Native American Nations
                   Your Source for Indian Research
                   Rolls ~ History ~ Treaties ~ Census ~ Books

The Early History and Names of the Arapaho

 Native American Nations | Early History and Names of the Arapaho                   

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 [1862] 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."

Hayden9 says:

The Arapaho call the Atsina To-i-nin'-a, "people who beg." Compare Father de Smet, above cited, and Mooney10 who has Hitu'nĕna, "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 Perc, in 1903, gave me the Nez Perc 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 follows:

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 quite different.

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 Ă-rā-pā-he 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 [1897]; 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 earth from

Arapaho medicine pipe, from a sketch by Sitting Bull

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:

Fox band
Star band
Tomahawk band
Dance band
Crazy band
Dog Soldiers
Old Men

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 songs.

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 only say,
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, Cincinnati, 1850.
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 plant.
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 mad."
21 This is a common belief among Indians of the southern plains.
22 This belief is prevalent also among the Kiowa and Comanche.


This site includes some historical materials that may imply negative stereotypes reflecting the culture or language of a particular period or place. These items are presented as part of the historical record and should not be interpreted to mean that the WebMasters in any way endorse the stereotypes implied.

The Early History and the Names of the Arapaho, American Anthropologist, 1907

Native American Nations


Copyright 2000-2019 by and/or their author(s). The webpages may be linked to but shall not be reproduced on another site without written permission from NaNations or their author. Images may not be linked to in any manner or method. Anyone may use the information provided here freely for personal use only. If you plan on publishing your personal information to the web please give proper credit to our site for providing this information. Thanks!!!