Arapaho (Native Americans of the Great Plains)

Arapaho, probably from the Pawnee tirapihu, "trader," or the Kiowa and Spanish word for "tattered and dirty clothing." "Kanenavish" (various spellings), a term in use around 1800, was a corruption of the French gens de vache ("Buffalo People"). The Arapahos originally called themselves Inuna-ina, "Our People."

Location The Arapahos probably migrated in the early eighteenth century from the Red River region of present-day Minnesota and North Dakota to the upper Missouri River region. Then, as Northern and Southern Arapaho, they moved in the nineteenth century to Wyoming (along the North Platte River) and eastern Colorado and western Kansas (along the Arkansas River).

Population The total Arapaho population ranged between 3,000 and 5,000 people around 1800. There were about 6,500 Arapahos in 1993.

Language Arapaho is an Algonquian language.

Historical Information

History At least 3,000 years ago the Arapaho, possibly united with the future Gros Ventres and other peoples, probably lived in the western Great Lakes region, where they grew corn and lived in permanent villages. They migrated by the eighteenth century to the upper Missouri River region, acquiring horses about that time.

In the nineteenth century, the groups separated and divided into Northern and Southern Arapaho. The northern branch settled around the North Platte River in Wyoming and the southern branch in the area of Bent’s Fort on the Arkansas River in Colorado. The two groups remained in close contact. By this time, the Arapaho had adopted the classic Great Plains culture: They were master horsemen, buffalo hunters, and raiders.

Early Anglo traders found the Arapahos very friendly and disposed to trade. Although fur traders entered the area in the 1730s, they merely observed intertribal trade of items of European manufacture, especially knives and guns but also metal tools and other items. Furs were not an important trade commodity until around the turn of the century. Traders also brought alcohol and disease into the region, both to devastating effect. Still, powerful chiefs like Bear Tooth, favorably disposed to non-Indians, kept the peace in the early nineteenth century.

In 1837 a major war broke out, with the Southern Arapaho and Southern Cheyenne fighting against the Comanche. Peace was established in 1840, largely on Arapaho-Cheyenne terms. However, the opening of the Oregon Trail brought more non-Indians to the Plains and encouraged growing conflict, based on ignorance of Indian customs, land hunger, and race hatred.

Arapahos played a major role in the nineteenth-century wars for the Plains. The northern branch fought along with the Lakota and the southern branch with the Southern Cheyennes and occasionally with the Comanches and Kiowas. Although Arapahos signed the 1851 Fort Laramie Treaty, major gold finds in 1858-1859 caused further frictions between Indians and non-natives. In the 1859 Fort Wise Treaty, Arapahos and Cheyennes agreed to live peacefully in a delineated section of land while retaining subsistence rights throughout their territory.

Despite the existence of the treaty, in 1864 a group of Southern Arapaho and Cheyennes, mostly women and children, were attacked, massacred, and mutilated by U.S. Army troops at Sand Creek, Colorado, as part of a successful campaign to drive all Indians out of Colorado. Cut off from the rich Colorado buffalo herds and under further pressure from the United States, the Cheyennes and Arapahos in 1867 signed the Medicine Lodge Treaty, under which they formally ceded their lands north of the Arkansas River and were placed on a reservation in the Indian Territory (Oklahoma). Little Raven, a skilled orator and diplomat, represented his people in these negotiations.

By the terms of the Fort Laramie Treaty (1868), the Northern Arapaho were supposed to settle with the Lakota on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. Holding out for their own reservation, the Northern Arapaho remained in Wyoming, refusing also to settle with the Southern Arapaho in the Indian Territory. They finally (1878) agreed to become part of the Eastern Shoshones’ Wind River Reservation.

The Arapaho, especially those on the Wind River Reservation, adopted the Ghost Dance religion in the late 1880s. By this time the enormous buffalo herds had been virtually wiped out. In 1890, Arapahos and Southern Cheyennes agreed to exchange their 3.5-million-acre reservation for allotments of 160 acres each. The group formally organized in 1937 as the Cheyenne-Arapaho Tribe.

Religion Medicine bundles, containing various sacred objects, were said to have magical powers. An individual knew which objects to obtain for the bundle through knowledge gained in dreams or the (adult) vision quest. Medicine men (shamans or priests) used their bundles in ceremonies; other bundles belonged to secret societies or to the whole tribe.

A flat pipe some two feet long, wrapped in a bundle, was the most sacred object for the tribe. Tobacco was smoked in it only as part of the most sacred ceremonies and occasions. The lead rider carried it during a move.

In the eighteenth century, the annual Sun Dance became the most important single ceremony. Its purpose was the renewal of nature and tribal prosperity. Although it was in part a test of endurance, the Arapaho, unlike other tribes, did not include extreme acts of self-torture. Some Arapahos adopted the Peyote religion in the 1890s.

Government Each of four bands had a chief, but there was no principal chief.

