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Native American Heritage Month: For us to Celebrate Language and Culture We Need to Know the History

November 17, 2022

YMCA of the Rockies and the exploration of the Indigenous histories of our two centers

Native American Heritage Month 
For us to Celebrate Language and Culture We Need to Know the History

Karen Lloyd-D'Onofrio, PhD - Association Historian, YMCA of the Rockies

As we recognize and celebrate the contributions and sacrifices of Native Americans to our nation’s history during Native American Heritage Month, here at YMCA of the Rockies we've been exploring the Indigenous histories of our two centers. Uncovering these histories is an important part of our relationship-building with the Indigenous peoples whose ancestors stewarded the land, and for whom it remains their ancestral homelands and hunting grounds.

Today, Colorado is home to two federally-recognized tribes, the Ute (Nuu-ciu) Mountain Tribe and the Southern Ute Tribe; however, many other Indigenous peoples and nations have called Colorado home, including the Northern Ute People, Hinono’ei, the Arapaho People and Tsistsistas, the Cheyenne People.  In June this year, we welcomed members of the Northern Arapaho Tribe back to their homeland in Estes Park where they held their first language and culture camp for youth. It was a time for learning, healing, and relationship-building between the elders and the youth as they shared their history and participated in language classes. Too often, the voices and histories of Indigenous peoples and people of color are silenced in the sweeping narratives of our nation's history, so having some historical context is vital in understanding the necessity of these camps for Arapaho People in their reclaiming language and culture.

Youth exploring their language and culture: Image Courtesy of Teresa HisChase
Youth exploring their language and culture: Image Courtesy of Teresa HisChase

Brief Historical Context

Sometime in the late 1600s, the Arapaho People began their migration from the Great Lakes area to the West where they allied with the Cheyenne. Their new home encompassed the headwaters of the Platte Rivers and Arkansas River and the Great Plains where they hunted. The Arapaho followed the bison into the mountain valleys and parks, including Estes Park where they set up their winter camps around St. Mary’s Lake and in Tuxedo Park across Glacier Creek from the YMCA property. Trading at Fort Laramie in Wyoming and Bent’s Fort in southeastern Colorado became part of the circulatory trade and hunting routes as they followed the game and the seasonal cycles of the land throughout Colorado, parts of Wyoming, the Smokey Hills in Kansas and western Nebraska. In the summer months various groups gathered on the plains east of Denver for ceremonies, such as the Sun Dance, and to reconnect with their families.

Following the US-Mexican War in 1848, the West underwent a dramatic change as settlers and miners flooded into the area. In order to secure open and clear land for the new settlers, the US government began making treaties with Native American nations already living there.  The 1851 Treaty between the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes restricted their territory to the headwaters of the Platte Rivers and eastwards to the confluence of the North and South Platte Rivers, and to the headwater of the Arkansas River and eastwards to where the Santa Fe Trail crossed the river in Kansas. This arbitrary boundary on the map did not last long. In 1858, prospectors discovered gold in Colorado. The tacit agreements between the Arapaho and Cheyenne tribes and the settlers to share the land rapidly dissolved. Settlers and miners prospected in traditional camping grounds and staked their claims of ownership, and despite efforts by Chief Left Hand (Nawath) and Chief Black Kettle of the Arapaho and Cheyenne to keep the peace, it became clear that the land could not support both the original inhabitants of the land and the newcomers.  

Traditional ways of hunting and managing the land were in direct conflict with how settlers and miners used the land for extracting resources, and by the 1860s the plains and mountains looked very different from when the Arapaho and Cheyenne People first arrived. As the frontier continued its march westward, military forts sprung up along established trails to protect settlers and miners heading towards new beginnings and mining camps. More devastating to the traditional ways of living, was the creation of a reservation in 1861 in southeast Colorado. In return for ceasing their traditional practices of hunting the dwindling bison herds, the US government agreed to provide food and other staples as payment to the Arapaho and Cheyenne People, if they moved to the reservation and became "farmers." While some of the leaders agreed, others did not, and many headed  northwards into Wyoming and the Black Hills. The onset of the US Civil War and the passing of the Homestead Act In 1862, created even more tension between the Cheyenne and Arapaho, who continued to pursue their traditional hunting practices, and the new settlers.

Participants in the Camp Weld Agreement In 1864: Image History Colorado Collection, 89.451.2952
Participants in the Camp Weld Agreement In 1864: Image History Colorado Collection, 89.451.2952

In November1864, the Arapaho and Cheyenne gathered near Fort Lyon to establish peace once and for all. While camping peacefully along the Sand Creek, with the American flag flying, Chief Black Kettle and Chief Left Hand believed their people would be safe, and especially because of the agreement they made with the US government at Camp Weld earlier that year. In the early morning of the 29th November 1864, Colonel John Chivington and his command, with the approval of the territorial governor John Evans, attacked the sleeping camp and brutally massacred the Arapaho and Cheyenne. Those killed and mutilated that morning included women, children, and the elderly, as well as Chief Left Hand, who died a few days later of his injuries, and Chief White Antelope of the Cheyenne. The Sand Creek Massacre remains a stain on Colorado’s history and its effects on the Cheyenne and Arapaho People have rippled through their histories and lives, and resonates today with the youth and descendant communities.

The Sand Creek Massacre: Ledger Art by Howling Wolf(4)
The Sand Creek Massacre: Ledger Art by Howling Wolf(4)

Following the massacre, the Northern Cheyenne and Northern Arapaho tribes remained in the north, while the Southern Cheyenne and Southern Arapaho tribes were eventually moved to Indian country in Oklahoma. This physical separation has had a profound effect on the culture and language of the Arapaho. The Northern Arapaho elders have become the keepers of the language and travel to Oklahoma to teach the Southern Arapaho People their traditional languages, but these trips are becoming increasingly difficult to make. The language and culture camp held at our Estes Park center this summer is an important program where the Arapaho youth can reclaim their language, history, and culture. 

During their visit this summer, elders reclaimed Arapaho names for many geographical features that have been given white settler names over the years, and shared the history of their homeland with the youth. The group walked in the footsteps of their ancestors and connected with their homeland in very important and meaningful ways, and the youth especially finally had a sense of where they came from. It was a very special moment for healing and connection to the Estes Valley, and next year, the Arapaho will return to YMCA of the Rockies and stay at Snow Mountain Ranch, where they will again reconnect with their ancestors, history, language, and land. We are looking forward to welcoming them back to their homeland and learning more about their history and the history of the land that is now under our stewardship. 

Attendees of the Language and Culture Camp: Image Courtesy of Teresa HisChase
Attendees of the Language and Culture Camp: Image Courtesy of Teresa HisChase


Resources for learning more:


[1] Hinono’ei are known as the Sky People and Tsistsitsas is the Cheyenne word meaning “Human Beings” or “The People.” Accessed 11/10/2022

[2] The first treaty was with the Nuu-cui (Ute People) at Abiquiu, New Mexico in 1849. The treaty forced the Utes to officially recognize the sovereignty of the United States and established boundaries between the US and the Ute nation.  Accessed 11/10/2022

[3] For more information on Chief Black Kettle, Accessed 11//11/2022

[4] Howling Wolf, a Cheyenne warrior, was 15-years-old when he defended the camp with his father, Eagle Head. Image from, , Accessed 11//11/2022

Assigned Categories: History

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