Arapaho People: Indigenous Americans in Wyoming and Oklahoma

Five Arapaho Indians, standing outside a tipi surrounded by a brush fence, November 18, 1904.
Five Arapaho Indians, standing outside a tipi surrounded by a brush fence, November 18, 1904. Photo by Gerhard Sisters, Library of Congress LOT12808

The Arapaho people, who call themselves the Hinono'eiteen ("people" in the Arapaho language), are indigenous Americans whose ancestors came over the Bering Strait, lived for a while in the Great Lakes region, and hunted buffalo in the Great Plains. Today, the Arapaho are a federally recognized nation, living primarily on two reservations in the U.S. states of Wyoming and Oklahoma.

Fast Facts: Arapaho People

  • Other Names: Hinono'eiteen (meaning "people"), Arapahoe
  • Known For: Quillwork, Sun Dance ritual
  • Location: Wyoming, Oklahoma
  • Language: Arapaho
  • Religious Beliefs: Christianity, peyotism, animism
  • Current Status: About 12,000 people are officially enrolled in the Arapaho tribe, and most live in small towns on two reservations, one in Wyoming and one in Oklahoma. 

Arapaho History

The ancestors of the Arapaho people were among those who journeyed from Asia across the Bering Strait, entering the North American continent some 15,000 years ago. Algonquin speakers, to whom the Arapaho are related, share DNA with some of the earliest inhabitants of the Americas

Based on oral tradition supported by linguistic associations, before the Europeans came to North America, the Arapaho resided in the Great Lakes region. There they practiced a complex hunter-gatherer lifestyle, with some agriculture, including the three sisters of maize, beans, and squash. In 1680, the Arapaho began to migrate westward out of the region, forcibly moved or pushed out of their established territory by Europeans and enemy tribes.

The displacement stretched through the next century, but they eventually arrived in the Great Plains. The Lewis and Clark expedition of 1804 met some Arapaho people in Colorado. In the plains, the Arapaho adapted to a new strategy, relying on the vast herds of buffalo, and aided by horses, the bow and arrow, and guns. The buffalo provided food, tools, clothing, shelter, and ceremonial lodges. By the 19th century, many Arapaho lived in the Rocky Mountains. 

Origin Myth 

In the beginning, the Arapaho origin myth goes, the land and the Arapaho people were born and transported on the back of a turtle. Before the beginning of time, the world was made of water, except for waterfowls. The Grandfather saw the Father of the Indians floating on the water weeping alone, and, taking pity on him, he called all the waterfowls to dive to the bottom of the sea to see if they could find dirt. The waterfowls obeyed, but they all drowned, and then the timid duck came and gave it a try.

After several days, the duck came to the surface with mud stuck on his claws. The Father cleaned his feet and put the mud in his pipe, but it wasn't enough. A turtle came swimming by and said he would try, too. He disappeared under the water and, after several days, came up with mud captured between his four feet. The Father took the clay and spread it thinly on his raft, making the earth come, using a rod to form the rivers and the mountains. 

Treaties, Battles, and the Reservation

In 1851, the Arapaho signed the Fort Laramie Treaty with the U.S. government, providing them with shared land including parts of Wyoming, Colorado, Kansas, and Nebraska, and in trade ensuring safe passage for European-Americans through the Oregon Trail. In 1861, however, the Treaty of Fort Wise signaled the loss of almost all the traditional Arapaho hunting grounds. 

Fueled by the process of European settlement and the discovery of gold in Colorado in 1864, U.S. volunteer troops led by Colonel John M. Chivington attacked a village on a military reservation along Sand Creek in southeastern Colorado. Over the course of eight grueling hours, Chivington's forces killed around 230 people, mostly women, children, and the elderly. The Sand Creek Massacre is the only military action against Native Americans that the U.S. government designates a massacre. 

The Little Arkansas Treaty of 1865 promised large reservations for many indigenous people including the Arapaho, land that was carved away in 1867 with the Medicine Lodge Treaty. That treaty established 4.3 million acres set aside for Cheyenne and the Southern Arapaho in Oklahoma; and in 1868, the Bridger or Shoshone Bannock Treaty established the Wind River Reservation for the Shoshone, where the Northern Arapaho were to live. In 1876, the Arapaho people fought in the Battle of the Little Big Horn

The Southern and Northern Arapaho Tribes

Flag of the Arapaho Nation
Flag of the Arapaho Nation. Himasaram / Public Domain

The Arapaho were officially broken into two groups by the U.S. government—Northern and Southern Arapaho—during the treaty period of the late 1880s. The Southern Arapaho were those who joined the Southern Cheyenne on the Cheyenne and Arapaho Indian Reservation in Oklahoma, and the Northern share the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming with the Eastern Shoshone.

