In describing a visit from the Gros Ventres des Prairies, when
they came in great numbers to barter skins for brandy and
ammunition, Maximilian says:
|"Our situation was everything but agreeable, for
these same Indians had entirely demolished a fort, on
the frontiers of Canada, two years before, killed a
clerk, and eighteen other persons, besides murdering
several other white people in those parts; they had, in
addition to this, had a quarrel with Lewis and Clark."
Albert Gallatin1 has some account of
them, as has Father de Smet, the noted missionary.2
The latter says:
"The Gros-Ventres of the plains appear to me to have the advantage
over the others [Blackfeet], in being more adroit, more docile, and
courageous; but they are more strongly attached to their old
superstitions, and are terrible demanders, as the Canadian employees
here call shameless beggars. [p. 256:] They are improperly ranked
among the Black-Feet: besides they did not originate in the country,
they do not speak their language, and are different in many
respects. The Gros-Ventres of the plains are a branch of the
Rapahoes, who roam over the plains of New Mexico, and those on the
Platte and Nebraska rivers. They separated from the nation a century
and a half ago, on account of differences between their chiefs. The
Gros-Ventres gave me this information."
Dr F. V. Hayden3 says:
|"I have searched all the works within my reach, and
cannot ascertain with certainty their track of
migration. At the present time  the Arapohos are
divided into two portions or bands. The first portion
call themselves na-ka-si'-nin, 'People of the Sage,' and
number one hundred and eighty lodges. They wander about
the sources of the South Platte and the region of Pike's
Peak, also northward to the Red Buttes on the North
Platte. Sometimes they extend their journeyings in
search of buffalo along the foot of the Big-horn
Mountains. They spent a large portion of the winter of
1859 and '60 on the branches of Powder River, near the
base of the Big-horn Mountains. The second band call
themselves na-wuth'-i-ni-han, the meaning of which is
obscure. It implies a mixture of different kinds of
people of different bands. They number two hundred
lodges, and range along the Arkansas River and its
tributaries. It would seem from 'Long's Expedition
to the Rocky Mountains,' that the Arapohos occupied
nearly their present district in 1819 and '20."
The same writer (p. 340) calls the Gros Ventres of the Prairie
Atsinas"4 and seems to think they
separated from the Arapaho in the Platte country, but this is
contrary to their traditions. He continues (pp. 340-41):
|"When this division took place is not now correctly
known, though we think it must have occurred some time
within the last century. For the last hundred years or
more they have lived on the Saskatchewan and near the
sources of the Missouri. With the Blackfeet they have
always been on terms of peace. Their language is
regarded by the traders and Indians as the most
difficult to learn of any on the Upper Missouri. No
trader has ever acquired it sufficiently to carry on
even an ordinary conversation.
"In the year 1818, the Atsinas, having surprised and robbed one
of the forts of the Hudson's Bay Company, on a tributary of the
Saskatchewan, fled to the sources of the Missouri, where they passed
the winter; but, finding no traders there to furnish them with
supplies or purchase their peltries, they continued their route
across the mountains, and joined once more their old relations the
Arapohos. Here they resided and hunted in common with the latter
tribe for the space of five years, during which time the small-pox
passed among them, having been communicated through other tribes
with whom they were at peace or carried on a traffic. This disease,
at that time, destroyed about half their number, but secured the
remainder from the next attack, which occurred in 1838. At this
latter period the small-pox only acted upon the young, and destroyed
numbers of them, but the chiefs and elderly men escaped, so that the
tribe was not reduced to the disorderly and helpless condition of
the Blackfeet and other surrounding nations."
Hayden continues to narrate that in the summer of 1823, the Atsina
becoming dissatisfied with the country of the Arapaho, and longing
for some place where the buffalo were to be found in greater
numbers, returned to the Blackfeet. On their northward march they
fought two battles, one with a large party of trappers under the
command of Sublette and Fontinelle; the other with the Crow nation.
In the former, while they maintained their position, their losses
were severe. In the latter they were taken by surprise and
completely routed. In the two engagements they lost about 125
warriors, besides a large number of women and children who were
taken prisoners by the Crows.
