Arapaho people

Published on April 1, 2012 by Amy

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Arapaho Men 1898
Arapaho Men 1898

The Arapaho (in French: Arapahos, Gens de Vache) are a tribe of Native Americans historically living on the eastern plains of Colorado and Wyoming. They were close allies of the Cheyenne tribe and loosely aligned with the Sioux. Arapaho is an Algonquian language closely related to Gros Ventre, whose people are seen as an early offshoot of the Arapaho. Blackfoot and Cheyenne are the other Algonquian-speakers on the Plains, but their languages are quite different from Arapaho. By the 1850s, Arapaho bands had coalesced into two tribes: the Northern Arapaho and Southern Arapaho.

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Since 1878 the Northern Arapaho Nation has lived with the Eastern Shoshone on the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming. This is the seventh-largest reservation in the United States. The Southern Arapaho Tribe live with the Southern Cheyenne in Oklahoma. Together their members are enrolled as a federally recognized tribe, the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes.

Early history and culture

There is no direct historical or archaeological evidence to suggest how and when Arapaho bands entered the Great Plains. The Arapaho Indian tribe most likely lived in Minnesota and North Dakota before entering the Plains. Before European expansion into the area, the Arapahos were living in South Dakota, Nebraska, Colorado, Wyoming, and Kansas. They lived in tipis which the women made from bison hide. Before they were sent to reservations, they migrated often chasing herds, so they had to design their tipis so that they could be transported easily. It is said that a whole village could pack up their homes and belongings and be ready to leave in only an hour. In winter the tribe split up into camps sheltered in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains in present-day Colorado. In late spring they moved out onto the Plains into large camps to hunt buffalo gathering for the birthing season. In mid-summer Arapahos traveled into the Parks region of Colorado to hunt mountain herds, returning onto the Plains in late summer to autumn for ceremonies and for collective hunts of herds gathering for the rutting season.

They originally used dogs to pull travois with their belongings on them. When the Europeans came to North America, the Arapaho saw the Europeans’ horses and realized that they could travel quicker and further with horses instead of dogs. They raided other Indian tribes, primarily the Pawnee and Comanche, to get the horses they needed.

Later on, they became great traders and often sold furs to other tribes and non-Indians. The name ‘Arapaho’ might have come from the Pawnee word for ‘traders.’

The children often fished and hunted with their fathers for recreation. While they had more chores to do than present-day Arapaho, they still had time to play games. They played many games, including one involving a netted hoop and a pole where they would try to throw their pole through the center of the net. It was much like the game of darts, which is enjoyed today.

Sand Creek Massacre

During November 1864, a small village of Cheyenne and Arapaho became the victims of a controversial attack by the Union Army, led by Colonel John Chivington. This attack is now known as the Sand Creek Massacre. According to an historical narrative on the Sand Creek Massacre titled “Chief Left Hand,” by Margaret Coel, contributing factors that led to the Sand Creek Massacre were: Governor Evans’ desire to hold title to the resource rich Denver-Boulder area; government trust officials’ avoidance of Chief Left Hand (a linguistically gifted Southern Arapaho Chief), when executing a legal treaty that transferred title of the area away from Indian Trust; a local Cavalry stretched thin by the demands of the Civil War and the hijacking of their supplies by a few stray Indian warriors who had lost respect for their Chiefs; and followers of Chief Left Hand (including a group of Cheyenne and Arapaho elders, a few well behaved warriors, and mostly women and children), who had received a message to report to Fort Lyon with the promise of safety and food at the Fort, or risk being considered “hostile” and ordered killed by the Cavalry. (The tribe had been deprived of their normal wintering grounds in the Boulder area.)

Upon arrival at Fort Lyon, Chief Left Hand and his followers were accused of violence by Colonel Chivington who lusted to be a war hero. It must have been a conspiracy because Chief Left Hand and his people got the message that only those Indians that reported to Fort Lyon would be considered peaceful and all others would be considered hostile and ordered killed. Confused, Chief Left Hand and his followers turned away and traveled a safe distance away from the Fort to camp. A traitor gave Colonel Chivington directions to the camp. He and his battalion stalked and attacked the camp early the next morning. Rather than heroic, Colonel Chivington’s efforts were considered a gross embarrassment to the Cavalry since he attacked peaceful elders, women and children. As a result of his war efforts, instead of the promotion he aspired for, he was relieved of his duties.

The late Eugene Ridgely, a Cheyenne-Northern Arapaho artist, is generally credited with bringing to light the fact that Arapahos were involved with the Massacre. His children Gail Ridgely, Benjamin Ridgley and, Eugene “Snowball” Ridgely were instrumental in designating the massacre site as a National Historic Site. In 1999 Benjamin Ridgley and Gail Ridgley organized a group of Northern Arapaho runners to run from Limon, Colorado to Ethete, Wyoming; in memory of their ancestors who were forced to run for their lives after being stalked by Colonel Chivington and his battalion. All of their efforts will be recognized and remembered by the “Sand Creek Massacre” signs that appear along the roadways from Limon, CO up through Casper, WY and over to Ethete, WY.

Casino development

In July 2005, Arapahos won a contentious court battle with the State of Wyoming to get into the gaming or casino industry. The 10th Circuit Court ruled that the State of Wyoming was acting in bad faith when it would not negotiate with the Arapahos for gaming. Presently, the Arapaho Tribe owns and operates high-stakes, Class III gaming at the Wind River Casino, Little Wind Casino and 789 Smoke Shop and Casino. They are regulated by a Gaming Commission composed of three Tribal members. The Northern Arapaho Tribe opened the first casinos in Wyoming.

Meanwhile, the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes operate three casinos: the Lucky Star Casino in Clinton, the Feather Warrior Casino in Watonga, and the Feather Warrior Casino in Canton.

Notable Arapahos

  • Chief Little Raven (ca. 1810-1889), negotiated peace between the Southern Arapaho and Cheyenne and the Comanche, Kiowa, and Plains Apache. He secured rights to the Cheyenne-Arapaho Reservation in Indian Territory.
  • Chief Niwot (Left Hand) (ca. 1840-1911), celebrated warrior and advocate for Arapahos in Washington D.C. He brought the Ghost Dance to the tribe and served as Principal Chief.
  • Chief Niwot (ca. 1825-1864), led a band in Northern Colorado and died from wounds sustained during the Sand Creek Massacre).
  • Sherman Coolidge (Runs-on-Top) (1862–1932), Episcopal minister and educator, nominated as a “Wyoming Citizen of the Century.”
  • Carl Sweezy (1881–1953), early professional Native American fine artist
  • Mirac Creepingbear (1947–1990), Arapaho-Kiowa painter
  • Harvey Pratt (born 1941), contemporary Cheyenne-Arapaho artist


The film producer Ciro Ippolito has made a film, entitled Arrapaho (1984), about the Arapaho tribe.
The history of the Arapaho is mentioned in the TV miniseries Centennial – based on the book of the same name by James A. Michener

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