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Chief Left Hand: Southern Arapaho

Chief Left Hand: Southern Arapaho

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by Margaret Coel

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This is the first biography of Chief Left Hand, diplomat, linguist, and legendary of the Plains Indians. Working from government reports, manuscripts, and the diaries and letters of those persons—both white and Indian—who knew him, Margaret Coel has developed an unusually readable, interesting, and closely documented account of his life and the life of


This is the first biography of Chief Left Hand, diplomat, linguist, and legendary of the Plains Indians. Working from government reports, manuscripts, and the diaries and letters of those persons—both white and Indian—who knew him, Margaret Coel has developed an unusually readable, interesting, and closely documented account of his life and the life of his tribe during the fateful years of the mid-1800s.

It was in these years that thousands of gold-seekers on their way to California and Oregon burst across the plains, first to traverse the territory consigned to the Indians and then, with the discovery of gold in 1858 on Little Dry Creek (formerly the site of the Southern Arapaho winter campground  and presently Denver, Colorado), to settle.

Chief Left Hand was one of the first of his people to acknowledge the inevitability of the white man’s presence on the plain, and thereafter to espouse a policy of adamant peacefulness —if not, finally, friendship—toward the newcomers.

Chief Left Hand is not only a consuming story—popular history at its best—but an important work of original scholarship. In it the author:

  • Clearly establishes the separate identities of the original Left Hand, the subject of her book, and the man by the same name who succeeded Little Raven in 1889 as the principal chief of the Southern Arapahos in Oklahoma—a longtime source of confusion to students of western history;

  • Lays to rest, with a series of previously unpublished letters by George Bent, a century-long dispute among historians as to Left Hand’s fate at Sand Creek;

  • Examines the role of John A. Evans, first governor of Colorado, in the Sand Creek Massacre. Colonel Chivington, commander of the Colorado Volunteers, has always (and justly) been held responsible for the surprise attack. But Governor Evans, who afterwards claimed ignorance and innocence of the colonel’s intentions, was also deeply involved. His letters, on file in the Colorado State Archives, have somehow escaped the scrutiny of historians and remain, for the most part, unpublished. These Coel has used extensively, allowing the governor to tell, in his own words, his real role in the massacre. The author also examines Evans’s motivations for coming to Colorado, his involvement with the building of the transcontinental railroad, and his intention of clearing the Southern Arapahos from the plains —an intention that abetted Chivington’s ambitions and led to their ruthless slaughter at Sand Creek.

Product Details

University of Oklahoma Press
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Civilization of the American Indian Series
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Product dimensions:
6.12(w) x 8.92(h) x 0.73(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chief Left Hand

Southern Arapaho

By Margaret Coel


Copyright © 1981 University of Oklahoma Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8061-8690-0


My children,
My children,
Here it is, I hand it to you
The earth,
The earth.
Southern Arapaho song

In the early 1820s a Southern Arapaho woman gave birth to a male child who was destined to become a leader of his tribe during the most critical period of its history. The place of his birth was a village spread among giant cottonwood trees along one of the streams that crisscross the central plains of present-day eastern Colorado, western Kansas, and parts of Nebraska, Wyoming, and Oklahoma. Although the exact location and date of the child's birth are not recorded, Southern Arapaho customs, handed down from generation to generation, provide a glimpse into the probable circumstances.

Every birth in the tribe prompted a joyous celebration. Southern Arapaho parents looked upon the arrival of children as a sign that their lives had been richly blessed. The father would have walked through the village inviting friends and relatives to his lodge, or tipi, to help celebrate his good fortune and marvel over his son. After the guests had feasted and toasted the child's health and long life, the father would make them gifts of the finest ponies in his herd. He would select an exceptionally beautiful pony as a gift to the child.

Southern Arapaho mothers kept their infants wrapped in fine deerskins which they had tanned with particular care. They packed ground buffalo chips around the lower part of the babies' bodies to keep them clean and to prevent rashes. When the children cried, they would be firmly but gently pinched on the nose and mouth, so that their sounds would not give away the village's location to an enemy who might be nearby.

The infants of the Southern Arapaho tribe were not breast-fed until one of the older women of the tribe had sucked away the colostrum, which they believed was harmful to the child, and had drawn from the mother's breast the pure, blue-white milk. The children were nursed until they were around four years old.