During the winter of 1859-60, Hayden, with Raynolds, remained at
Deer creek, near Laramie, Wyoming. Here he met Friday, an educated
Arapaho, from whom he obtained his Arapaho vocabulary, and of whom
he speaks (p. 322) as follows:
|The early history of this man, as given by himself,
cannot be devoid of interest. He says, that at the time
of the separation of the Atsinas from the Arapohos, they
were all encamped together on the Cimarron.5
The Mexicans usually came up from the south to trade
with them. At this time thirty of the Mexicans came, and
the chief of the Atsina band wished them all to remain
at his camp. The chief of the Arapoho band said, 'Let
half of the traders go to one camp and half to the
other.' A contest of words grew out of this, and finally
the Atsina chief stabbed the Arapaho chief, and killed
him. The brothers and sons of the murdered man
immediately killed the first chief, and a battle
commenced, but the difficulty was settled before a great
number were slain. The two bands then agreed to
separate, one portion ranging along the South Platte and
Arkansas Rivers, the other passed through the North Park
to Bridger's Pass, thence along the mountains to the
Three Tetons. There they fell in with the mountain
trappers, with whom they had a contest, and were driven
toward the Yellowstone,6
where they were again attacked by the Crows, a large
number killed, and many taken prisoners. The remainder
escaped to the Blackfeet."
It will be seen that these accounts harmonize to a great extent.
Captain Clarks7 evidently refers to the
same occurrence and says that Little Raven of the Arapaho informed
him that the return to the north was made because the Kiowa and
Comanche joined against them in war.
It was at the time of the separation that Friday was lost. After
wandering about in the mountains for several days, he was found by
Fitzpatrick, a noted fur trader and formerly United States agent for
the Arapaho. Friday was educated in St Louis, and died, it is
thought, near Fort Washakie, Wyoming.
Captain W. F. Raynold8 says:
|"We are now on waters flowing to the westward and
into a branch of Lewis Fork [Snake river] which Bridger
says is known to the trappers as Gros Ventres Fork, the
Gros Ventres Indians being commonly in the habit of
passing by this valley in their annual trips across the
mountains; there is here also a Gros Ventre Pass."
|The Arapaho call the Atsina To-i-nin'-a,
"people who beg." Compare Father de Smet, above cited,
and Mooney10 who has
"beggars," and who says further that the sign for "big
belly" also means "beggars," but it is not explained how
this can be, and I, for one, fail to understand this
interpretation. Chief Joseph of the Nez Percé,
in 1903, gave me the Nez Percé
name for the Gros Ventres, which means "belly people."
As to the sign for Gros Ventres, it will be noted that they are
called "belly" or "gut" people by many tribes, and it is highly
probable that this name was received before they obtained horses, at
which time they were more stationary than they subsequently were;
that they resided on the Belly river, and this gave them their name
(although it is just as possible that the river obtained its name
from them); that they afterward moved to the falls of the
Saskatchewan and were named Fall Indians by the Cree, probably at
the time of the arrival of the Cree in that country. They were
called "Gros Ventres" by the French and "Fall Indians" by the
English. The sign might mean "belly people" or "big belly people"
according to whether it was made with emphasis or not.
In speaking of the Arapaho, W. P. Clark (p. 43) says:
|I have been unable to ascertain why these Indians
are called 'Ara pahoes.' They can give no reason for it,
and I have been unable to find a similar word in any of
the languages of the surrounding tribes."
Mooney11, following Dunbar, derives
the term from the Pawnee word "tirapihu, or larapihu,
'he buys or trades.' It is not the name by which they are
called by the Cheyenne, Sioux, Shoshoni, Kiowa, Comanche, Apache,
Caddo, or Wichita." He also gives (p. 953) "Arapakata Crow name,
from the word Arapaho."
Clark (p. 38) describes the sign for the Northern Arapaho as
|Bring the right hand, back outwards, in front of
center of breast, few inches from it, compress the hand
and partially curve the fingers, so that tips of fingers
and tip of the thumb shall be near together, tap or
strike gently the breast with the tips of the thumb and
fingers, repeating the motion."
This is correct, except the right breast as well as the center is
tapped. Clark confuses this sign with that for "parent," or
"mother," and deduces from this that the Northern Arapaho are the
parent band, in which he is followed by Mooney (p. 954). This has
also been told me by some of the Southern Arapaho, but from this
view I am compelled to dissent, for the reason that the sign for
"Arapaho" is made by tapping or driving something into the breast
instead of imitating the drawing of sustenance out of the breast as
in the "mother" sign. As will later be seen, it means something
The word "Arapaho" is foreign to the Arapaho tongue, which contains
no r. The people of that tribe therefore cannot pronounce it
correctly, invariably saying "N'appaho" which they believe to be the
white man's name for their tribe. In searching out the meaning of
obscure signs it has been my custom to compare the cognate words in
the various spoken languages, sometimes with good results,
oftentimes with none. All the languages of the plains have their
dominant characteristics by which the listener can distinguish them
even if in the next room, although he may not know a single word of
any of them. The Cheyenne is low and full of the hissing sound, as
Omissis, their name for the Northern Cheyenne. The Teton
dialect of Dakota is liquid, from its many l's, as Oglala,
the name of Red Cloud's band at Pine Ridge. Obviously, then, the
word "Arapaho," if an Indian word, must belong to one of the
languages possessing the r sound, as in the Pawnee word
durahay, "good"; or in the name of the Crow chief Arapooish
mentioned by Bonneville. But inquiry among the Pawnee respecting its
origin failed of result. Major S. G. Reynolds, then at the Crow
agency, Montana, informed me in 1902 that "`Arapahoe' is originally
a Crow word and means ` lots of tattoes.' It is pronounced
and it applies to the Indian tribe known by that name."
