Songs of the Arapaho

November is Native American Heritage Month. The American Heritage Center pays tribute to the rich and diverse cultures, traditions, and histories of Native people.

The Northern Arapaho have a rich musical culture, from dramatic religious songs to haunting war songs and joyful social songs. From 1949 through 1983, Anthropologist Zdenek Salzmann spent summers on the Wind River Reservation, studying Arapaho linguistics and music. He recorded more than 100 audio tapes, documenting Arapaho songs and language. Salzmann collaborated with a number of Arapaho, including William “Bill” Shakespeare.

William Shakespeare, father of Bill Shakespeare. The younger Shakespeare played an instrumental role in interpreting Arapaho songs and language for researcher Zdenek Salzmann.
Box 10, Zdenek Salzmann papers, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming.

Among the oldest known Arapaho songs are those associated with the Sun Dance. Historically, the Arapaho were nomadic, traveling in small bands except for an annual summer meeting. It was at these summertime gatherings that the Arapaho participated in a variety of dances, including the Sun Dance. The Sun Dance dramatized and reaffirmed tribal identity and was part of a seven-day long ceremony. Singing and drumming accompanied the preparation of herb medicines. Practice sessions for the singers were held in the nights leading up to the Sun Dance.

A two-sided drum was used as accompaniment. Most of the Sun Dance songs, like the majority of Arapaho songs, are sung with intentionally meaningless syllables. Syllables are grouped together in various patterns and are passed along orally from one generation of singers to the next. Following a long night of singing and dancing, the Arapaho Morning Sun Rise Song was sung, just as the dancers were preparing to rest.

Transcription of the musical score of the Arapaho Sunrise Song of the Sun Dance, 1911.
Box 10, Zdenek Salzmann papers, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming.

Another group of Arapaho songs is associated with peyote. It is believed that peyote came to the Arapaho of Wyoming in 1903. Its use originated among the Mexican Indians and propagated through other North American tribes. Peyote was incorporated into the Arapaho vision quest. For the Arapaho peyote ceremony, a drum is made of skin stretched over an earthenware pot containing a little water. The water is used to moisten the drumhead to ensure a consistent pitch. A gourd containing glass beads is used as an accompaniment. Singing and drumming are integral to the peyote ceremony. Four songs are sung by each man who participates, with the ritual continuing past midnight and ending at dawn with another group of songs. Some peyote songs address the nature of peyote itself, while others are repeated syllables without words. Peyote songs are accompanied by noticeably quicker drumbeats than other Arapaho songs, but the singing style is more subdued.

Musical score of an Arapaho Peyote Song, transcribed by Bruno Nettl, June 1951.
Box 10, Zdenek Salzmann papers, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming.

Some Arapaho social songs have been learned from other American Indian tribes. According to tribal legend, songs that accompany Round Dances were learned from the Gros Ventre in the late 19th century and songs for the Wolf Dance were learned from the Dakota tribe at approximately the same time.

Arapaho music can be dynamic, changing to reflect current events. War songs celebrated the tribe’s exploits in battle, and not just conquests from the days of the “Wild West”. Lyrics were changed or added to reflect Arapaho experiences during World War I and II. Tribal members also created new songs based on visions or dreams they experienced.

You can learn more about the diversity of Arapaho music and listen to traditional Arapaho songs in the Zdenek Salzmann papers at the University of Wyoming’s American Heritage Center.

Post contributed by AHC Writer Kathryn Billington.


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