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ETHNONYMS: Sha-hi'ye-la, Itasi'na, Chien, Schian, Chayenne, Shyenne


Identification. The name "Cheyenne" derives from the Dakota word sha-hi'ye-la, meaning "red talkers" or "people of an alien speech." The Cheyenne refer to themselves as "Tsetsehese-staestse" (People), although today the Northern Cheyenne also are known as the "Notame-ohmeseheetse" (Northern-eaters) and the Southern Cheyenne are called "Heevaha-tane" (Rope-people).

Location. Throughout the late-eighteenth and mid-nineteenth centuries, the Cheyenne occupied a region that extended from the Yellowstone River, Montana, to the upper Arkansas River in present-day Colorado and Kansas. In all, their territory extended over 500,000 square miles, covering nearly eight states. The high plains is characterized by shortgrass vegetation, occasionally interrupted by riparian forests and shrubs along the more perennial waterways. Evergreen stands predominate at higher elevations. The climate is one of hot summers and harsh, cold winters, with an average annual precipitation of ten to fourteen inches. Although the Region was not conducive to horticulture, it did support a large bison population.

Demography. At contact (c. 1780) population estimates indicate that there were about 3,500 Cheyenne. Despite four known major epidemics and a number of massacres inflicted by the U.S. military forces, the 1888 Cheyenne reservation population was 3,497. Of that number, 2,096 were Southern Cheyenne living in Indian Territory (now Oklahoma) and 1,401 were Northern Cheyenne residing on the Tongue River Reservation, Montana, and the Pine Ridge Reservation, South Dakota. In 1989, the Northern Cheyenne numbered 5,716. An exact Southern Cheyenne population figure is more difficult to obtain. Currently 9,525 Southern Cheyenne and Arapaho are enrolled at Concho Agency; at least 50 percent identify themselves as Southern Cheyenne.

Linguistic Affiliation. The Cheyenne language is one of five main Algonkian languages spoken on the Great Plains. In the postcontact period, there were at least two major Cheyenne dialects, Tse-tsehese-staestse and So'taa'e, the latter spoken by a tribe incorporated into the Cheyenne. Today only Tse-tsehese-staeste is spoken, but So'taa'e words have been adopted into the language.

History and Cultural Relations

Cheyenne history and cultural relations are linked to their shifting adaptations from a woodland people to equestrian nomads on the Great Plains. Although the Cheyenne have never been associated with a specific archaeological focus, oral tradition and ethnohistorical evidence confirm that the protohistoric Cheyenne occupied the woodland-prairie Country of the upper Mississippi Valley, where they inhabited semisedentary villages located along lakes and rivers. As early as 1680, the Cheyenne initiated contact with the French in an attempt to establish trade relations. Their desire for trade provoked attacks from the Sioux and Chippewa, who were competing for domination. Outnumbered and possessing no firearms, the Cheyenne were forced westward into the Minnesota Valley and eventually onto the northeastern plains. On the plains, the Cheyenne established at least twelve fortified earthlodge villages along the Sheyenne and Missouri rivers. Allied with the Mandan and Arikara, they continued to war with the Chippewa, Assiniboin, and expanding Sioux. During this period, the Cheyenne incorporated the So'taa'e, intermarried Arikara, and the Moiseyu, a Siouan group from Minnesota. Although forced out of the Great Lakes fur Market, the Cheyenne continued to trade, serving as middlemen between more westwardly nomadic Plains groups and the Missouri River village people. Between 1742 and 1770, the Cheyenne acquired horses and became equestrian nomads. By 1820, the Cheyenne had stabilized their geographical and political position in the Black Hills region, allying themselves with the Arapaho and Oglala. From here, the tribe expanded in a southwesterly direction. Their separation into northern and southern divisions began as early as 1790 and was accelerated in the 1830s by the establishment of Bent's Fort on the Arkansas River and Fort William on the North Platte River.