The following from Long (1819)13 shows
the prevalence of the Crow language on the plains at that time:
|"On the morning of the 14th, we left our encampment,
opposite the village of the Pawnee Loups, and proceeded
on our journey, taking the most direct course towards
the Platte. Our party had here received an addition of
two men, one named Bijeau, engaged as guide and
interpreter. Both were Frenchmen, residing permanently
among the Pawnees, and had been repeatedly on the head
waters of the Platte and Arkansa. Bijeau was partially
acquainted with several Indian languages; in particular,
that of the Crow nation, which is extensively understood
by the western tribes, and, by frequent intercourse with
the savages he had gained a complete knowledge of the
language of signs, universally current among them."
Long's statement would supply a reason for the adoption of a Crow
name for this tribe by the whites.
White Calf, chief of the Blackfeet, and Mountain Chief, of the
Piegan, told the writer in the sign language that their spoken name
for the Arapaho meant "tattooed-on-the-breast people," and
de-scribed the process of tattooing, which was done in early times
by means of several long cactus spines tied together; with this
implement they pricked, by tapping, the spot they wished to tattoo
until it was raw. Powdered charcoal was then rubbed in the wound,
which, when thoroughly healed, left an indelible sky-blue mark.
Garrard,14 speaking of these punctures,
says: "The Arapahoes (an adjoining tribe, with whom the Cheyennes
intermarry) have three equidistant punctures on the breast."
The writer, in 1877, learned the Dakota name for the Arapaho -
Makpey-a-to, which means "cloud blue," or "sky blue," probably in
allusion to the blue color of the tattoo marks on the breast of the
Arapaho men. The Cheyenne name for Arapaho has the same meaning.15
In 1897, Left Hand, chief of the Southern Arapaho, spoke to me in
signs as follows:
|The name the Southern Arapaho have for
the whole Arapaho tribe is Hennanna i-ye-na. The
Southern Arapaho call the Northern Arapaho 'Red Eye,'
also `Sagebrush men'; the Northern Arapaho call the
Southern Arapaho `South Men."16
We have a medicine pipe we call the 'flat pipe';
whenever a man smokes that pipe he is obliged to tell
the truth (use it therefore to administer an oath). We
use it in the Sun dance, the sweat house, and whenever
we want to worship. She Bear has it now ; he lives
at Fort Washakie. It has always been in the north and
was never kept south; we have never seen it.17
They say it is kept by Gray Bear (not She Bear), near
Fort Washakie; it is wrapped in skins of different
kinds-otter, beaver, etc.; with it is an ear of corn and
a stone turtle. This turtle is the one that brought up
Arapaho medicine pipe, from a sketch by
|the bottom of the flood and
spit it out, thus forming the present earth. The old
Southern Arapaho had some stones which represented the
pipe, but the last old man is now dead from a sketch by
Sitting Bull. and his wife keeps them; her name is Old
Sun and she lives at Watinga. The flat pipe was given us
by the Father when we grew up as a people hen the
Arapaho were first made. That
|word 'Arapaho' is a white
man's word. We know the two signs for 'Arapaho'
[Northern and Southern], and suppose that for the
Northern Arapaho is because the Northern is the parent
band. We do not know about the southern sign.18
We make the sign for 'stomach people' for the Gros
Ventres of Milk river, who are our people. We originated
in the north beyond the Missouri river, and we became
separated by the breaking up of the ice on the Missouri
river t hat is the way we left some of our people up
there. After we came south to the Black hills we
separated again because the Northern Arapaho preferred
to stay north and we preferred to come south. We did not
do it on account of any quarrel or unpleasantness; we
came south because there were more horses and a milder
climate. The others preferred to stay in the north; they
are our people; we often used to visit them and they us.
We have lived since usually with the Southern Cheyenne.
