The Cheyennes conceived of a universe divided into seven major levels, each with resident spiritual beings that were also associated with earthly plants and animals. They also believed in a creator of all life. Through fasting and prayer, both men and women sought visions in remote places to acquire guardian spirit helpers, whose associated songs, prayers, and symbols would provide special skills or protection in times of crisis. Priests and doctors (shamans) used plants to cure disease. Annual ceremonies included the Renewal of Sacred Arrows, the Sun Dance (New Life Lodge), and the annual, five-day Sacred Buffalo Hat ceremony.
On the Plains, traditional government consisted of the Council of Forty-Four: a group of forty exceptionally wise, generous, brave, and able men, four from each of the ten bands, plus four elders/religious authorities held over from the previous council. The latter four men, plus a tribal chief chosen by them, were known as the five sacred chiefs. Council terms were ten years. Each band also had its own chief. Six military societies helped to carry out council directives and maintain strict internal discipline.
Bands lived separately in the winter so as to hunt more effectively in a wider space. In the summer, the bands came together for the communal buffalo hunt and for sacred ceremonies. At these times, the camp consisted of a large circle, within which each band had a designated position. Murder was considered among the most reprehensible of crimes as well as a sin; murderers were ostracized for life or exiled. Bravery was highly valued, as was female chastity. Games, generally accompanied by gambling, included lacrosse and the cup-and-ball game. In addition to the men's military societies, the highly prestigious buffalo society was open only to women who had embroidered at least thirty buffalo hides. Corpses were dressed in their best clothing, wrapped in robes, and placed on a scaffold, usually in a tree. While still in the northern Mississippi Valley, Cheyennes lived in bark lodges and, in North Dakota (Shyenne River area), in earth lodges. By the late eighteenth century they had begun living in buffalo hide teepees.
The Cheyennes grew corn, beans, and squash; gathered wild rice; fished; and hunted in the northern Mississippi and Shyenne valleys. From the late eighteenth century on, as the tribe became nomadic hunters, their diet depended largely on the buffalo. Cheyennes also ate other large game as well as dog. The Plains diet was supplemented by wild turnips, berries, and prickly pear cactus. The Cheyennes made pottery prior to their move to the Plains. Once there, the buffalo provided most of their clothing, dwellings, tools, containers, and utensils. They also made small, shallow basketry trays, primarily used for gambling. Cheyennes traded at both pre-contact trade centers of the northern Plains: Mandan villages on the Knife River and the Arikara villages in present-day South Dakota.
Traditional artists worked with leather, wood, quills, and feathers. They also carved pipes. Women dressed the skins for clothing. They made moccasins, leggings, breechclouts, shirts, and robes for men, and for themselves they made two-piece dresses and moccasins with leggings and robes in the winter. Clothing was usually decorated with beaded quillwork.
During the late eighteenth through the midnineteenth centuries, the Cheyennes were great warriors and raiders. Six interband military societies, such as the prestigious Dog Soldiers, selected a war chief. As Plains dwellers, counting coup in battle by touching an enemy counted for more prestige than killing him. Weapons included the horn bow, arrows, clubs, shields, and spears.
The Algonquin people may have come north from the lower Mississippi Valley shortly after the last ice sheet receded. Sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Cheyennes lived in the upper Mississippi Valley in permanent villages and grew corn, beans, and squash. They also fished and hunted game, including buffalo.
Some bands encountered René-Robert de La Salle in 1680, on the Illinois River. The French fur trade in the Great Lakes region was responsible for arming local Indian groups such as the Ojibwas with guns; these groups began attacking Cheyenne villages, eventually forcing them to abandon the region and undertake a slow migration westward throughout the eighteenth century. By the end of the eighteenth century, well armed Ojibwas (Anishinabes) had destroyed a main Cheyenne village. The surviving Cheyennes moved farther west, to the upper Missouri River, joining some of their number who had gone there several years earlier.
