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Arapaho - Reservations

The Northern Arapaho Fight for a Reservation in Wyoming

Black Coal found a way to negotiate for his demands by having nearly every Northern Arapaho warrior serve as scouts for the United States Army in 1876 and 1877, helping with the army’s efforts to fight the Sioux and Northern Cheyenne who refused to live on reservations. The Scouts wore army uniforms as a symbol of loyalty and trustworthiness to the United States, but to the tribe it symbolized generosity and courage. In 1877 the Northern Cheyenne sent a delegation to Washington, D. C., to meet with President Rutherford B. Hayes. With assistance from the army, the Northern Arapaho gained permission to settle on the Shoshone reservation in Wyoming. Black Coal and his people arrived on the reservation in 1878. Although the Arapaho strategy of aligning with the United States did result in an Arapaho reservation in Wyoming, it was a less than an ideal or mutually respectful partnership. The United States supported the arrangement for the same reason they allied with the Shoshone to attacked the Northern Arapaho. Using one ethnic population to attack the other was a common tactic used by the United States to expand its grip on the west.

The Northern Arapaho on the Shoshone Reservation

When the Northern Arapaho arrived at the reservation in Wyoming in 1878, there was little game to hunt and insufficient rations from the United States government. The Shoshone, who were not eager to see the Northern Arapaho become permanent settlers, were the only legally recognized owners of the reservation. The United States threatened the Northern Arapaho with withholding of rations and removal to Oklahoma if they refused to assimilate and abandon their culture. Arapaho children were forced into the government-established boarding schools or the Catholic mission on the reservation. Children’s traditional tribal clothing was confiscated, they were punished for speaking Arapaho, and their long hair was cut as part of the government’s goal of “civilizing” the tribe.

The government banned the Arapaho from practicing polygyny, and any tribe member who married in an Arapaho wedding ceremony could be denied rations or put in prison. Eventually marriages were no longer arranged by families. The government forced the Arapaho to farm, but due to limited land that was poorly suited for agriculture to begin with and lack of equipment, the farms failed to feed the tribe or provide them with sufficient income. The tribe was also unable to meet its needs through raising livestock. The tribe’s livestock were frequently stolen from the reservation without any consequences from the government.

Rations decreased drastically from four pounds of beef per individual a week in 1883 to only one pound by 1889. Only the elderly were provided any rations from the government by the turn of the century. As the rations decreased, the people began to starve. Many were left in crippling debt to the agency trader to get enough food for their family to survive. There were 972 Northern Arapaho in 1885 but only 823 by 1893.

Cessions and Change on the Wyoming Reservation

The Northern Arapaho ceded parts of the reservation in 1896 and again in 1904 to non-Indian ranchers in exchange for recognition from the United States as having legal rights to the reservation. Congress passed the General Allotment Act, also known as the Dawes Act, in 1887. The act divided the reservation into small plots for the individual tribe members. Once each member had an assigned plot, the rest of the land was sold to non-Indians. The Northern Arapaho and Shoshone ceded roughly two-thirds of the reservation in 1904, but the agreement was not ratified by Congress until 1905.

The Northern Arapaho leaders stopped trying to use military connections to sway the United States to their requests and began showing their support of the government’s policy of trying to make tribes support themselves between 1906 and 1936. Starting in the 1930s, the two tribes managed a few key victories in their attempts to improve life on the reservations. The Shoshone won a suit against the United States for violating the Shoshone treaty by relocating the Northern Arapaho on the Shoshone reservation. Both tribes benefited when the money from the lawsuit was used to purchase more land. Parts of the reservation that were ceded in 1905 were restored in 1940. There were roughly 1,128 Northern Arapaho in 1936, more than twice the population at the end of the 1890s, but the majority of them were living in poverty. A delegation of Arapaho and Shoshone argued before Congress for tribal income, which was not under their own control, to be distributed with two-thirds going to individual tribe members regularly. The standard of living on the reservation began to increase after 85 percent of the tribe’s income was paid to individuals by 1956.

Early Years on the Southern Arapaho Reservation

There were approximately 1,650 Southern Arapaho in 1871, when they settled on the reservation with the Cheyenne. For the first few years in present-day Oklahoma, the tribe was able to hunt some bison that still ranged near the reservation, and the Quaker agency on the reservation did not force farming or ranching on the tribe but taught by example. As a result of these two factors, the Southern Arapaho did not face starvation immediately after settling to a reservation as the Northern Arapaho had. Southern Arapaho culture changed very little during the first two decades on the reservation, but the tribe still adopted a policy of cooperation with the United States to maintain peaceful relations. Consequently, Southern Arapaho culture started to change as the United States pressured them to abandon their customs and beliefs. Marriage is one of the practices that changed over time after the Arapaho settled on the reservation. Marriages were still approved or arranged by the families near the beginning of the 20th century, but the practice of polygyny slowly ended though pressure from Indian agents and the decrease in a wife’s traditional domestic duties, such as tanning hides.

Quakers, Mennonites, and Schooling

The Quaker boarding school had little success because parents did not send their children. The school had a high death rate due to a poor sewage system that caused outbreaks of malaria and other illnesses. Mennonite missionaries also opened schools, but they did not attract many students. The Arapaho did not want their children’s traditional clothing confiscated or hair to be cut. After Little Raven and other leaders sent their children to the Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania in 1879 to prove the tribe’s loyalty to the United States, other members of the tribe began sending their children to schools. Each year the Mennonites sent 20 Southern Arapaho children to live with Mennonite host families in Halstead, Kansas, to learn farming and English. Most of the tribe’s children had some understanding of English by 1890.

Broken Promises and Suffering

Chief Yellow Bear of the Arapaho photographed between 1870 and 1875. Yellow Bear attended the signing of the Medicine Lodge Treaty in 1867.Situations toward the end of the 19th century were becoming increasingly difficult on the reservation. Southern Arapaho leaders and the Secretary of the Interior made an agreement in 1873 to establish separate reservations for the Southern Arapaho and Southern Cheyenne, but Congress never approved the agreement. Some tribal leaders kept pushing for the agreement to no effect. Malaria and other illnesses reduced the population of the tribe to roughly 1,137 in 1889. The bison that had been available to hunt near the reservation were nearly extinct at this point, which ended the traditional hunts on which the tribe depended. The land was not suitable for enough agriculture to feed the tribe, and their livestock were being stolen by non-Indian intruders.

The General Allotment Act of 1887 divided reservations among individual members of the tribes and sold the remaining plots to non-Indians. The Cheyenne and Southern Arapaho were forced to negotiate for the allotment and sale of the rest of their land in October of 1890. The tribes knew this would harm their people who had no choice but to raise cattle to thrive, which required more land. The leaders resisted, but the United States coerced some to sign and forged other signatures, and the cession was approved by Congress on March 3, 1891. Reservation lands were opened to homesteaders on April 19, 1892, and nearly 30,000 non-Indians blitzed into former tribal lands. Non-Indians now formed 90 percent of the population in former tribal lands.

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Entry: Arapaho - Reservations

Author: Kansas Historical Society

Author information: The Kansas Historical Society is a state agency charged with actively safeguarding and sharing the state's history.

Date Created: September 2015

Date Modified: December 2017

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