Until Southern Arapaho children learned to walk, they were strapped to their mothers' backs on skin cradles. These were sewed and embroidered with black cattail roots and porcupine quills dyed in vivid colors. In cold weather children were slipped inside tanned wildcat skins so that their arms and legs filled out the skins' legs and their faces peered from the heads.

The father honored an esteemed family member, perhaps his own father, by inviting him to give the child his first name. This name probably referred to an unusual natural occurrence or to an outstanding deed performed by someone in the tribe.

When the child grew old enough to demonstrate distinct physical characteristics, he received a personal name. This particular baby, who stuffed chunks of dried buffalo meat into his mouth with his left hand or stretched that hand toward his mother, received the name Niwot ("Left Hand"). Although Southern Arapahos customarily changed their names throughout their lives, Left Hand would always keep that name.

Left Hand was not the only child of his parents. At the time of his birth his sister MaHom, or Snake Woman, was about six years old. Left Hand also had a brother, Neva, and from an early age the two boys were close companions, romping and playing together through the village and cementing a lifelong bond of friendship.

The world must have seemed an open, friendly place to Left Hand as a young child. He had been born into a tribe that loved and outrageously spoiled its children: he had a deep sense of belonging, not merely with his parents, but with the larger family of grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins, all of whom accepted him as one of their own children. From his earliest awareness of his surroundings, he understood that he was as welcome to play, eat, or sleep in the lodges of his relatives as in his parents' lodge. He even called his father's brothers by the name "father," and his mother's sisters, "mother."

They were a handsome people, the Southern Arapahos. The men were from five feet, eight inches to six feet tall, the women a few inches shorter. Both had slender, delicate bone structures, with medium-dark complexions, prominent aquiline noses, sleek black hair, and long, graceful hands. They walked proudly erect to dramatize their height and always took a keen interest in their appearance, bathing daily in the streams and combing and dressing their hair. Most of the men wore braids, and the women let their hair hang loosely about their shoulders and sometimes painted it. They were fully aware of their good looks compared with other plains tribes and, in fact, considered the Comanches bandy-legged and graceless. They suspected the short, swarthy Utes of coveting Southern Arapaho women to improve Ute stock.

Women wore ankle-length dresses of soft skins that were decorated with porcupine quills and beads, and their moccasins were attached to long leggings. For warmth they wrapped themselves in wool blankets they had obtained in trade from other tribes. Men dressed in tanned-skin shirts, leggings that extended from the ankles to the hips, breechcloths, moccasins, and blankets of tanned buffalo skins.

When a Southern Arapaho child was about four years old, his father would teach him to ride the pony he had received at birth. No doubt Left Hand fell off many times, only to be set back on again and again, until he learned to bring the animal under control. Boys in his tribe were expert riders by the age of five. A similar practice turned them into excellent swimmers. As soon as their fathers believed they were old enough to swim, they were thrown into a stream and, when they emerged sputtering and choking, thrown back again, until finally they began to paddle and kick.

Despite such rigorous and early practical training, Left Hand, like other Southern Arapaho children, was reared by what the tribe called the "easiest way." This meant, simply, that parents and other adults spent long hours patiently advising and counseling the young boy, talking to him about the right things to do and the right way to live. He was never spanked or whipped, since harsh physical punishment was not considered appropriate for children. To strike a child, the Southern Arapahos believed, was to break his spirit. Instead, every effort was made to teach a child by example and counsel to be kind and friendly, outgoing and generous, and always ready to extend hospitality. "Be sure to have fat horses," children were told, "no matter how poor your saddle." Another maxim was: "Never allow your heart to tire of giving and you will be loved and respected by other people."

Left Hand's home was a comfortable lodge, warm in winter and cool in summer, about eighteen feet in diameter, constructed of buffalo skins sewed together and draped around sturdy cedar or pine poles, its flap facing the rising sun. Along the lodge's southern side, with its head to the west, was the father's bed, made of woven willow branches. Above the bed on the lodge wall were delicately painted pictures depicting events in his father's life. The beds of other family members lined the western and northern walls. Heavy buffalo robes, comfortable to sit upon during the day and warm to sleep under at night, lay over the beds and the lodge floor.

