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What is the Arapaho Tribe?

By Jacob Queen
Updated May 17, 2024
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The Arapaho tribe is a group of Native Americans from the western plains. Historically, they lived primarily in parts of the US states of Colorado, Wyoming, Nebraska and Kansas. Most scholars think they were originally from Minnesota prior to the 1700s, but there is very little data available about that time period. Soon after coming to the plains, they split into two separate tribes—one group lived in the north near the mountains around the head of the Platte River, while the other group generally lived to the south near the Arkansas River. The tribe’s language descends from Algonquin, and they are known for their historical ties to the Cheyenne Indians.

Before coming to the plains, many historians think the Arapaho grew crops and lived a sedentary lifestyle. Once they moved westward, they became very dependent on buffalo for all their needs. In order to facilitate the constant following of buffalo herds, the Arapaho tribe lived in tent-like dwellings called tipis, which were constructed from wooden poles and buffalo skins. The women of the tribe were the owners of the tipis, and they were primarily responsible for transporting them, pulling the poles used in their construction behind them while traveling.

Individual Arapaho tribe members were born into a band. They would generally stay with that band for the rest of their lives, but changing bands was permitted and happened occasionally. There was a traditional festival every summer called the sun dance, and all the bands would gather to celebrate. The ritual was a sacred moment for the tribe, and it was held right before the summer buffalo hunt.

In historical times, the Arapaho tribe was allied with the Cheyenne, and they had many battles with the Ute, Shoshone and Pawnee. As Europeans expanded into the west, the Arapaho generally did what they could to maintain peaceful relations, but, eventually, the expansion forced them to abandon important hunting lands. This led to tension and eventually violence.

According to reports from the time, a peaceful group of Arapaho and Cheyenne were camped near the sand creek in southeast Colorado in 1864. They were allegedly attacked by the Colorado militia and massacred. This led to open fighting for two years before both sides signed treaties. The Arapaho were also involved in “Red Cloud's War” along with the Cheyenne, and this eventually culminated in the Battle of Little Bighorn, in which the Arapaho participated.

Eventually, the Arapaho tribe settled on various reservations. The Southern Arapaho tribe was placed on a reservation in Oklahoma, which it shared with the Cheyenne, and the northern Arapaho tribe was placed on a reservation in Wyoming along with its enemies, the Shoshone. Both of these reservations still exist.

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