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A Tribal Language Story

Part 2

Adeline Spotted Elk, Northern Cheyenne (Courtesy Photo)

As noted in Part 1 of this article, the Northern Cheyenne are desperately struggling to save their language. Only approximately 315 of the nearly 12,000 enrolled members remain fluent speakers.

Most speakers are elders. Due to COVID and other causes about two hundred speakers have been lost in the past decade. “At this rate, the Northern Cheyenne language could soon be lost as an oral form of communication by 2036.” predicted Dr. Richard Littlebear.

He studies indigenous language peril around the world. “Our story is not unique,” he commented. ”Many languages are dying because of the influences of Mandarin (a Chinese language) English and Spanish. Many indigenous people are now speaking these three languages because they are so prevalent in their areas and because they open the door to economic opportunity.”

“The Northern Cheyenne story is typical of what is happening to the Great Plains Tribes and others in America. All indigenous people need to learn from one another and support each other on this matter. When a language disappears it is extremely hard, sometimes even impossible, to resurrect.”  Littlebear concluded.

On the other hand, there are Northern Cheyenne tribal members still conversant in the language and use it daily. There are also Southern Cheyenne speakers, in Oklahoma.

According to anthropologists, in 1800 there were approximately 3,500 Northern Cheyenne.  That estimate did not include the Southern Cheyenne. Then, the Cheyenne language (Tsėhesenėstsėhestotse and its cousin So’taevenėstsestȯtse) were spoken by everyone.

During the Indian wars of the Great Plains, many terrible things happened to the Northern Cheyenne, a Tribe once called the “wildest of the wild Indians” by famed Indian fighter General Nelson A. Miles. The Northern Cheyenne sought to avoid any contact with the “Ve’ho’e” (white people) as advised by their prophets Erect Horns and Sweet Medicine. He advised that contact would lead to their demise, both physically and spiritually.

“You could wind up like wild dogs, fighting each other,” was part of his dire prophecy.

That world view is amply articulated by Father Peter Powell in People of the Sacred Mountain, a book regarded as the definitive cultural resource about the Northern Cheyenne.

This book is based on extensive interviews of Cheyenne tribal elders over many decades by the author who lived with the tribe.

Powell, a non-Indian Catholic priest, was granted the singular honor of participating in sacred ceremonies, like fasting at Bear Butte in South Dakota. The elders gave him permission to author his exhaustive research about the Cheyenne world.

General Nelson A. Miles also called the Northern Cheyenne the “greatest light cavalry in the world.”  But even that fleet and agile military force could not outrun Manifest Destiny. The Northern Cheyenne were among the last of the Great Plains tribes to quit fighting the United States government. Afterwards, they suffered horrible consequence for long term resistance.

During the fighting times, the loss of even one Northern Cheyenne warrior was devastating; unlike the U.S. Military which simply recruited more soldiers. Each of those lost Northern Cheyenne warriors is still remembered by personal name and deed. Those memories are fresh, less than two hundred years old.  These events are embedded in Northern Cheyenne tribal memory and thus, could have happened yesterday.

By 1882, the Northern Cheyenne were subdued. In 1884, the Tribe gained the Tongue River Reservation. The 1886 BIA reservation census listed fewer than 1,000 survivors, mostly elders, women and children. At least two thirds of the Tribe had been killed.

Soon after the establishment of the Reservation, several corrosive efforts were set in motion by the U.S. government and the churches. The goal was to “civilize, Christianize and de-Indianize” tribal peoples; in effect, trying to make them brown-skinned people who would talk, think, and work like white people.  That was assimilation.

Under Federal policy of that time, it became illegal to practice traditional ceremonies, which in the Cheyenne belief are necessary for physical and spiritual survival. It is also critical to conduct the ceremonies in the tribal tongue.

Some concepts, words, and the Cheyenne worldview are nearly impossible to translate.  Simply put, the Northern Cheyenne “see” the world differently than the dominant society, especially when expressed in the Cheyenne language.

During the first decades of Reservation life, Cheyenne children were routinely sent to boarding schools, usually under the management of Christian churches and U.S. government boarding schools. At these establishments, tribal languages could only be spoken under pain of punishment. “Take away the language and religion and you take away their spirit” said one well-meaning missionary of that time.

Yet, a resilient core of Cheyenne families continued to practice ceremonies by “going underground” such as sneaking into the hills to perform Sun Dances, conduct “sweats” in secret and so forth, all the while speaking their language, out of hearing of the BIA officials. They saved the ceremonies and rituals which are now practiced legally under the auspices of the American Indian Religious Freedom Act.

Ironically, Native Americans had to fight for the right to practice their religion, a right guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution.

Another factor contributing to language decline is marriage between Cheyenne people and non-Indians.  The mixed-blood children of those unions grow up in English-speaking households.  According to Cheyenne mores, it is socially unacceptable to marry anyone who is remotely related by blood. Thus, choices of husbands were then slim for many Cheyenne women.  The strongest and most capable Cheyenne men had been killed during the time of conflict with the U.S. government. Many of the surviving men fell into despair, no longer having purpose as warriors, protectors, or hunters, say the elders.

During that time of conflict with the United States government, and still true today, some Cheyenne people decide it easier for the children to speak English as a first language.

For example, Chris Small from the Kirby Creek District on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation related the views of her late father-in-law, Ed Small, who was once Chairman of the Busby Boarding School.  Though he spoke both Cheyenne and English, he opposed bilingual education in schools, based on his experience as a boarding school student.

He said he felt so sorry for those young ones who could not understand English, because they suffered horribly, punished for speaking tribal tongue. He remembered hearing them crying at night, calling out for someone who might understand what they were saying.

“Our young ones should learn it at home, like I did,” she recalls him saying. “But they also need to speak English to survive in today’s world.”

It was an effective governmental language genocide campaign. According to Tribal historical accounts, maintained by Chief Dull Knife College (CDKC), by the 1950’s, among the then estimated 1,500 people, only about half of the Cheyenne were fluent in the “old-time” language, the ability to conduct a conversation for at least one hour without incorporating English words.

Other speakers incorporate English words such as automobile, bicycle, telephone etc., effectively creating a “Pidgeon” version of Cheyenne. And while many can understand and speak in a limited way, the number of people using the language on a regular basis is still seriously declining. The Tribe and Tribal College are trying to turn the tide on that.

This story will be continued in Part 111, next issue.

(Contact Clara Caufield at




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