History of the Northern Arapaho Tribe

Prior to White Contact

The Arapaho Tribe apparently migrated into its historical homelands of Colorado and Wyoming from the northeast. Tribal history tells of a crossing of a great frozen river to the north sometime in the past, which likely may have been the Missouri. Unlike other tribes which migrated onto the Plains more recently, the Arapaho have no traditions or memories of farming. Early explorers and traders mention the presence of Indians who may have been branches of the Arapaho Tribe in parts of the Dakotas and Montana in the 1700's.

There were originally five dialects of the broader Arapaho language, spoken by different groups of people. All of these other dialects are no longer spoken, though Gros Ventre has been well documented, and there are still individuals alive who are familiar with the language.

The Arapaho were nomadic buffalo hunters, whose lifestyle in the 18th and 19th centuries corresponded closely to that of their traditional allies, such as the Cheyenne, Sioux and Gros Ventre, and their traditional enemies such as the Crow, Kiowa and Comanche. They were part of the classic High Plains culture, living in tepees and hunting buffalo on horseback.

Nineteenth Century

At the time of regular contact with Whites in the early 1800's, the Arapaho occupied lands ranging from northern New Mexico, Oklahoma and Kansas northwards into Wyoming and South Dakota. After the construction of trading posts at Bent's Fort in the Arkansas river valley and Ft. Laramie on the North Platte, the tribe divided into northern and southern groups, which centered on the respective river valleys. The 1851 Ft. Laramie Treaty fixed the boundaries of the Arapaho lands from the Arkansas River in the south to the North Platte in the north, with the western boundary roughly along the continental divide and the eastern boundary in western Kansas and Nebraska.

Confrontation with White invaders of Arapaho territory intensified rapidly after the discovery of gold near Denver in 1858. Many bands traditionally wintered in the sheltered Denver/Boulder area. A treaty in 1861 attempted to remove the southern branch of the Tribe to a small area along the Arkansas River, but the treaty was never ratified by representatives of the Tribe. As conflict turned violent, a peaceful band of Arapaho and Cheyenne camped along Sand Creek in southeastern Colorado in 1864. They were attacked without warning, despite white flags of truce, and brutally massacred by Colorado militia. The Sand Creek Massacre touched off widespread conflict throughout 1864-65. Treaties were finally signed in 1867 and 1869 which resulted in the Southern Arapaho moving to west-central Oklahoma, where they remain to this day.

The Northern Arapaho were involved in the so-called "Red Cloud's War" of 1866-67, which was touched off by White invasion of traditional hunting areas due to the lure of gold in Montana. The Sioux, Cheyenne and Arapaho were victorious in this conflict, but strife continued, culminating in the Battle of Little Bighorn (in which some Arapaho participated), and repression by US troops during the following year. In 1878, the Northern Arapaho agreed to move onto the Wind River Reservation in central Wyoming, which they share with their traditional enemies, the Eastern Shoshone.

Early Reservation Era

During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, many changes came to the Reservation. Catholic and Episcopal missionary activity led to widespread conversion to Christianity, though many Arapaho continue to practice the traditional religion as well, centerered around the so-called "Sun Dance." Farming and ranching were promoted and partially adopted as an alternative economic lifestyle. Permanent housing (often log cabins) was gradually constructed. Children often were educated at boarding or mission schools, where they were encouraged to abandon traditional cultural practices and their language. Government laws led to the selling off of much reservation land, as well as allotment of much of the remainder to individuals, as a western-style private-property concept was forced on the Tribe. Traditional chiefs were replaced by Tribal Councils, a model of government largely imposed by the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

Contemporary Era

The era of World War II accelerated these changes. Many Indians participated in the War and had their first extensive contacts with the world outside the reservation and its environs. Soon after the War, a major language shift occurred, as parents began raising their children speaking only English, believing that this would help them succeed in that larger world. Government policy began increasingly to emphasize assimilation and "termination" of tribal entities. Television came to the Reservation, bringing the English-based world into homes in new and seductive ways. This was a critical moment in the history of the Northern Arapaho.

Beginning in the 1960's, and accelerating in the 1970's, many tribes, including the Northern Arapaho, reacted against the rapid pace of change which occurred following World War II. Efforts at preserving and reviving native language, arts, rituals and culture grew and intensified, culminating on the Reservation in the establishment of Arapaho-controlled school systems where Arapaho language and culture courses were a central part of the curriculum. The Tribal College movement began throughout the nation, but was centered in the western US, and the Wind River Tribal College began offering classes in 1999. Tribal Resource Centers were established, along with Language and Culture Commissions, and major efforts have been launched to collect and preserve oral histories, traditional narratives and indigenous music. The Pow-wow circuit has grown in influence and popularity, and several of these events are held annually on the reservation, in addition to the so-called "Sun Dance."

Coinciding with this cultural resistance and revival was a shift in government policy away from goals of "termination" towards a recognition of the value of tribal organization and indigenous language and culture.Politically, the Northern Arapaho Tribe has moved to take increasing control over its housing, welfare and medical programs, as well as resource exploitation on the reservation. The growing political visibility and activity of the Tribe has included recent efforts to establish scholarships for Arapaho students at Colorado colleges and universities, and a major push to establish the Sand Creek National Historic Park to commemorate the events of 1864.

Ironically, in light of the major social and political advances made by the Northern Arapaho and other tribes in the face of continuing indifference or hostility from many quarters (despite official rhetoric to the contrary), Northern Arapaho and many other Native American cultures face another crucial moment at the turn of the 21st century. While much of the revival of the 1960's, 1970's and 1980's has been successful in elevating pan-Indian cultural pride and awareness, the particular traditional tribal cultures and languages are more threatened than ever. For the most part, previous efforts at language preservation have produced extensive documentation, but have not led to a growth in younger fluent or even semi-fluent speakers. More and more often, ceremonies such as the Sun Dance are conducted in English, and traditional aspects of this and other rituals are lost or ignored. The traditional oral storytelling traditions are slowly fading away, with their rich historical and cultural heritage. The Arapaho have begun a pre-school language immersion program to try and counter these developments, but face many obstacles due to the relatively small number of traditional elders and native speakers remaining, and the high costs of immersion programs and teacher training on a reservation where unemployment remains high, economic opportunities are limited, and budgets are tight.