Does ve'ho'e mean "whiteman" or "trickster"?
Click on this link to hear the Cheyenne word, vé'ho'e.
Of all the semantic uses of vé'ho'e today, including reference to the
homonym vé'ho'e 'spider', by far, the predominant meaning is 'whiteman'. Even
though this word originally meant 'trickster, Algonquian culture hero', this
referential meaning is essentially lost today. The etymology and social
ramifications of vé'ho'e make a very fascinating study. The word vé'ho'e has
been a very important word in the history of Cheyenne, and it continues to evoke
strong emotional feelings and semantic connotations within Cheyenne speakers.
Lexically, it can be shown from contrasts between words that vé'ho'e today
"means" something like 'non-Indian', e.g. ma'e-vé'ho'e 'German (lit.
red-vé'ho'e)'. The word mo'ôhtáe-ve'ho'e 'Negro (lit. black-vé'ho'e) is
considered humorous by speakers because, to them, it initially sounds like a
contradiction in terms, i.e. black-whiteman. The term vé'ho'e, presumably in
the 'non-Indian' sense is also extended to certain occupational roles which are
today increasingly held by Indians, e.g. matanáe-vé'ho'e 'policeman (lit.
chest-vé'ho'e, so named because of the policeman's medal worn on the chest).
The humor in the initially apparent contradiction in the meaning of the term for 'policeman'
is also pointed out by speakers. This relatively short word is one of the most
important terms in the cultural, emotive scheme of Cheyenne life, and it can
be seen from this discussion that it also has a very complicated semantic
conceptualization, including historical development, semantic extension, folk
reanalysis, and intense emotive associations.
When used as a preverb, vé'ho'é-, typically has the meaning of 'good,
modern, top-quality', contrasting with ordinary, Indian things, which are
sometimes viewed as inferior. See discussion under vé'ho'é-mâhéó'o
'modern house' and vé'ho'évo'ha 'top quality horse'. There can also be
strong pejorative connotations associated with terms for 'whiteman', e.g. see
discussion under ma'heóne-vé'ho'e. The verb é-vé'ho'éveotse 'he turned
into a whiteman' is strongly negative in emotive association.
The words for 'whiteman' and 'spider' are the same in two Plains Algonquian
languages, Cheyenne and Arapaho. This homonymy is often discussed by Cheyenne
speakers. Various folk etymologies are given by speakers to account for the
use of vé'ho'e as the designation for the whiteman; the two most frequent folk
(1a) The whiteman was given the same name as the spider because he
fenced in the rangelands making it look like a spider's web.
(1b) A variant of the folk etymology connecting the whiteman and the spider is
that the whiteman was perceived as being intelligent and ingenious as the
spider is said to be perceived by Cheyennes. (But many people question that
Cheyennes perceive the spider as being particularly intelligent.)
(2) Sweet Medicine predicted that a person (vo'êstane) would come to the
Cheyennes who would be wrapped up (tsevé'hoo'e 'he will be wrapped up'), in
the whiteman's non-Indian clothing which entirely covers the body, not the
looser, sparser traditional clothing of the Indian. According to one folk
etymology, the word vé'ho'e 'whiteman', then, is a compression of the verb
stem which Sweet Medicine used, -vé'hoo'e.
Historically, the word vé'ho'e descends by regular sound rules from the
old Algonquian word for 'trickster' or 'culture hero', *wi:'sahke:cya:hkwa. The Algonquian
trickster continues in Cheyenne folk tales today. Cheyenne stories frequently
highlighted the trickster vé'ho'e long before the whiteman was ever
encountered. Semantically, to native speakers, today, the word vé'ho'e
almost always conjures up the meaning of 'whiteman', with various emotive
connotations, ranging from stinginess, greed, prejudice, sneakiness, to
prestige. (Many speakers are aware that the word also means 'spider', but this
is not the first meaning that comes to mind when they hear the word vé'ho'e.)
Although extant Cheyenne folk tales clearly indicate the historical nature of
the meaning of 'trickster', this meaning seems to be never offered by native
speakers today. When vé'ho'e stories are translated into English the
trickster word vé'ho'e seems always to be translated as 'whiteman'. From a
technical linguistic viewpoint, one would say that Cheyennes gave the
Algonquian trickster term to the whiteman because the whiteman was perceived to
have many of the qualities of the trickster. It is probably an accident of
history that the word is homophonous with the term for 'spider'.
The Cheyenne prophet, Motsé'eóeve (Sweet Medicine), told the Cheyennes of
the coming of a person (vo'êstane) to them; this person was apparently the
whiteman. Sweet Medicine said: Néto'sêho'a'ó'tóévo vo'êstane.
Tsemâhevé'šenohe, tósa'e tsêsáapo'vé'šenóhéhe tse'tohe vo'êstane
tséto'sêho'a'ó'tóése. Néto'sevonéanotáévo netao'o hová'éhe
tséohkeéeméhaane'étamése, éto'semâhevonéanöhtse....Naa tsé'tóhe
tséto'sêho'a'ó'tóése tsemâhetáeotsé'ta ho'e tséxhetaa'óma'o'e.
Translation: A person is going to come to you (pl.). He will be all
(enclosed in clothes), nowhere will he not be sewed up, this person who
going to come to you. He is going to destroy for you everything that
to depend on, he is going to destroy everything....And this one who is
come to you will take over all the land throughout the world. (W. Leman
has been repeatedly pointed out that Sweet Medicine never said that the
ve'ho'e was going to come to the Cheyennes. Likewise, it is pointed
out, that he never said a vóhpê-hetane 'white man' would come to the
Cheyennes. Instead, he
simply said that a vo'êstane 'person' was going to come to the
The Cheyenne word Ve'ho'e has apparently been a longtime Cheyenne
personal name. In the mid to
late 1800's, when English translations of this name were given to
agents, for recording of Cheyenne names, the term vé'ho'e had already
apparently come to mean almost exclusively 'whiteman', rather than its
Alqonguian meaning of 'trickster'. Some Cheyenne families today have
the family name of Whiteman, so they must have had an ancestor who had
the personal name of Ve'ho'e.
Summary: The Cheyenne word ve'ho'e
means 'whiteman' to Cheyennes today. This meaning has replaced the
former meaning of 'trickster,' a meaning the word had for Cheyennes
before they ever encountered the whiteman, although this new meaning of
'whiteman' today also connotes all the former meanings of personal
characteristics such as 'greedy, acquisitive, trickster.' Through
semantic analysis we can determine that ve'ho'e actually
FUNCTIONS for Cheyenne speakers with the meaning of 'non-Indian.' We
intend here to make a distinction between what the word means to the
speakers, namely, 'whiteman,' and what it means within the entirety of
their language, namely, 'non-Indian.' We might say that 'whiteman' is
the elicitation meaning of ve'ho'e today , while 'non-Indian' is its actual lexical meaning, determined by semantic analysis, especially componential analysis.
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