The region about Rocky Mountain National Park is more or less the dividing line and battleground of two tribes well known to history, the Ute and the Arapaho. Not far away are the Shoshoni, or Snakes, as they are more commonly referred to in early literature. They do not appear to have been more than sporadic visitors to the Rocky Mountain region, however, and so will not be considered in this account.
Unfortunately, relatively little material exists on either Ute or Arapaho. The Ute in particular have been little studied professionally by ethnologists, partially because of their consistent hostility toward whites, and their general incommunicativeness, a trait which they share with many other tribes of the Great Basin region. There exist several good studies of special features of Arapaho culture, notably their ceremonies and design symbolism, but no complete account has ever been written. For this reason it has been necessary to rely on the accounts of their allies and neighbors, the Cheyenne, for certain features of material culture.
The Arapaho are a typical Plains Indian tribe; horsemen, buffalo hunters, warriors. They have not always been so, however, as there is evidence that they once lived somewhere to the northeast, perhaps in the region of the Red River and the Saskatchewan. There they were apparently agricultural and makers of pottery. Drifting southwest, apparently in company with the Cheyenne who originally lived to the southeast of them, they came in contact with the so-called village Indians of the Missouri, the Mandan and Hidatsa. From them they are believed to have obtained many characteristic features of their ceremonial and social organization, particularly the graded military societies.
Just what date may be attributed to this connection is uncertain. It probably antedates considerably their first crossing of the Missouri, and may have occurred while still in their original habitat. After crossing the Missouri they continued their drift in historical times. About 1800, or shortly after, the division into northern and southern bands began to appear, but the tribe regarded itself as one for a long time. In 1806 Arapaho were still camped east of the Black Hills in South Dakota. (Scott, 549; 560).
Throughout the historic period the Arapaho were friendly with the Cheyenne, and it is stated that they shared their ranges. (Grinnell, 1906, 15.) Nevertheless, the Arapaho were usually west of the Cheyenne. The joint territory was the eastern half of Colorado and the southeastern portion of Wyoming. (Kroeber, 1902, 1; Mooney, 1896, 954.) Their habitat is to be characterized as the high plains of this region and the eastern portion of the Rocky Mountains, probably including the open sections or so-called "Parks" in Colorado, in the midst of the mountains. (For a more general historical discussion see Grinnell, 1923, Chap. 1, and Scott.)
The Arapaho originally consisted of five tribes with dialectic differences. Only two of these remain, the Gros Ventre, who were associated with the Blackfoot, and the Arapaho proper. The other three tribes seem to have been absorbed in the Arapaho proper. Kroeber in about 1900 found old people who still could speak two of the dialects. These band divisions had nothing to do with the present division into Northern and Southern Arapaho. (Kroeber, 1902, 4-7; Mooney, 1896, 954-5).
Linguistically, the Arapaho are Algonkins, as are the Cheyenne. Their languages are very diverse, however, being about equally related to Ojibwa, which appears to be the parent stock. (Kroeber, 1902; 4-7; 1916).
The Ute are apparently long-standing inhabitants of their area. The range has never been clearly defined. It appears to have comprised western Colorado and eastern Utah south of the Uintah mountains, including the Salt Lake Valley. It may have extended part way into New Mexico and Arizona. They are usually divided into Northern and Southern Ute, but it is not believed these divisions have any more than a geographical significance. (Handbook, 2; 874).
The Ute were evidently typical Great Basin people in their original culture, having in relatively recent times received an increment of Plains culture. Much of this may have been received within historic times, but data are inadequate for a conclusion. Their spectacular and typically Plains ceremony, the Sun Dance, probably was not received until as late as 1890.
Linguistically the Ute are a Shoshonean speaking people, belonging to the same stock as those tribes occupying all the Great Basin area and much of southern California. More distantly they are related to the large group of tribes to the south belonging to the Ute-Aztecan stock, including Pima, Papago, Tarhaumare, and Aztec, to mention only better known tribes. This family had a remarkable distribution, extending in broken areas from Idaho to Panama. (Lowie, 1924a 193-194; Kroeber, 1909).
The Ute environment was a combination of mountains interspersed with valleys, and desert country, in parts highly eroded. They were on the western fringe of the buffalo range, although the animals in their area were not sufficient in number to be their main sustenance as was the case in the plains.
Population figures are not very good for either tribe. The Ute seem to be of the Basin Shoshonean type, intermingled with physical types resembling the Plains. (For pictures see Handbook: 1:72; 2:875).