A sacred error: Cheyenne Ma'heo'o doesn't mean "All-Father"

Rev. Rodolphe Petter, Mennonite missionary to the Cheyennes in the late 1800's and early 1900's, and an accomplished linguist, made a critical error when he wrote several times that the literal meaning of the Cheyenne word for God, Ma'heo'o (or, in more informal writing, spelled as Maheo or Mahiyu), means "All-Father." The error arose because of lack of attention to the fine phonetic detail of the Cheyenne sounds of the word Ma'heo'o.

Superficially, the first two letters of the word ma- look similar to the Cheyenne letters which do mean 'all', mâhe-, or in informal writing mha-, but the sound of the "m" in the two syllables is very different. The "m" of ma- is a regular "m", as in the English word "mother". But the "m" sound of Cheyenne mâhe- 'all' is not found in English. It is a kind of aspirated "m", a combination of "m" and "h" together.

Similarly, hé- in Cheyenne is a meaning part that does mean 'father,' as in the word tsé-hé-héto, where the second syllable means 'father.' But the "he" of Ma'heo'o is not high-pitched, and pitch is very important in Cheyenne, sometimes differentiating two different words which are otherwise spelled exactly the same.

Unfortunately, Rev. Petter's error has been repeated in print by many other authors who have quoted him or who have quoted authors who quoted him.

So the original error has taken on a life of its own in print. But it is still an error. Cheyennes themselves can tell us that Ma'heo'o does not mean "All-Father." And they are the best judge of their own language.

So, if you ever read in a book that Ma'heo'o (usually Maheo or a similar spelling in print) means "All-Father," now you know that it doesn't. And the frequently used plural of this word, ma'heono (often spelled more informally in print as maiyun and close variants), doesn't mean "All-Fathers", which wouldn't make much sense at all, would it?

Schlesier (1987) muddies the sacred waters here even more by incorrectly claiming that there are two different kinds of (plural) Cheyenne spiritual entities, the maiyun and the maheyuno. His error surely arose due to the variant spellings which occur in the literature for the Cheyenne plural, 'sacred beings.'

This error is discussed on page 183 of the book, Cheyenne Topical Dictionary, by Josephine Stands In Timber Glenmore and Wayne Leman.

By the way, what is the literal meaning of Ma'heo'o? We don't know. It may simply be a word which cannot be further analyzed into parts which have some literal meanings, just as we have many words like that in English, such as "table", or "chair, or "dog". What we do know, and all Cheyenne speakers and researchers of Cheyenne would agree, is that Ma'heo'o and its related verb forms, such as éma'heóneve 'he is sacred,' have to do with what is considered sacred, mysterious, spiritual. Not all Cheyennes agree on what is sacred and what is not, but all agree that Ma'heo'o, the plural ma'heono, and the verb éma'heóneve have to do with sacredness.

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