Cheyenne Tribe: Facts, History & Religion

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  • 0:02 Who Are the Cheyenne?
  • 1:34 Religion
  • 2:14 17th Century
  • 3:18 18th and 19th Century
  • 5:36 20th Century
  • 6:03 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Crystal Daining

Crystal has a master's degree in history and loves teaching anyone ages 5-99.

In this lesson, we'll explore the Cheyenne tribe, a Native American people that originated in the woodlands of Minnesota. Learn about the tribe's history and religion, as well as how it was forever changed by contact with white settlers and explorers.

Who Were the Cheyenne?

The Cheyenne tribe consisted of Native Americans that began as a woodland people in Minnesota before events of the late 1600s forced them into nomadic life on the Great Plains.

In Cheyenne society, the extended family was the most important unit, with children, parents, and grandparents living close to each other and sharing economic resources. Work assignments were based upon age and sex. Young boys and old men often took care of the horses, while middle-aged men conducted raids, hunted bison, and participated in ceremonial activities. Middle-aged and young women erected and dismantled homes, gathered food and fuel, and butchered meat, while older women watched the youngest members of the village.

The Cheyenne tribe included the Council of Forty-Four, made up of 40 headsmen, with four representatives representing ten bands. Each council member was equal in power and served for ten years. Considered the wisest men in the tribe, four councilmen known as the old man chiefs often served as religious leaders. The Council made decisions for the entire tribe, including those related to external and internal conflicts, ceremonial schedules, and tribal moves.

The Cheyenne participated in very complex trading networks, often serving as the middleman between the Europeans and other Indian tribes. Due to their trading connections, the Cheyenne usually had their villages on or near important rivers in order to open their route options.


The Cheyenne believed the world was divided into seven major levels. According to the Cheyenne, Ma'heo'o was the creator of all physical and spiritual life, including spirit-beings that took both plant and animal form. Their most sacred objects were the four sacred arrows.

Ceremonies were conducted by individuals with access to the spiritual world, such as medicine men, priests, and shamans, and symbolized hope, renewal, and survival, among other aspirations. Key ceremonies included the Animal Dance, Arrow Renewal, and Sun Dance, which even today, remain sacred and private.

17th Century

When the Cheyenne tribe first encountered French traders in 1689, they were living in what is now Minnesota. Other Indian tribes in the area, including the Chippewa and Sioux, competed with the Cheyenne for trade relations, eventually attacking them with European firearms. To escape their enemies, the Cheyenne moved first into Western Minnesota and then onto the Great Plains.

After leaving Minnesota, the Cheyenne pursued a largely nomadic or wandering lifestyle, although they did build some villages along the rivers of the Great Plains. While moving from place to place, the Cheyenne hunted bison and made tipis. At one point during their nomadic journeys, the Cheyenne lived near the Black Hills of South Dakota.

While in South Dakota, a Cheyenne prophet named Sweet Medicine entered a cave where he received the four sacred arrows, still revered by the tribe today. Sweet Medicine helped keep the nomadic Cheyenne together by establishing the Forty-Four Council, maintaining general order and organizing tribal society.

18th Century

Sometime in the mid-1700s, the Cheyenne acquired horses, which helped cement their new life as nomadic hunters. Due to the Cheyenne presence in other Indian territories, wars over hunting rights and land broke out during the late 1700s. Unlike the other Great Plains tribes, the Cheyenne maintained trading networks with the Europeans. Trading relationships with the Europeans provided the Cheyenne with a distinct advantage over the other Great Plains tribes, in that they provided them with access to firearms and horses.

19th Century

In 1825, as a result of disagreements over trading networks, the Cheyenne split into two groups: the Northern Cheyenne and the Southern Cheyenne. The Northern Cheyenne moved to Montana, while the Southern Cheyenne settled in Western Oklahoma. During the mid-1800s, the Cheyenne watched as thousands of white settlers migrated west on the Oregon Trail, slaughtering most of the bison and spreading infectious diseases. The Cheyenne and their allies responded by raiding and attacking the settlers, which led to the Indian Wars.

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