The Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes did not always reside in Oklahoma. Their origins are actually in the Great Lakes regions of what we now call the United States. With the arrival of the horse and new technology, over hundreds of years, they migrated out to the Great Plains and Rocky Mountains, finding greater fortunes hunting buffalo and engaging in trade commerce with the French and other non-Native populations. The Cheyenne and Arapaho drew closer together as allies around the end of the 18th century, combining many familial and ceremonial activities as a result.
This is a map of the Upper Plains / Northwest Territories where modern day Missouri, Iowa, Minnesota, Kansas, Nebraska, the Dakotas, Wyoming, Montana and Colorado now exist. The orange section covering about 60% of the state of Colorado is the aboriginal homelands of the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes in the mid-1800s, right before their fate and fortune would change dramatically in less than three decades.
While many people remember the Trail of Tears in the 1830s and 1840s, as well as the American Civil War of the 1860s, further west, momentous land battles and treaty-making were taking place
On September 17, 1851, the first Treaty of Ft. Laramie was signed between United States treaty commissioners and representatives of various tribal nations, including the Cheyenne and Arapaho. The treaty set forth traditional territorial claims of the tribes.
The United States acknowledged that all the land covered by the treaty was Indian territory and did not claim any part of it. The Native Americans guaranteed safe passage for settlers on the Oregon Trail and allowed roads and forts to be built in their territories. The treaty aimed to "make an effective and lasting peace" amongst the tribes and with the Unites States.
The treaty was broken almost immediately after its inception. In the decades, the United States failed to prevent mass immigration of miners and settlers into Colorado Territory. The U.S. government did not enforce the treaty to keep these “illegal aliens” out of the homelands of the Cheyenne and Arapaho.
So what really happened? Rumors of gold had filtered out of the Rockies since the 16th century. In 1807, explorer Zebulon M. Pike met trapper James Purcell in Santa Fe and learned that Purcell had found gold in the area eventually known as the Pikes Peak region. In 1850, travelers on their way to California found a small amount of gold in Ralston Creek in present-day Arvada. Around the same time, gold nuggets found near the future site of Denver by a U.S. Army scout sparked intense interest. However, the discovery of gold and other minerals alone was not enough to set off a rush.
Two other factors – the pacification of Native Americans and the unstable economy – opened the door for the surge of immigrants to Colorado in 1859. First, the treaties of Fort Laramie (1851) and Fort Atkinson (1853), signed by representatives of the United States and several Indigenous Nations of the Great Plains, made the westward trails a bit safer for Anglo-American travelers. Then, an economic downturn beginning in 1857 bankrupted many on the east coast, giving them the incentive to head west and start over. Finally, in 1857, news of Col. Edwin V. Sumner’s victory over a group of Cheyenne warriors in Kansas created the perception that Native Americans were no longer a threat. All of these events helped push Anglo-Americans and others westward.
The influx of so many white immigrants took a disastrous toll on the Native Americans living in Colorado’s plains and mountains. When the rush began in earnest in 1859, groups of Cheyenne, Lakota, Arapaho, and Kiowa lived on the plains, while Ute and Arapaho bands lived throughout the Front Range. Plains Indians spent the harsh winters along the sheltered river bottoms of the South Platte River and its tributaries as well as in the natural trough running north and south along the foothills of the Rockies. After 1858, Anglo-Americans increasingly traversed and occupied these areas, killing buffalo, trampling grazing grass, and cutting down precious timber. Native Americans soon found their resource base dwindling, and some began raiding wagon trains for supplies or in hopes of scaring off other white immigrants. Meanwhile, in the mountains, the Ute, Cheyenne, and Arapaho increasingly found traditional hunting grounds occupied by white mining camps, which cut into supplies of timber and game.
Faced with starvation and sporadic outbreaks of diseases for which they had no immunity, some Native American leaders, including Cheyenne chief Black Kettle and the Arapaho chief Left Hand, attempted to secure necessary food and supplies through negotiation. The U.S. government had promised Native Americans food and payment in exchange for land granted to them in previous treaties. However, the government often reneged on these payments, called annuities, leading some Native American groups to continue raiding white settlements.
The territorial government was not very interested in talks with the Cheyenne and Arapaho that did not involve complete surrender and the severe limitation of where the Native Americans could live or even hunt. Enter in two of the major players in this stance during a time the Cheyenne and Arapaho were fighting desperately to keep the homelands they had been promised by treaty.
On November 29, 1864, a peaceful band of Southern Cheyenne and Arapaho were massacred by Colonel John Chivington’s Colorado volunteers at Sand Creek, Colorado. What led up to this?
On February 8 of that year, a Cheyenne delegation, headed by Chief Black Kettle, along with some Arapaho leaders, ceded most of their land but secured a 600-square mile reservation and annuity payments. The delegation reasoned that continued hostilities would jeopardize their bargaining power and ability to persist as Native peoples. In the decentralized political world of the tribes, Black Kettle and his fellow delegates represented only part of the Cheyenne and Arapahoe tribes. Many did not accept this new agreement, called the Treaty of Fort Wise.
Tensions were mounting. Chiefs Black Kettle and Left Hand pled for peace. They wrote to Major Wynkoop at Fort Lyon, expressing their desire to end violence. Wynkoop and 125 men marched apprehensively to the Smoky Hill River to meet with them. Negotiations followed. With renewed hope, Wynkoop and the chiefs headed for a peace counsel in Denver.