Formal relations with the U.S. government was marked by the signing of the 1825 Friendship Treaty and White-Cheyenne relations were generally amicable until the 1840s. During this decade, the Cheyenne witnessed a flood of Whites migrating along the Oregon Trail and the destruction of their environment and bison herds; they also contracted infectious diseases at this time. The Cheyenne and their allies responded by conducting a series of minor raids. To end Indian-Indian and Indian-White hostilities, the U.S. government negotiated the Treaty of 1851, making the division Between the Northern and Southern Cheyenne permanent. The reduction of their land base, the continuing invasion of Whites, and the construction of forts prompted the Cheyenne to fight. For the next twenty-five years, they waged war against the U.S. military and White settlers; the Southern Cheyenne surrendered in 1875 and Northern Cheyenne resistance ended in 1879. With the Southern Cheyenne settled on their reservation, the U.S. government attempted to reconsolidate the tribe by forcibly removing the Northern Cheyenne to Indian Territory. Culturally alienated, starving, and infected with dysentery, measles, and malaria, 257 Northern Cheyenne broke out and avoided capture until crossing the North Platte River. There they divided into two bands, both of which were eventually captured, with the remnants allowed to relocate in 1881 from Indian Territory to Pine Ridge Agency. In 1884, the Tongue River Reservation was established by executive order in southeastern Montana and all the Northern Cheyenne were reunited. In 1892 the Southern Cheyenne-Arapaho Reservation was dissolved through allotment. The Northern Cheyenne Reservation was allotted in 1932, although the land was never opened to White homesteading, thus preserving the integrity of the Reservation. Presently, both tribes continue to struggle to establish the legal and cultural rights they have lost over the centuries.


For most of the year, the ten Cheyenne bands traveled independently throughout their territory. Camping locations were usually near the confluence of two waterways, near adequate game, wood, and grazing land for the horses. During the early summer, the bands congregated to conduct tribal ceremonies. Afterwards, the bands dispersed to their territories, settling in wooded areas along waterways for winter. After being placed on their reservations the Cheyenne continued to settle along waterways, although eventually communities were formed near government buildings or White towns. Aboriginal Cheyenne housing on the plains was a three-pole tipi replaced during the reservation period by cabins. Today, most Cheyenne live in governmental housing, mobile homes, or converted older reservation structures. Some of the homes are subStandard, although improvements have been made since the 1960s.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. Although casual gardening continued among some bands as late as 1850, the primary focus was the bison. Besides meat, the bison provided materials for shelter, clothing, and manufactured goods and was a trade item. Of over forty food plants gathered, the most important were the Indian turnip, chokecherries, and plums. European contact resulted in the adoption of trade foods into the Cheyenne diet. Coffee, sugar, bacon, and bleached flour became important commodities, especially during the dramatic decline of the bison. Cheyenne involvement in the nineteenth-century bison robe trade resulted in a further dependency on European goods. On reservations, rations, gardening, and marginal wage labor became the mainstay of the Cheyenne economy. Today the majority of the Southern and Northern Cheyenne income is derived through the federal government. Among the Northern Cheyenne, Tribal enterprises such as logging, ranching, growing alfalfa, seasonal wage labor, and governmental assistance provide most of their income. The Southern Cheyenne are involved in wheat raising, oil exploitation, some ranching, and governmental work projects. Both tribes continue to be underemployed and dependent on governmental support. The most important domesticated animal was the horse, which was used for transportation, warfare, and hunting, and became a source of wealth in Cheyenne society.

Industrial Arts. Cheyenne skills included leatherworking, woodworking, quillworking, featherworking, and stone carving. After direct trade with Europeans, metal objects, glass beads, cloth, and other items to decorate replaced articles of native manufacture. Today the Cheyenne continue to make objects for personal use, powwows, ceremonial purposes, and sale to non-Indians.

Trade. The extent of precontact trade is not fully known, but by the historical period the Cheyenne were involved in a complex trading network. As middlemen, the Cheyenne traded horses, dried bison meat, pemmican, dehydrated pomme blanche, and decorated robes, shirts, and leather pouches with the Missouri River tribes. In exchange, the Cheyenne obtained European items such as guns, powder, and foodstuffs as well as native maize and tobacco. By 1830, they had become involved in the bison robe trade with Europeans, which ended in the 1880s, leading to complete Economic dependency on the U.S. government.

