What is the origin of the word "Cheyenne"?

Various proposals have been given for the origin of the word "Cheyenne". Some have suggested that it comes from French fur traders, who named Cheyennes with the French word "chien," meaning "dog." Further suggested in this folk etymology is that that name would make sense because at the time of French-Cheyenne contact, the Cheyennes did not yet have horses, but were using dogs for pulling their travois, loaded with their tepees and other supplies.

More often it is suggested that "Cheyenne" derives from a Sioux word. The Sioux words most often cited have meanings related to 'red' or 'alien'. Sometimes the meaning has been given in the literature as "those who speak an alien tongue."

These Siouan explanations are reasonable, but they do not stand up to the most rigorous linguistic and historical analysis. Ives Goddard, Algonquianist and a curator at the Smithsonian Institution, says (personal email communication, 28 May 1997]:

There is no question about the etymology of Cheyenne. It comes into English from French; the J.B. Franquelin map of 1678-1679 has Chaiena, a direct rendering of Dakota (dialect) ahyena (Riggs 1890, p. 440)], corresponding to Lakota (dialect) ahyela. This is the regular diminutive of ahya, the name of the Cree. So the Cheyenne are [called] the "little Cree" [by the Sioux].

Siouanist John E. Koontz (personal email communication, 20 June 1997) gives further details on the Sioux words involved:

I've summarized what I had on Cheyenne. I was unable to locate the xeroxes of older sources that I thought I had, and decided to leave at the ones I've already cited.

Notes on the Etymology of Cheyenne
John E. Koontz

The term Cheyenne represents in French orthography a Dakotan term meaning approximately 'little Cree'. More precisely, it is is 'little shahi', where shahi is a widespread term usually glossed 'Cree', though it is apparently not the usual modern term for 'Cree' in Dakotan.

In what follows I've taken the liberty of standardizing the orthographies in an ASCII variant of current standard Siouanist usage. I've parenthesized distinctions not present in the source. In some of the material from Matthews I've retained the original orthography for the Assiniboine form, which seemed necessary to make his point.

In the orthgoraphy used s^, etc., represent s-hacek [], and N represents nasality in the preceding vowels. Gh is a the voiced velar fricative, V' is an accented vowel.

Starting with Santee Dakotan, we find attested in Riggs:

S^ahi'ye=naN 'the Cheyennes'
Literally, 'little S^ahi'ya (not glossed)'.
The term for Cree is based on the term for 'rabbit'.
maNs^tiN'c^a 'the rabbit' (309a)
MaNs^tiN'c^a 'the Cree Indians' (309a) Literally, 'Rabbit(s)'.

The usual folk etymology for Cheyenne in Dakotan is based on two roots:

s^a(') '(be) red' (440a)

ia' 'to speak' (169b)
iwa(')a 'I speak' (active) (169b)
The root ia' can be nominalized with nominalizing =pi (otherwise the pluralizer) (cf. thi'=pi 'dwelling', from thi' 'to dwell')

ia'=pi 'talk, speech, language' (171b)

Compounded the these roots yield:

s^a'=ia 'to speak a strange language' (440a)
s^a'=iwaa 'I speak a strange language' (440a)
s^a'=ia=pi 'a foreign or unknown language' (440a) With nominalizing =pi (otherwise the pluralizer)

It is not clear whether the compound exhibited here has any existence apart from its status as a folk etymology. Notice that it is stressed initially, whereas s^ahi'ye=naN is stressed on the second syllable.

There is some analogical basis for it in another color term compound derived from ia'.

ska(') '(be) white, clear' (436a)

ie'=ska 'to be fluent, speak a language intelligibly' (183a)
ie'=maNska 'I speak ...' (stative) (183a)
ie'=ska 'one who speaks well, an interpreter' (183a)
The term ska' 'be white, be clear' used here is essentially functioning in a metaphorical sense of 'clear'. One might expect the opposite of ie'=ska to be ie'=sapa from sa'pa 'be black', but we are not in a position to critique the metaphors or sense of opposites of Dakota speakers.

So, there is some unclear analogical basis for 'red-speaking, red-speakers' as a form, but the intrusive -h- of S^ahi'ye=naN is not accounted for with this analysis, and the stress is variant, though the latter is not a major problem.