Today, the Northern Arapaho, officially the Arapaho Tribe of the Wind River Reservation, is based on the Wind River Reservation, located in southwestern Wyoming near Lander, Wyoming. The scenic and mountainous reservation is home to over 3,900 Eastern Shoshone and 8,600 Northern Arapaho enrolled tribal members and contains about 2,268,000 acres of land within its exterior boundary. There are about 1,820,766 acres of tribal and allotted surface trust acreage.

The Cheyenne and Arapaho Indian Reservation is the home of the Southern Arapaho, or more formally, the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes, Oklahoma. The land includes 529,962 acres along the North Fork of the Canadian River, the Canadian River, and the Washita River, in western Oklahoma. About 8,664 Arapaho live in Oklahoma.

Arapaho Culture

The Arapaho continue to maintain some traditions from the past, but the depredations of living in the post-colonial world have been difficult. One of the most painful impacts on the indigenous people was the creation of the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania, which between 1879 and 1918 was designed to take in children and "kill the Indian" in them. About 10,000 children were removed from their families. Among them were three boys from the Northern Arapaho tribe who died within two years of their arrival. Their remains were finally returned to the Wind River reservation in 2017. 

Religion

Over time, the religion of the Arapaho people has changed. Today, Arapaho people practice a variety of religions and spirituality, including Christianity, peyotism, and traditional animism—the belief that the universe and all natural objects have souls or spirits. The Great Spirit in traditional Arapaho is the Manitou or Be He Teiht. 

Sun Dance

The most famous of the rituals associated with the Arapaho (and many other indigenous groups of the Great Plains) is the "Sun Dance," also known as the "Offerings Lodge." Records of historic period Sun Dances were written by ethnographers such as George Dorsey and Alice Fletcher.

The ceremony was traditionally performed for a single person's vow, a promise made that if a wish was fulfilled, the Sun Dance would be performed. The entire tribe participated in Sun Dances, every step had music and dancing associated with it. There are four groups who participate in the Sun Dance: 

  • The chief priest, who represents the sun; the Peace Keeper, a woman who personifies the moon; and the keeper of the straight pipe.
  • The director, who represents the entire tribe; his assistant; the woman director; and five pupils or neophytes.
  • The lodge maker, who made the vow; his wife, the transferrer who had been the Lodge Maker of the previous Sun Dance and is thought of as the grandfather of the celebration, and the woman who personifies the earth and is the grandmother.
  • All who fast and dance during the ceremony. 

The first four days are preparation, in which a central tent (called the "rabbit" or "white rabbit" tent) is erected, where participants prepare for the festival in private. The last four days take place in public. The events include feasts, painting and washing the dancers, the inauguration of new chiefs, and name-changing ceremonies. 

By the early 20th century, no bloodletting ceremonies were undertaken during the Sun Dance, and informants told Dorsey that the most famous Sun Dance ritual, in which a warrior is lifted above the ground by two pointed lances embedded in his chest muscles, was only ever completed when war was expected. The rite was intended to allow the tribe to escape danger in the upcoming battle. 

Language

The spoken and written language of the Arapaho people is called Arapaho, and it is one of the critically endangered languages in the Algonquin family. It is polysynthetic (meaning there are numerous morphemes—word parts—with independent meanings) and agglutinative (when the morphemes are put together to make a word, they don't normally change). 

There are two dialects: the Northern Arapaho, which has about 200 native speakers, mostly in their 50s and living in the Wind River Indian Reservation; and Southern Arapaho in Oklahoma, which has a handful of speakers who are all 80 years old or older. The Northern Arapaho have attempted to maintain their language through writing and taping speakers, and bilingual classes are led by elders. The standard writing system for Arapaho was developed in the late 1970s.

Quillwork

The Arapaho are famous for quillwork, an artistic practice imbued with mysticism and ritual. Porcupine quills in red, yellow, black, and white are intricately intertwined and create ornamentation on lodges, pillows, bed covers, storage facilities, cradles, moccasins, and robes. Women trained in the art seek help from supernatural forces, and many of the designs are dizzying in complexity. Quillwork is performed exclusively by women, a guild who passed on the techniques and methods to succeeding generations. 

The Arapaho Today

Young Cheyenne/ Arapaho dancers wait for the start of the Red Earth Native American Festival parade in Oklahoma City
Young Cheyenne/ Arapaho dancers wait for the start of the Red Earth Native American Festival parade in Oklahoma City. J Pat Carter / Getty Images

The U.S. federal government formally recognizes two Arapaho groups: the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes, Oklahoma, and the Arapaho Tribe of the Wind River Reservation, Wyoming. As such, they are self-governing and have separate political systems with a judiciary, legislative, and executive branches of government. 

Tribal figures show an enrollment of 12,239, and about half of the tribal members are residents of the reservations. The affiliation of Indians living in the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribal area is primarily with the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes. Tribal enrollment criteria dictate that a person be a least one-quarter Cheyenne and Arapaho to qualify for enrollment.

A total of 10,810 people self-identified as Arapaho in the 2010 census, and another 6,631 self-identified as Cheyenne and Arapaho. The census allowed people to choose multiple affiliations. 

Selected Sources