By the early nineteenth century, raids from Siouan tribes forced the Cheyennes completely out onto the Plains, where they gave up farming entirely, becoming nomadic buffalo hunters as well as fierce fighters. Allied with the Arapahos, they settled primarily near the Black Hills and then in the upper Platte–Powder River area, where they eventually became allied with Lakota bands. About 1832, some bands moved south, attracted by trade centered around Taos, New Mexico, as well as Bent's Fort on the Arkansas River in southern Colorado. The move precipitated a tribal split into northern and southern Cheyennes. In alliance with the southern Arapahos, the southern Cheyennes controlled most of the buffalo country between western Kansas and eastern Colorado and the Platte River.
In 1837 a major war broke out, with the southern Arapahos and southern Cheyennes fighting against the Comanches; peace was established in 1840, largely on Arapaho–Cheyenne terms. The Cheyennes signed the 1851 Fort Laramie Treaty, which reaffirmed their right to land between the North Platte and Arkansas Rivers. The treaty also formalized the separation of the Cheyenne groups. Meanwhile, non-Indian leaders of territorial Colorado had decided to force all Indians from that region. Pressure against the southern Cheyennes was increased, especially after the Pike's Peak gold rush of 1859. Under Chief Black Kettle (Moketavato), the southern Cheyennes repeatedly compromised in an effort to avoid war. However, the 1864 massacre and mutilation of several hundred of their people at Sand Creek, Colorado (where they had been told to camp under the protection of the U.S. Army and met the soldiers flying a white surrender and an American flag), forced the southern Cheyennes to cede their lands in Colorado.
Black Kettle continued to seek peace but was shot down with his tribe, who offered no resistance, in the Washita Valley, Oklahoma, in 1868. At this point, the Cheyennes divided again. One group went north to the Powder River Country, and most of the rest settled on the Southern Cheyenne and Arapaho Reservation, established in 1869 in Indian Territory. This roughly 4-million-acre reservation was eliminated through allotment and non-Indian settlement by 1902. Some southern Cheyennes continued to fight with the Kiowas, Comanches, and Arapahos, until the few survivors were forced to surrender in 1875.
In the meantime, the northern Cheyennes tried to resist the onslaught of the gold seekers and land grabbers who invaded their lands, ignoring the terms of the 1851 Fort Laramie Treaty. Formerly among the tribes who held out for peace, they turned to war following the Sand Creek massacre. The resulting Fort Laramie Treaty (1868) affirmed the exclusion of non-Indians from the Powder River region of Montana. In 1876, the northern Cheyennes joined with other Plains Indians in defeating the United States in the Battle of the Little Bighorn.
Shortly thereafter, however, the U.S. Army caught and defeated the northern Cheyennes, rounding up almost 1,000 of them and forcing them south to the Cheyenne–Arapaho Reservation in Indian Territory. Though exhausted after their forced march, sick and dying from malaria, and starving, roughly 300 desperate northern Cheyennes under Dull Knife and Little Wolf escaped and headed toward home north of the North Platte River. Fighting valiantly for their freedom, they were pursued by soldiers and had to cross lands now inhabited by white farmers and ranchers. The people were recaptured with much loss of life and relocated to the Pine Ridge area of South Dakota in 1881. Three years later, the Tongue River Reservation in eastern Montana was established for this now decimated people. Although this land was never opened to non-Indian purchase, allotments fragmented the reservation, causing long-term legal and cultural problems.
Christian missionaries, especially Mennonites, Catholics, and Southern Baptists, became active among the Cheyennes toward the end of the nineteenth century. Around the same time, the Peyote religion and the Ghost Dance became popular among the northern Cheyennes. Following confinement to reservations, most Indians lived on government rations (often inadequate at best) and marginal gardening and wage labor. In 1911, the United States organized a fifteen-member Northern Cheyenne Business Council, largely under its control. The tribe adopted an Indian Reorganization Act (IRA) constitution in 1935. In 1918, southern Cheyennes were among those who formally incorporated the Peyote religion into the Native American Church.