A fire burned continuously on the flatstones in the center of the lodge. Usually the fire was built of wood gathered near the streams, but when wood was unavailable, buffalo chips were used. An iron pot, received in trade with the white man, balanced on stones over the fire. Chunks of buffalo meat and wild vegetables simmered all day in the pot, ready to be eaten whenever the family was hungry.

Although there was no regular mealtime, Left Hand's family probably observed traditional customs before eating. As the family gathered around the steaming pot of food, the father would place a piece of meat on the flatstones as a burnt offering. Holding another piece on a stick above the offering, he would speak to the Great Being whom the tribe called Man-Above. Then, lowering the stick toward the ground, he would ask Mother Earth for strength.

Left Hand's lodge stood in a small village occupied by his band, which comprised all those family members who lived, hunted, and traveled together across the plains. Carl Sweezy, a Southern Arapaho, later described the villages as sociable, friendly places.

Dogs played around the doorways; ponies grazed in the open spaces; children romped with the dogs and climbed on the ponies, women sat on the ground sewing moccasins or beading pouches; men straightened arrowwood or strung bows or combed and dressed their long hair.

The daily work in the village fell solely to the women, who set up and broke camp, packed and moved family belongings on their backs—including the heavy skin lodges and poles—tanned and sewed skins for clothing, prepared all the food, and gathered much of it. An early plains traveler, Thomas J. Farnham, struck by the relentless drudgery of a Southern Arapaho woman's life compared with that of her husband, was moved to comment:

His wife takes care of his horses, manufactures his saddles and bridles, and leash ropes and whips, his moccasins, leggins, and hunting shirts from leather and other materials prepared by her own hands; beats with a wooden adze his buffalo robes till they are soft and pleasant for his couch; tans hides for his tent covering, and drags from the distant hills the clean white pine poles to support it; cooks his daily food and places it before him.... His sole duty, as her lord in life, and as a citizen of the Arapaho tribe, is to ride the horse which she saddles and brings to his feet, kill the game which she dresses and cures; sit and slumber on the couch which she spreads; and fight the enemies.

Among these many tasks the preparation of food for winter was necessarily the most important. Throughout spring and fall women gathered and dried wild chokecherries, squawberries, currants, haws, and cattail roots. They made pemmican by pounding strips of buffalo meat with fat, marrow, and chokecherry paste and then wrapping it in skin casings like a sausage or patting it into small cakes. During the long, harsh winters pemmican and dried fruits kept the Southern Arapahos free of scurvy, a disease that continuously plagued the white man who did not know how to recognize or use the wild fruits and vegetables of the plains.

Like other Southern Arapaho bands, Left Hand's people moved their village across the central plains, following the seasons and the buffalo herds. Some of the white men who, like Farnham, ventured into the region left vivid descriptions of the vast, empty land that sloped upward from the Missouri River to the base of the Rocky Mountains, a distance of about six hundred miles. Crossing present-day Kansas and Nebraska, these travelers wrote of the unbroken horizon that stretched in every direction as far as the eye could see. Moving into today's eastern Colorado, they were awed by mile after mile of the treeless bluffs that seemed to roll toward the mountains like some great ocean. The bluffs were broken only by deep and, as some travelers learned, treacherous arroyos that had been cut by mountain streams as they cascaded out of the canyons each spring.

The climate was as forbidding as the landscape. Through the summer months and into late autumn the relentless sun scorched the earth, and the winds frequently whipped up blinding sandstorms. In winter, penetrating cold settled over the land, and freezing winds drove the snow into ever-deepening drifts. Between these extremes, however, fell long periods of warm, dry days under clear and brilliant skies.

Vegetation was sparse on the plains. Berry bushes and wild vegetable plants grew near the streams, and clumps of wild roses and thistles dotted the landscape. About the only growth that could be said to thrive was a thick grass, two inches high, that required little moisture. Immense herds of buffalo, estimated at thirty million head in the early part of the nineteenth century, were sustained by this nutritious grass. Buffalo ranges heaved with black masses of animal flesh, and, it was said, an Indian could ride all day and not cover a herd from end to end.

The two major rivers that flowed across the central plains formed natural territorial boundaries for the various tribes. The wide, muddy Platte—its north and south branches converging near the present-day Colorado-Nebraska line—cut across the northern edge. Along the southern edge rolled the mighty Arkansas. Smaller streams and rivers, including the Republican and the Solomon, also wound through parts of the region. The only timber was the cottonwood tree, known as "the tree of the desert" because of its stubborn hardiness in an inhospitable environment, and occasional stands of cedar. Both grew along the waterways.

