorded was not necessarily correct from the Indian perspective.
The following passages have been freely adapted and excerpted from the original texts, and the spelling has been corrected to make them easier to read. For students wishing to quote these passages, the Journals of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, edited by Gary Moulton and published by the University of Nebraska Press, is the recommended source. For those who wish more in-depth information about Lewis and Clark's relations with various Indian tribes, including background from the Indian perspective, the best book is James P. Ronda's Lewis and Clark among the Indians. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1984. The very best way to obtain accurate information from the tribal perspective is to contact tribal councils for individual tribes - in other words, to consult the people themselves.
Cheyenne was the name the Sioux gave to the tribe; it means "people of a different speech." The Cheyenne called themselves Tsistsistas, meaning "the beautiful people." Sometime in the late 1600s the Cheyenne were pushed out of the territory in Minnesota where they had farmed and lived in permanent villages. In the late 1700s they gained the use of the horse and moved out onto the plains to become semi-nomadic hunters of the buffalo. They stopped farming and making pottery during this transition, but at the time of Lewis and Clark were still settled in earth lodge villages along the Missouri River. In about 1832 the Cheyenne split into two groups, the Northern, which stayed along the Platte River in Wyoming, and the Southern along the Arkansas River in Colorado. They had also begun the process of becoming allies with their former enemies, the Sioux. By the time of the Plains Indian Wars in the 1860s through 1890s, the Cheyenne and Lakota Sioux were close allies, fighting together at the Battle of the Little Bighorn and other confrontations with the U.S. Army. It was the Cheyenne people who suffered at the Sand Creek Massacre in Colorado in 1864 and the "Battle" of the Washita in Oklahoma in 1868. Today, most Cheyennes live on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation headquartered at Lame Deer, Montana. Some Southern Cheyennes share Federal trust lands with the Southern Arapahos in Oklahoma.
President, Northern Cheyenne Tribal Council
P.O. Box 128
Lame Deer, Montana 59043
1st of October Monday 1804
The Cheyenne Nation has about 300 lodges, hunt the buffalo, and steal horses from the Spanish settlements, which they do in 1 month.
16th of October Tuesday 1804
A little above our camp on the larboard side passed an old Cheyenne Village, which appears to have been surrounded with a wall of earth; this is the retreat of this nation & first stand after being reduced by the Sioux and drove from their country on the heads of Red River of Lake Winnipeg, where they cultivated the lands.
21st August 1806.
The sun being very hot the Cheyenne Chief invited us to his lodge which was pitched in the plain at no great distance from the river. I accepted the invitation and accompanied him to his lodge, which was new and much larger than any which I have seen. It was made of 20 dressed buffalo skins in the same form of the Sioux and lodges of other nations of this quarter. About this lodge was 20 others, several of them of nearly the same size. I inquired for the balance of the nation and was informed that they were near at hand and would arrive on tomorrow and when all together amounted to 120 lodges. After smoking I gave a medal of the small size to the Cheyenne Chief &c. which appeared to alarm him. He had a robe and a fleece of fat buffalo meat brought and gave me with the medal back and informed me that he knew that the white people were all medicine and that he was afraid of the medal or anything that white people gave to them. I had previously explained the cause of my giving him the medal & flag, and again told him the use of the medal and the cause of my giving it to him, and again put it about his neck, delivering him up his present of a robe & meat, informing him that this was the medicine which his great father directed me to deliver to all the great Chiefs who listened to his word and followed his councils, that he had done so and I should leave the medal with him as a token of his sincerity &c. He doubled the quantity of meat, and received the medal. The Big White Chief of the Mandans spoke at some length explaining the cause of the misunderstanding between his nation and the Arikaras, informing them of his wish to be on the most friendly terms &c. The Cheyenne accused both nations of being in fault. I told to them all that if they ever wished to be happy that they must shake off all intimacy with the Sioux and unite themselves in a strong alliance and attend to what we had told them &c. which they promised all to do and we smoked and parted on the best terms. The Mandan Chief was saluted by several Chiefs and brave men on his way with me to the river. I had requested the Arikaras & Cheyenne to inform me as soon as possible of their intentions of going down with us to see their great father or not.
Friday 22nd August 1806.
The Cheyenne are portly Indians, much the complexions of the Mandans & Arikaras, high cheeks, straight limbed & high noses. The men are large, their dress in summer is simply a robe of a light buffalo skin with or without the hair and a breech clout & moccasin. Some wear leggings and moccasins, their ornaments are but few and those are composed principally of such articles as they procure from other Indians such as blue beads, shell, red paint, rings of brass, broaches &c. They also wear bear's claws about their necks, strips of otter skin (which they as well as the Arikaras are excessively fond of) around their neck, falling back behind. Their ears are cut at the lower part, but few of them wear ornaments in them. Their hair is generally cut in the forehead above their eyes and small ornamented plats in front of each shoulder. The remainder of the hair is either twisted in with horse (of) or buffalo hair divided into two plats over the shoulder or what is most common flows back. Their women are homely, coarse featured, wide mouths; they wear (on) simply a leather habit made in a plain form of two pieces of equal length and equal width, which is sewn together with sinews from the tail to about half way from the hip to the arm. A string fastens the 2 pieces together over the shoulders, leaving a flap or lapels which fall over near half way their body both before and behind. Those dresses usually fall as low as mid leg. They are frequently ornamented with beads and shells & elk tusks of which (they) all Indians are very fond of. Those dresses are also frequently printed (into) in various regular figures with hot sticks which are rubbed on the leather with such velocity as to nearly burn it. This is very handsome. They were their hair flowing and are excessively fond of ornamenting their ears with blue beads. This nation peaceably disposed, they may be estimated at from 350 to 400 men inhabiting from 130 to 50 lodges. They are rich in horses & dogs. The dogs carry a great proportion of their light baggage. They confess to be at war with no nation except the Sioux with whom they have ever since their remembrance been on a defensive war, with the bands of Sioux. As I was about to leave the Chief of the Cheyenne lodge he requested me to send some traders to them, that their country was full of beaver and they would then be encouraged to kill beaver, but now they had no use for them as they could get nothing for their skins and did not know well how to catch beaver. If the white people would come amongst them they would become acquainted (with them) and the white people would learn them how to take the beaver.