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 etymologies are:
(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 sewed up (enclosed in clothes), nowhere will he not be sewed up, this person who is going to come to you. He is going to destroy for you everything that you used to depend on, he is going to destroy everything....And this one who is going to come to you will take over all the land throughout the world. (W. Leman 1980:4-5) (It 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 Cheyennes.)

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 government agents, for recording of Cheyenne names, the term vé'ho'e had already apparently come to mean almost exclusively 'whiteman', rather than its original 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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