Native American Tribes in Rocky Mountain National Park

Utes and Arapaho Indian Nations in Rocky Mountain National Park

Arapaho Indians in Colorado

Arapaho Indians lived mainly in the plains of the Midwest, but they spent time exploring the Rocky Mountain National Park area on hunting and foraging trips. In 1914, the Colorado Mountain Club set out to better understand the role of Native Americans, especially the Arapaho tribe, on the area’s development. The organization approached two Arapaho elders living on the Wind River Reservation, asking them to adventure out on a two-week long pack trip through the mountains in order to record what they could remember about the area, primarily names and events. The two members of the Arapaho tribe, Gun Griswold and Sherman Sage, accepted the offer, and together with three members of the Colorado Mountain Club—interpreter Tom Crispin, host Oliver Toll and wrangler Shep Husted—crossed the Continental Divide four times.

Throughout the course of their journey the Arapaho elders told of battles with the Shoshones and the Apache. While in Rocky Mountain National Park’s Beaver Meadows area, Sage found a pile of stones resembling an Indian monument. He recounted how this was a site where an Apache war party of close to 50 individuals was met by the Arapaho tribe.

Toll kept a detailed journal of the expedition, although he had his work cut out for him. The Arapaho language is difficult to document because the way a single word is pronounced may have many different meanings. Thus he used specialized symbols in his notes as a way to create a written language. Another difficulty arose with the protocol preventing the interpreter from interrupting an elder’s monologue. This made it tough for the interpreter to recall exactly what was said, and then for Toll to record. Toll was also disappointed by the lack of detail in the descriptions: “The information itself was often rather vague. A name might be applied to several places,” he wrote, noting the lack of details for a battle, its date or the number of Indians involved.

Toll published his writings in 1962 as “Arapaho Names and Trails,” 48 years after the expedition.

Ute Indians in Colorado

As the primary tribe on the west side of Rocky Mountain National Park from the 1200s to the late 1700s, the Utes hunted within what later became park boundaries and camped along Grand Lake in the summer. Visitors to the park will notice one of the marks the Utes left on the area in the Ute Trail, which has sections running from the Alpine Visitor Center at Fall River Pass down to Milner Pass near Poudre Lake and a section beginning at the Ute Cross Trailhead. Both the Ute Indians and the Arapaho used the Ute Trail to make their way to and from their hunting grounds on the Great Plains.