Customs Bands wintered separately, along streams, and came together in summer to hunt buffalo and celebrate ceremonies. Although menstruating women were avoided, and the subject was taboo, there was no formal girls’ puberty ceremony or menstrual seclusion. Men could marry more than one woman. Marriage was generally matrilocal. Children were generally nursed for four years. Blood relative and in-law taboos were strict. Extended family members, such as uncles and aunts, had specific responsibilities concerning their nieces and nephews.

Arapahos played the hoop-and-pole game and the cup-and-ball game and held athletic contests. Curing techniques included sweating in the sweat lodge and fumigation with roots, twigs, or herbs. There was one women’s society in addition to the series of men’s societies (see "War and Weapons"). The dead lay in state in fine clothing before being removed by horse and buried in a nearby hill. A favorite horse was killed. Mourners cut their hair, wore old clothes, and cut their arms and legs.

Dwellings At least since the nineteenth century, women made buffalo-skin tipis. Willow-framed beds covered with skins lined the interior walls. There were no permanent villages, as the tribe migrated with the herds.

Diet Buffalo had become a staple by the nineteenth century. Men also hunted elk, antelope, deer, and small animals. Meat was boiled in a hole in the ground filled with water and hot rocks. To preserve it for winter, women dried it and sometimes mixed it with fat and chokecherries to make pemmican. They also gathered wild mountain fruits, roots, berries, and tobacco.

Key Technology Prehistoric Arapahos may have made ceramics. Most raw materials came from the buffalo or other animals. They carved items such as bowls from wood, some of which had artistic and/or religious significance. They smoked black stone pipes and made shallow basketry trays.

Trade Mandan villages along the Knife River (North Dakota) were a primary regional trading center. By the early nineteenth century the Arapaho traded buffalo robes with Mexicans and Americans for items not provided by the buffalo. They also served as middlemen in trade between northern and southern Plains Indians.

Notable Arts Women decorated clothing, tip is, and other items with beautiful porcupine-quill embroidery and painting. Designs often included legends and spiritual beings. Designs, which often represented natural and celestial features, included diamonds with appendages such as forked trees (triangles atop a line).

Since the nineteenth century, Arapaho women have made buffalo-skin tipis. In this 1913 photograph, the patches and heavy seams characteristic of buffalo-hide tipis are clearly visible.

Since the nineteenth century, Arapaho women have made buffalo-skin tipis. In this 1913 photograph, the patches and heavy seams characteristic of buffalo-hide tipis are clearly visible.

Transportation The Arapaho probably acquired horses in the early eighteenth century. Babies were carried on the back in a U-shaped, wood-framed buckskin cradle board. The people used oval snowshoes in winter.

Dress Historic Arapaho dress was similar to that of other high plains tribes.

War and Weapons Eight military societies were graded according to age. One, the Crazy Dog Society, was noted for its extreme bravery and valor. Traditional enemies included the Shoshones, Utes, Pawnees, Crows, Lakota, Comanche, and Kiowa. The latter three tribes had become allies, with the Southern Cheyenne, by the 1840s.

Counting coup, or touching the enemy with the hand or a stick, was highly prestigious, much more so than killing an enemy. Up to four people could count coup, in descending order of prestige, on the same enemy.

Contemporary Information

Government/Reservations The Wind River Reservation (1863; Shoshone and Arapaho tribes), Fremont and Hot Springs Counties, Wyoming, contains 2,268,008 acres. The 1990 Indian population was 5,674. Both tribes have business councils.

Roughly 3,000 (1993) Southern Arapahos live in western Oklahoma. They own no tribal land and live on the last of their allotments.

Economy Major economic activities at Wind River are ranching and crafts. There are some jobs in the school district and within the tribal government. There are also a number of small businesses. Some people regularly hunt and fish, and there is income from mineral leases. Un- and underemployment is chronically high (up to 80 percent).

The unemployment rate for Southern Arapahos and Southern Cheyennes in Oklahoma hovers around 70 percent (1993). They operate a smoke shop and a casino.

Legal Status The Arapaho Tribe of the Wind River Reservation and the Cheyenne-Arapaho Tribe of Oklahoma are federally recognized tribal entities.

Daily Life A Northern Arapaho family is keeper of the Scared Pipe, which remains the symbol of the tribe. Quasi-traditional religion remains important. The Sun Dance, held in July, has been explicitly Christianized and is now intertribal. Peyotism and sweat lodge ceremonies are popular. Giveaways, formerly related to public coup counting, are now associated with other occasions. Control of water rights has become an issue on the reservation.

High rates of substance abuse and suicide plague the reservation; related accidents have replaced disease as a primary killer. Outmigration remains a problem. Women have more freedom as well as political and social power, obtained in part through their participation in certain musical ceremonies. Wyoming Indian High School is Arapaho dominated; most Shoshone attend off-reservation public high schools. Traditional games such as the hand game, with its associated gambling, remain popular, especially at powwows.

Only a few people, mostly Southern Arapahos, still speak the language, despite the implementation of language programs at Wind River. There is still contact, particularly for ceremonies, between the northern and southern branches of the Arapaho tribe. Housing, most of which consists of modern "bungalows," is considered generally inadequate at Wind River. Canvas tip is are used for ceremonial purposes.

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