Division of Labor. The division of labor was based on age and sex. Men's work included hunting, raiding, ceremonial activities, and manufacturing all items associated with these pursuits. Young boys and elder men in the household were often in charge of caring for the horse herd. Women's tasks were associated with domestic activities: gathering food and fuel, caring for children, butchering meat, making pemmican, erecting and dismantling the lodge, manufacturing all Household objects, and preparing bison hides for use or trade. Young girls assisted their mothers with these tasks, and elder women relieved the mother of child-care duties. During the bison hide trade period, men's and women's labor focused on acquisition and production of hides. During the reservation period, the division of labor was altered radically with Women's work increasingly devalued and confined to the Household. Since World War II, Cheyenne men and women have been employed in a variety of occupations ranging from trapping to law.

Land Tenure. Aboriginally, any Cheyenne had the right to resources within their territory. Although portions of their territory were contested by other Plains Indians, the Cheyenne claimed and actively defended the region from the yellowstone River to the Arkansas River. Within this territory, each band occupied and utilized a favored location, usually near major rivers.


Kin Groups and Descent. Descent was bilateral. Although clans probably existed when the Cheyenne resided in sedentary earthlodge villages during the 1700s, clans no longer existed after they became equestrian nomads.

Kinship Terminology. Prior to the alteration of the Kinship system during the reservation period, terminology followed the Hawaiian system, emphasizing horizontal classification along generational levels.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Marriage was a formal matter. Premarital sex was strictly prohibited and a girl's virginity was carefully guarded by her family. Because a young man postponed Marriage until he had horses and a respectable war record, Courtship often lasted for several years. The most respectable Marriages were arranged between families, although elopement took place. Until the pattern was interrupted by epidemic disease and warfare, marriage was forbidden to a relative of any degree. Most marriages were monogamous, but polygyny was permitted, often of the sororal type, with the levirate also practiced. Today there is still concern about the degree of relatedness between a couple wanting to marry. Traditionally, postmarital residence was uxorilocal. With the incorporation of the Dog Soldiers into the tribal circle, residence shifted in that portion of Cheyenne society to patrilocality, resulting in two residence patterns after 1860. Divorce could be initiated by either the husband or wife for mistreatment, adultery, or other marital transgressions. A man could publicly disgrace his wife by "throwing her away" at a public gathering.

Domestic Unit. The primary unit of cooperation and Subsistence was the vestoz, a residential extended family of related women and their conjugal families. Although the Nuclear family is the predominant pattern today, extended families still exist, often as an adaptation to the high unemployment rates, poverty, illegitimacy, and other socioEconomic factors associated with social disadvantage.

Inheritance. Some of a man's personal possessions were buried with him, but all the remaining property was given to nonrelatives. The widow and her children retained nothing. At funerals today, give-aways are still held before the body is buried and one full year after the death. Contemporary inheritance patterns are defined by legal stipulation and kinship.

Socialization. Children were generally raised permissively. Social ideals were taught through advice, counsel, and demonstration. Although physical punishment was rarely used, gossip, teasing, and sometimes ostracism acted as negative sanctions if the child misbehaved. Many of these mechanisms are used today, but physical punishment is also now used to correct undesirable behavior.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. Although kinship was the foundation of Cheyenne society, there coexisted four types of social organization: the vestoz (a camp), the manhastoz (a bunch), the notxestoz (military society), and the manhao (a sacred band). The manhastoz was structurally similar to the vestoz, but was larger and usually organized around a chiefs Household; it was organized for trade rather than strictly Subsistence pursuits. The manhao, the largest traditional Cheyenne social unit, was composed of numerous vestoz and manhastoz led by council chiefs. Most important, these ten "sacred bands" were recognized as having a camping position in the Cheyenne tribal circle when they came together to conduct ceremonies. The 1849 cholera and 1850-1851 smallpox epidemics and White expansion resulted in three "sacred bands" becoming extinct and others being depopulated. In response, a notxestoz, the Dog Soldier Military Society, merged with the remnant Mas'kota band and was added to the Cheyenne tribal circle. Aside from kin-based groups, there were various sodalities for men and women. The most famous male sodality was the Contraries; other male sodalities included the Buffalo Men and Horse Men. Women's sodalities focused on skill and achievement in manufactured articles, the most important being the Quillwork Society. In modern times, the War Mothers Association was organized to honor Cheyenne veterans.