Our Sun dance is like theirs, but is held separately. We
have a cottonwood lodge pole [i. e., Sun-dance pole] and
have a buffalo robe on the pole. We Southern Arapaho
have two divisions: first, Ugly-faced men; second, Funny
Men. The first were so named because they had suffered
from smallpox; their faces were badly pitted and they
had ugly holes in their faces. The others were so called
because they were a smaller people; they looked funny
because they were so small.19
We had soldier bands, graduated according to age. The lowest or
youngest was called 'Fox band.' These bands were:
When a Fox boy became old enough he entered the Star band, and so
on. We have different songs and different dances for each band. It
is the same way with the Northern Arapaho. If a Star boy was about
to go into battle he would want people to know to which band he
belonged and would sing a Star song. There are no words to these
We used to have a great many medicine places; any place where there
is a high hill or water by itself is a place where one can be helped
by the medicine. We worshiped the earth also, but nothing beneath
it. The very oldest people said the first people had a last rib of a
buffalo for a bow, and for arrows had rushes, with leaves from an
elm tree for heads; the shape of these leaves was copied afterward
in flint, and finally they began to use feathers.
"The Northern Arapaho have two divisions, as we have, that usually
camp in different places. One is called the 'Spunky Men20
because they get angry easily, and often became angry at the other
band, which was called 'Antelope,' because they never stayed long in
one place. Before a Cheyenne or an Arapaho smokes, he says: ` Sun
smoke it first,'then'Earth,' then East, North, South, West. Some
Sun and Earth smoke it.'
"The old Arapaho said the dead went upward; sometimes the dead turn
into owls. Sometimes when there is a sick person in a lodge and a
whirlwind strikes the lodge the sick person dies and his spirit goes
out of his body with the whirlwind. When we see a whirlwind coming
down the road, raising a vortex of dust, we get out of the way-it is
a dead man's spirit.21 If I do not get
out of the way it will take my life.
"The Southern Cheyenne believe that the opossum is another dead man.
We call [in signs] the opossum 'shave tail.' We call [in signs] the
crane 'tall bird'; we have heard that it carries another bird on its
back,22 but we have never seen it."
From the above it will be seen that "Arapaho" is a Crow word
signifying "tattooed-on-the-breast people"; that the sign for the
Northern Arapaho does not mean "parent" or "mother" band, but has
the same meaning as the word Arapaho itself; that it was the Gros
Ventres of the Prairie and not the Blackfeet with whom Captain Lewis
had trouble in 18o6; that the first mention in history of the name
Gros Ventres was in 1751; that this tribe migrated from the north in
1818 and lived on the southern plains with the Arapaho until 1823,
when they returned to the Blackfeet in the north; that the Northern
and Southern Arapaho as well as the Northern and Southern Cheyenne
separated at least as early 1816, and probably earlier; and that the
Comanche name for the Arapaho, Sariet-tethka, "dog-eater," as well
as the Shoshoni name, having the same meaning, are terms of reproach
from tribes which do not eat dogs.
1 Archaeologia Americana, 11, p. 132, 1836.
2 Western Missions, p. 254, 1863.
3 Ethnography and Philology of the Missouri Valley,
p. 321, 1862.
4 That was when they separated after their five year
stay with the Arapaho.
5 Compare Autobiography of James P. Beckwourth, p.
128, for an account of this fight in 1823.
6 Sign Language, p. 198.
7 Report, p. 88, 1860.
8 Op. Cit., p. 326.
9 Fourteenth Report Bureau of American Ethnology,
1892-'93, p. 1013. 40p. cit., p. 1013.
10 Report, p. 88, 1860.
11 Op. Cit., p. 326.
12 Fourteenth Report Bureau of American Ethnology,
1892-'93, p. 1013. 40p. cit., p. 1013.
13 Expedition from Pittsburgh to the Rocky
Mountains, 1, p. 450, Phila., 1823.
14 Wah-to-yah and the Taos Trail, p. 105,
15 Since determining these facts it has been found
that Hayden (p. 402) gives "a-ra-po-ho or -hose" as the Crow name
for the Arapaho, and Long (No. 62 in his list of signs, p. 386) has
"Arrapaho nation - The fingers of one hand touch the breast in
different parts, to indicate the tattooing of that part in points."
16 The Arapaho give no reason for the appellation
"Sagebrush," but it may be from the general bluish color of the
17 Sitting Bull, the Northern Arapaho who, in 1890,
spread the Messiah craze over the southern plains, made for me the
accompanying sketch of the pipe, which was afterward confirmed by
Washee and Black Coyote, Southern Arapaho, who had been on a visit
to the north, and who saw it there.
18 I have never seen any clue to the meaning of the
Southern Arapaho sign.
19 This seems to point to the incorporation of
several peoples into this band
20 In sign language, "hurry-up angry" or "soon
21 This is a common belief among Indians of the
22 This belief is prevalent also among the Kiowa
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The Early History and the Names of the Arapaho, American
Native American Nations