The Southern Arapahos shared the land between the Platte and the Arkansas rivers with the Southern Cheyennes and located their villages in the shelter of giant cottonwoods on the banks of various streams. One of their favorite campgrounds was the large, triangular site formed by the confluence of the South Platte River and Beaver Creek, near today's Brush, Colorado. The site was a kind of plains oasis shaded by clumps of large trees. Water was easily accessible, grass for the ponies plentiful, and large buffalo and antelope herds could be found nearby.

In late fall the Southern Arapahos moved their villages to campgrounds on the present sites of Denver and Boulder, near the foothills. Here, in the lee of the mountains, they were protected from the severe blasts of winter that were so punishing on the open plains.

Campsites were also selected with an eye to the tribe's principal interest—trading with other people. Clever and practical in matters of commerce, the Southern Arapahos had long conducted an active, far-reaching trading business, establishing themselves as the medium through which goods were exchanged between northern and southern plains tribes. The Beaver Creek site, for example, was not only a pleasant oasis, but also, with its central location, an ideal trading base. There they could count on exchanging goods with a steady stream of Northern Arapahos, Cheyennes, Sioux, and friendly bands of Shoshonis, Blackfeet, and Pawnees, so that at times the village resembled a busy market town. When business slowed, the Southern Arapahos moved south toward the Arkansas, stopping to trade at Cheyenne camps along the way. Crossing the Arkansas, they conducted a brisk business with the Comanches, Kiowas, and Kiowa-Apaches.

The commerce carried on by his people gave Left Hand, from his earliest years, an opportunity to mingle with other tribes and become familiar with customs other than his own. He was probably an outgoing, friendly boy, exhibiting those traits that would mark his adult personality, and when trading parties visited Cheyenne and Sioux camps he busied himself by learning these languages. Eventually he would become fluent in both, making him one of the few Plains Indians who was ever interested in learning the spoken languages of other tribes. Most relied upon a highly complex sign language for intertribal communication. Even the Southern Arapahos and Cheyennes, close allies who often camped and hunted together, communicated by signs.

Throughout Left Hand's boyhood his people also carried on an extensive trade with white men, a circumstance that early introduced him to rough-edged trappers and adventurers who had exchanged civilization in the states for a nomadic life on the plains. Traipsing across Indian lands, these white men were mainly in the business of gathering beaver pelts for men's fur hats, fashionable during the 1820s and 1830s. The more enter prising and stable whites established permanent posts where they bought pelts from itinerant trappers, transported them by wagon across the plains to St. Louis, and sold them for a price high enough to cover their costs and bring in tidy profits.

One of these early trapper-traders was a Missourian by the name of William Bent, who, with his brother Charles and their partner Ceran Sc. Vrain, constructed Bent's Fort about 1833 on the Arkansas River near present-day LaJunta. The fort soon grew into a busy, gaudy outpost of civilization where, amid a babble of languages, the Southern Arapahos traded with white men from the states, French Canadian trappers, Mexicans, and other Indian tribes.

Sometime around 1838, William Bent and St. Vrain also established Fort St. Vrain, originally called Fort Lookout, on the edge of a bluff overlooking the South Platte about six miles from today's Platteville. The fort proved a convenient halfway stop for traders making their way between Bent's Fort and another major trading post on the Platte, Fort Laramie. About the same time, smaller posts sprang up within ten miles of Fort St. Vrain—Forts Lupton, Vasquez, and Jackson. This network of white commercialism crossing Southern Arapaho lands thrust the tribe into continuous contact with white men and gave Left Hand the chance, as he said later, to learn English.


Excerpted from Chief Left Hand by Margaret Coel. Copyright © 1981 University of Oklahoma Press. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Margaret Coel, a fourth-generation Coloradan, has spent four years researching primary source material in the libraries and archives across the plains, as well as in Washington, D. C. and London. She has visited every fort, battleground, and Indian campground described in her book and has come to know the Southern Arapahos of Concho and Geary, Oklahoma. She graduated summa cum laude from Marquette University, Milwaukee, in Journalism and for the last fifteen years has made her home in Boulder, Colorado.

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