Political Organization. Cheyenne political organization was unique among Plains equestrian peoples. They maintained a Council of Forty-four, leaders who made decisions for the entire tribe consisting forty headsmen (four from each of the ten bands) and four councilmen known as the old man chiefs. They were considered the wisest men and were often the tribal religious authorities. Each council member had equal authority and served for ten years. The Council of Forty-four met during the summer when the tribe congregated for ceremonies and decided on future tribal movements, relations with other tribes, the schedule of tribal Ceremonies, and important internal tribal matters. To carry out their decisions, the Council of Forty-four relied upon the six Cheyenne military societies. Membership in any of the military societies was open to all young men, although most boys joined their father's society. In addition, each society selected several young women, known for their chastity and virtue, who served as assistants in society ceremonial functions.

Social Control. The mechanisms of social control ranged from public ridicule, social withdrawal, songs, and ostracism to physical punishment carried out by the military societies. Such mechanisms were replaced during the reservation period. After allotment and Oklahoma statehood in 1906, the Southern Cheyenne came under the legal jurisdiction of state law enforcement agencies. Since that time, the Southern Cheyenne, like the Northern Cheyenne, have instituted a Tribal police force and tribal court system.

Conflict. Forced onto the plains through conflict, the Cheyenne, between 1790 and 1850, warred against the Crow, Shoshone, Pawnee, and numerous other tribes to establish hunting territories, to acquire new land, and to maintain an advantageous position in their trade relations with other tribes and Europeans. Other reasons for going to war were more individualistic, usually to acquire horses, take captives, or gain revenge. After 1850, the nature of warfare changed and the growing conflict with Whites became a fight for survival.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. The Cheyenne world was a dynamic, operative system with interrelated components. Within the Cheyenne universe (Hestanov), the world was divided into seven major levels. Spirit-beings (maiyun ) reside in this universe and their sacredness is relative to their relationship to Ma'heo'o, the creator of all physical and spiritual life in Hestanov. These levels are intersected by the Maiheyuno, a Personal spirit residing at each of the cardinal directions. Ri-ous animals, birds, and plants are manifestations of these spirit-beings. In Cheyenne religious expression, aspects of these spirit-beings or the spirit-beings themselves are entwined symbolically with plant and animal forms portrayed in Cheyenne ceremonies. Many Cheyenne today view the world's ecological crisis as an end to Hestanov. Christian missionary activity has been continuous among the Cheyenne for a century, especially the Mennonites and Catholics. Today there is a variety of religious beliefs and expressions including Christianity and the American Indian church, although Sacred Arrows (Mahuts ) and the Medicine Hat (Isiwun ) remain the most venerated sacred objects.

Religious Practitioners. Aside from the Keepers of Mahuts and Isiwun and the arrow priests, there were numerous Cheyenne shamans and doctors, each possessing a particular religious or healing power.

Ceremonies. There were four major religious ceremonies: the renewal of Mahuts, the Hoxehe-vohomo' ehestotse (New Life Lodge or Sun Dance), the Massaum (Animal Dance), and Isiwun. Mahuts was given to the Cheyenne by their cultural hero, Mutsoyef (Sweet Medicine). The four Sacred Arrows included two "Man Arrows" for warfare and two "Bison Arrows" for hunting. The Arrows were renewed every few years, unless a murder took place or a pledger needed their blessing. Presently, the renewal of the Mahuts, the New Life Lodge, and ceremonies surrounding Isiwun are still performed.