They met with Governor John Evans, Colonel John Chivington, and other officials on September 28, 1864 at Camp Weld. Chivington made his position clear: “My rule of fighting white men or Indians is to fight until they lay down their arms and submit to military authority. You are nearer to Major Wynkoop than anyone else, and you can go to him [at Fort Lyon] when you get ready to do that.”
Of 1,200 Cheyenne and Arapaho camped near Sand Creek in the autumn of 1864, about 650 Arapaho moved to Fort Lyon. “Prisoner rations” were not enough to sustain them, so they moved further east. A small Arapaho village under chief Left Hand chose instead to join the 500 or more Cheyenne still camped at Sand Creek.
The new reservation and federal payments proved unable to sustain the tribes. During the Civil War, tensions again rose and sporadic violence broke out between Anglos and Native Americans. In June 1864, John Evans attempted to isolate recalcitrant Native Americans by inviting “friendly Indians” to camp near military forts and receive provisions and protection. He also called for volunteers to fill the military void left when most of the regular army troops in Colorado were sent to other areas during the Civil War.
In August 1864, Evans met with Black Kettle, Left Hand, and several other chiefs from the Cheyenne and Arapaho to forge a new peace, and all parties left satisfied. Black Kettle moved his band to Fort Lyon, Colorado, where the commanding officer encouraged him to hunt near Sand Creek. In what can only be considered an act of treachery, Chivington moved his troops to the plains, and on November 29, they attacked the unsuspecting Native Americans, scattering men, women, and children and hunting them down. The casualties reflect the one-sided nature of the fight. Nine of Chivington’s men were killed; 148 of Black Kettle’s followers were slaughtered, more than half of them women and children. The Colorado volunteers returned and killed the wounded, mutilated the bodies, and set fire to the village.
The atrocities committed by the soldiers were initially praised, but then condemned as the circumstances of the massacre emerged. Chivington resigned from the military and aborted his budding political career. Black Kettle survived and continued his peace efforts. In 1865, his followers accepted a new reservation in Indian Territory, that would someday become Oklahoma.
In the aftermath of Sand Creek, federal investigations and military inquiry took place. Dozens of eyewitnesses provided testimony. Taken in Washington D.C., Denver City, Fort Lyon, and other locations, officers, soldiers, and civilians came forth. Shortly, two differing stories – one portraying a bloodthirsty and repulsive massacre and the other describing a well-deserved victory – began to emerge:
So what became of the Cheyenne and Arapaho? They are still alive and may have found a new home in Oklahoma Indian Territory, setting about healing and moving on from Sand Creek. Some of them are very much into keeping their language and culture alive, and to use that as a means to recover from multiple generations of historical trauma.
I would like you to meet (from left to right) Katelynn Pipestem, Chief Gordon Yellowman, and Winnie Whitetail Mendivil. They are tribal members and all contributors to the Medicine Mural and addiction recovery programs at the George Hawkins Memorial Treatment Center in Clinton, Oklahoma. They are the community stakeholders whose traditional knowledge and courage made for an amazing cultural contribution to the world of architecture.
Nearly five years ago, the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribal leadership chose to invest and expand its tribal substance abuse program. Addiction to drugs and alcohol had gotten to crisis levels for the tribe, along with suicide, domestic violence, and other destructive outcomes. At the heart of this was the deep and lasting sadness of a people murdered and mutilated in Colorado so many years ago, moved to foreign soils, and left to figure out a new path forward. This is a place with low attainment of education and employment. Many are dependent on welfare and social programs serving poor and low-income families.
Being still connected to their culture and traditions, they chose to work with Blue Star given our track record of cultural respectful placemaking and design. By listening and learning about the history of the Cheyenne and Arapaho people, we were able to create a beautiful mural based off an initial sketch from Chief Yellowtail.
The colors of the Medicine Mural each hold meaning. White, or tsévó'kómo represents purification, related to ceremony and rituals of the Cheyenne and Arapaho. Yellow, tséheóvo, represents the Sun, the giver of life and energy. The blue, tséotá'távo, incorporated into the mural represents both the Sky and the Water. That which is red, tsémá'o, signifies the blood of the People, and also represents the Day. The black, tsémo'kôhtávo, represents the night and Grandmother Moon. Green, Éhoxo'ôhtsévo, makes up the middle of the mural wall and represents growth, healing, as well as medicine and vegetation. Lastly, the pink, Éma'óma'ôhtsévo, symbolizes transformation, like that of the sky at sunset. Together, these colors create a reminder to anyone that enters the treatment center: You've come so far; this isn't the end. This is a new beginning for you.
This story was initially featured as a Pecha Kucha presentation by Blue Star President Scott Moore y Medina at the Structures for Inclusion 2022 conference at the Metropolitan State University of Denver. The Medicine Mural for the Cheyenne & Arapaho Tribes' George Hawkins Memorial Treatment Center was highlighted as one of the exhibits on showcase in the Design for the Common Good exhibition that began on January 14 and will conclude March 19.
To hear more from Cheyenne Chief Gordon Yellowman, Director of the Substance Abuse Program Winnie White Tail Mendivil, and Art Therapist & Counselor Technician Katelynn Pipestem, who will join Scott in a panel for the Design for the Common Good Conversations event, please join the livestream on Saturday, March 19, 2022 at 12 p.m. EST by using this LINK.