What does Tsitsistas mean?

The meaning of the Cheyennes' name for themselves, Tsétsêhéstâhese (with simplified spelling of Tsitsistas), is uncertain. Various etymologies have been suggested. Grinnell summarized the most frequently offered etymologies:

They call themselves Tsistsistas [sic, Grinnell and others copying him included an extra "s"; this should be Tsitsistas; WL], which the books commonly give as meaning "people." It probably means related to one another, similarly bred, like us, our people, or us. The Rev. Rodolphe Petter has pointed out that it may be translated "cut people," "gashed people," for the two words are nearly alike. This last meaning is practicaly that given them on the prairie by whites and Indians alike, and evidently comes from the distant sign which they used to designate themselves, which means "cut arms." If one is speaking by signs to a Cheyenne close at hand and asks his tribe, he will make on the back of the left forward-directed forefinger two or three diagonal cross lines drawn toward his body with the right forefinger, and this is often explained as "striped feathers"-referring to those used on the arrows. The sign at a distance is, as said, that for "cut arms," but that sign has been misinterpreted by the Blackfeet, who have mistaken it for the somewhat similar sign for "spotted," and call the Cheyenne "spotted people," a designation which seems without appropriate meaning." (from George Bird Grinnell, The Cheyenne Indians, Volume I, 1923, pp. 3-4)

A plausible linguistic explanation of the term notes the similarity between étsêhéstahe 'he is a Cheyenne' and éhéstahe 'he is from there, he originates from there' (cf. éhestahe 'he is that way'). Étsêhéstahe may having the tse- cataphoric (or pointing) deictic preverb. If this is the case, then the literal meaning of étsêhéstahe would be 'he is this way (or thusly) from there'. Inclusion of the cataphoric deictic may have been due to the frequent use of the hand sign to indicate 'Cheyenne'. Petter, in his 1915 dictionary, page 582, seems to adopt this explanation of the term. If this hypothesis is correct then the tribal name, Tsétsêhéstâhese (with simplified spelling of Tsitsistas) would be literally translated as something like 'those who are thusly from there' or, in freer terms, 'the people' or 'those who are of that group', in line with Grinnell's remarks above.

The comments above, excerpted from the Cheyenne Topical Dictionary (1984, pages 201-202), are similar to a statement on the meaning of Tsitsistas recently received by email from a fluent Cheyenne speaker who has linguistic training, experience in writing Cheyenne, and keen insights into his native language:

Let me give you something that I've often conjectured about concerning "tsitsistas". It appears to me that whenever a common word in any language is taken and elevated to the status of a proper noun, it undergoes a certain metamorphosis that makes it unique and distinctive. Linguists probably have the appropriate terminology for this metamorphois that I'm speaking of. Let me give an example: when we say rabbit, we say vohkoohe, or rabbits, vohkooheho. The basic word comes from evohkoo'e (I think), meaning "its posture is bent" which is true of a rabbit when seen in profile.... So to carry these examples further and to apply it to the way we refer to ourselves, Tsétsêhéstâhese, it sounds so much like "[tsétsêhestase]" which means "[people] who look like this," meaning like Cheyenne people. (5/28/97)

[WL note: Tsétsêhestase differs from the name for the Cheyennes in lacking the "tâhe" complex syllable with aspirated (having a puff of air after it) "t" and the high pitch on the "hes" syllable.]

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