Arts. Aboriginal arts featured a particular musical style, songs, and an artistic tradition, all important parts of Cheyenne social and ceremonial life. The Cheyenne artistic tradition reflected not only the sacred but the socioeconomic pursuits of men and women. Presently, there are a number of prominent Cheyenne artists, and Cheyenne songs are still performed at various functions.

Medicine. Disease arose from both natural and supernatural causes. Curing techniques involved the use of herbal and root remedies, ritual purification, the sweat lodge, smoking, prayer, and sometimes surgery. Both men and women were healers. Treatment of sickness was designed to restore the patient not only biologically but spiritually as well. Presently, most Cheyenne use Western clinical medicine to cure afflictions, but native healers are still used by many people.

Death and Afterlife. Cheyenne believed that death, like disease, could have a natural or spiritual causation. As a cultural phenomenon, death was a spiritual process. At birth, Ma'heo'o provided the child with the "gift of breath/power" (omotome ) and "spiritual potential" (mahta'sooma). These two gifts are developed through life. As a person ages, the process is reversed. Mahta'sooma leaves the body, resulting in behavior and cognitive changes. Next omotome departs, bringing on death. The spirit of the deceased then travels up the long fork of the Milky Way to Seana, the camp of the dead. If the dead individual was an outcast, died in a violent accident or by suicide, or was an unredeemed sinner, he or she would travel the "suicide road," the short fork of the Milky Way. Others would return to earth as malevolent spirits. The concern for following the "good life," and so to have a "good death," is still prevalent among the Cheyenne.


Grinnell, George Bird (1923). The Cheyenne Indians: Their History and Ways of Life. 2 vols. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Moore, John H. (1987). The Cheyenne Nation: A Social and Demographic History. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.

Schlesier, Karl H. (1987). The Wolves of Heaven: Cheyenne Shamanism, Ceremonies, and Prehistoric Origins. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.

Weist, Tom (1977). A History of the Cheyenne People. Billings: Montana Council for Indian Education.


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CHEYENNE. The word "Cheyenne" is Siouan in origin, and traditional Cheyennes prefer the term "Tsistsistas." As a tribal nation, the Cheyennes were formed from several allied bands that amalgamated around the Black Hills in the early eighteenth century to become one of the most visible Plains Indian tribes in American history.

Their political unity has been based on respect for four Sacred Arrows that were brought to them"444 years ago" by the prophet Sweet Medicine. Each year, the Cheyennes conduct an arrow ceremony in honor of their prophet and a sun dance that allows tribal members to fast and sacrifice to secure blessings for themselves and their tribe. Their politico-religious structure, unlike that of any other Plains tribe, could require all bands to participate in military actions. Consequently, Cheyenne military leaders were able to mobilize their warriors to carve a territory for the tribe that reached from the Arkansas River to the Black Hills, a large territory for a nation of only 3,500 persons.

The Cheyennes first entered American documentary history as potential trading partners for U.S. interests, in the narratives of Meri wether Lewis and William Clark in 1806. Within a few decades, however, military confrontations had begun, ultimately resulting in Cheyenne victories at Beecher Island in 1868 and the Little Bighorn in 1876, and tragic defeats at Sand Creek in 1864 and Summit Springs in 1869.

In their long history, the Cheyennes mastered three different modes of subsistence. As foragers in Minnesota during the seventeenth century, they lived in wigwams. As corn farmers on the middle Missouri River, they lived in earthen lodges surrounded by palisades. As full-time nomadic buffalo hunters, they rode horses and lived in tipis. Each of these lifestyles had a characteristic social structure. As foragers, they lived in chief-led bands where both sexes made equal contributions to the economy. During the farming period, women came to dominate the economy, doing most of the agricultural work and preparing buffalo robes for trade. A council of chiefs comprised men who were important because they had many wives and daughters. About 1840, some Cheyenne men became oriented toward military societies, who emphasized raiding rather than buffalo hunting for subsistence. War chiefs began to challenge the authority of the peace chiefs.

At the beginning of the twenty-first century, the Cheyennes occupied two reservations, one in Oklahoma, which they shared with the Southern Arapahos, and another in Montana. The Cheyenne language was spoken

on both reservations, and they retained their major ceremonies.