The forms from Riggs can be supplemented with forms from Williamson which is essentially an English index to the same data, albeit it has had a somewhat different editorial history from the Riggs dictionary.

Cheyenne S^ahi'e=naN (31b)
Literally, 'little S^ahi'ya (not glossed)'.

Cree MaNs^tiN(')c^a oya(')t(h)e (41b)
Literally, 'Rabbit Nation'.

If we turn now to Teton, we learn a little more.

The Buechel dictionary yields:

S^ahi'ya 'a tribe of western Indians, not the S^ahi'ye=la' (460a)

This supplements the cognate of the Santee form already discussed.

S^ahi'ye=la 'the Cheyenne Indians' (460a)
Literally, 'the little S^ahi'ya (whoever they are)'

The extant terms for Cree are similar to those in Santee.

maNs^tiN'c^a 'the rabbit' (species 'the') (333b)
maNs^tiN'c^a=la 'a rabbit' (nonspecific 'a') (333b)
With the diminutive =la.
MaNs^tiN'c^a=la Wic^(h)a's^a 'the Cree Indians' (333b)
Literally, 'Rabbit men (people)'.

In the English key under nation (733a) appear the term for Cree, plus:

Cheyenne S^ihi(')ye=la,
S^ahiya (sans the diminutive),
T(h)ahiN(') Wic^(h)a(')s^a,

The first of these is probably a typographical or other error for S^ahiye=la, under the influence of the second form.

The second is probably contracted from S^a=i(y)e=la, the folk etymology 'red speakers'.

The third is probably 'Buffalohair men (people)' from thaNhiN' 'buffalo hair'.

The last is a complex subject in itself, but I think it is basically 'Antilope'. Literally it is something like '{little enemy} food'.

Note that the forms s^a' '(be) red', and ia' 'to speak' are attested in Buechel, as well as ska' and ie'=ska, but not s^a'=ia, lending some credence to notion that the compound exists only in the context of the folk etynology.

All this, of course, leaves us with no clear idea of who the S^ahi'ya proper are, unless essentially a branch of the Cheyenne themselves, cf. IhaN'k=thuNwaN 'Yankton' and IhaN'k=thuNwaN=la 'Yanktonais'.

But, referring further afield, we get the gloss 'Cree'.

>From Hollow we obtain Mandan:

s^ahi' 'Cree (Prob. loanword from Hidatsa)' (223)

>From Matthews we get Hidatsa:

s^ahe 'the Cree or Knistineaux Indians. Assineboine "sha-i-ye'". Other tribes in this region call the Cree by names which sound like s^ahe or s^aiye. There are various explanations of the derivations, but they are all doubtful.' (200b)

The final comment may refer specifically to the analysis as 'red-speakers'.

>From the Dictionary of Everyday Crow we get:

sahi'ia 'Cree' (16)

Considering that in Dakotan, at least, the term s^ahi convers in some sense both Cree and Cheyenne, it might be more appropriate to gloss s^ahi(ya) as 'northern Algonquian', but the sources don't go quite that far.


Buechel, Rev. Eugene, S.J. 1983. A Dictionary of Teton Sioux, ... Ed. by Rev. Paul Manhart, S.J. Red Cloud Indian School Hollow, Robert Charles, Jr. 1970. A Mandan Dictionary. Ph.D. diss, U of California, Berkeley, California.

Matthews, Washington. 1877. Ethnography and Philology of the Hidatsa Indians. US Geological and Geographical Survey, Misc. Pubs. No. 7.

Medicine Horse, Mary Helen, compiler. 1987. A Dictionary of Everyday Crow. Bilingual Materials Development Center, Crow Agency, Montana.

Riggs, Stephen Return. 1968. A Dakota-English Dictionary. Ed. by James Owen Dorsey. Reprinted by Ross & Haines, Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Williamson, John P. 1992. An English-Dakota Dictionary. With a new foreward by Carolynn I. Schommer. Reprinted by Minnesota Historical Society Press, St. Paul, Minnesota.

John E. Koontz

Also see John Koontz' file: What is the meaning of Cheyenne?

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