Grinnell, George Bird. The Cheyenne Indians. 2 vols. Reprint of the 1923 edition. New York: Cooper Square, 1962.

Moore, John H. The Cheyenne. Oxford: Blackwell, 1996.

John H.Moore

See alsoLittle Bighorn, Battle of ; Sand Creek Massacre ; Tribes: Great Plains ; andvol. 9:A Century of Dishonor ; Fort Laramie Treaty of 1851 ; Account of the Battle at Little Bighorn .

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Cheyenne (indigenous people of North America)

Cheyenne (shīăn´, –ĕn´), indigenous people of North America whose language belongs to the Algonquian branch of the Algonquian-Wakashan linguistic stock (see Native American languages). The Cheyenne abandoned their settlements in Minnesota in the 17th cent., leaving the region to the hostile Sioux and Ojibwa. Gradually migrating W along the Cheyenne River and then south, they established earth-lodge villages and raised crops. After the introduction of the horse (c.1760) they eventually became nomadic buffalo hunters. The tribe split (c.1830) when a large group decided to settle on the upper Arkansas River and take advantage of the trade facilities offered by Bent's Fort. This group became known as the Southern Cheyenne. The Northern Cheyenne continued to live about the headwaters of the Platte River. For the next few years the Southern Cheyenne, allied with the Arapaho, were engaged in constant warfare against the Kiowa, Comanche, and Apache. Peace was made c.1840, and the five tribes became allies.

The Cheyenne were generally friendly toward white settlers until the discovery of gold in Colorado (1858) brought a swarm of gold seekers into their lands. By a treaty signed in 1861 the Cheyenne agreed to live on a reservation in SE Colorado, but the U.S. government did not fulfill its obligations, and they were reduced to near starvation. Cheyenne raids resulted in punitive expeditions by the U.S. army. The indiscriminate massacre (1864) of warriors, women, and children at Sand Creek, Colo., was an unprovoked assault on a friendly group. The incident aroused the Cheyenne to fury, and a bitter war followed. Gen. George Custer destroyed (1868) Black Kettle's camp on the Washita River, and fighting between the whites and the Southern Cheyenne ended, except for an outbreak in 1874–75. The Northern Cheyenne joined with the Sioux and overwhelmed Custer and his 7th Cavalry at the Battle of the Little Bighorn in 1876. They finally surrendered in 1877 and were moved south and confined with the Southern Cheyenne in what is now Oklahoma. Plagued by disease and malnutrition, they made two desperate attempts to escape and return to the north. A separate reservation was eventually established for them in Montana. There were almost 12,000 Cheyenne in the United States in 1990.


See G. B. Grinnell, The Fighting Cheyennes (1915, repr. 1956) and The Cheyenne Indians (2 vol., 1923, repr. 1972); E. A. Hoebel, The Cheyennes (1960); D. J. Berthrong, The Southern Cheyennes (1963); J. Millard, The Cheyenne Wars (1964); John Stands in Timber and M. Liberty, Cheyenne Memories (1967); P. J. Powell, Sweet Medicine (2 vol., 1969); J. H. Moore, The Cheyenne Nation (1987).

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Cheyenne Native North American tribe. During the 18th century, many abandoned sedentary farming for hunting buffalo. The tribe split in c.1830, with the Northern Cheyenne remaining near the Platte River, and the Southern Cheyenne settling near the Arkansas River. The Colorado Gold Rush (1858) brought rapid white migration and the Cheyenne were restricted to a reservation. War broke out following a US army massacre of Cheyenne (1864). General George Custer crushed Southern Cheyenne resistance, but the Northern Cheyenne helped in his defeat at Little Bighorn. They eventually surrendered in 1877. Today, there are c.2000 Cheyenne.

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Chey·enne • n. (pl. same or -ennes ) 1. a member of an American Indian people formerly living between the Missouri and Arkansas rivers but now on reservations in Montana and Oklahoma. 2. the Algonquian language of this people. • adj. of or relating to the Cheyenne or their language.

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