Sacred Objects of the Arapaho

The Arapaho are a Native American tribe from the plains of Colorado and Wyoming in the United States. This tribe would often follow the game, especially the Buffalo, from the foothills of the Rocky Mountains to the Great Plains. The name ‘Arapaho’ is thought to come from the Pawnee tribe and means ‘trader’. The Arapaho were (and still are) great hunters and often traded furs, food and other things with tribes throughout the region. Traditional Arapaho religious and spiritual life involved sacred objects and the ceremonies surrounding them. Sacred pipes, sacred wheels, sacred bags, and sacred pictographs were all thought to be imbued with spiritual power. Such power often, but not always, came with the objects’ association with tribal creation myths.

One such creation myth goes somewhat as follows: sacred-pipe
There was a great deluge and nothing remained but water. A man was walking around on the water for 4 day and 4 nights, carrying a sacred Flat Pipe. In all this water, how could he possibly protect his sacred pipe. For 6 days and nights the man wandered, lamenting and fasting, seeking a safe place for the sacred Flat Pipe.

On the morning of the 7th day, the man decided that there needed to be earth for the sacred Flat Pipe to rest on. The man called to the four directions:: Northwest, northeast, southeast, and southwest for anyone who could help find land. He called forth 7 cottonwood trees (though there was yet to be dry land for them to grow). The man called forth creatures of the air and water.

The man asked all the creatures where could there be land? The Turtle claimed there was land at the bottom of all the water. So, the man asked the animals if they could dive down beneath the water and find it. Several creatures answered the man’s request to dive beneath the water and find land. The Grebe, the Kingfisher, the Otter, the Beaver, Packed Bird, Garter snake, black snake, two kinds of ducks, a goose, and a crane all dove to find land. After 6 dives, all had failed.

On the seventh dive the man decided to dive with the turtle. Before the Man dove, he ritually moved the Flat Pipe four times, then touched it to his body a fifth time, transforming the sacred Flat Pipe into a red-headed duck. All dove and the red-headed duck and turtle succeed in bringing up a portion of land for the man.

The Man then dried the soil by casting it in four directions of southeast, southwest, northwest, and northeast and created the Earth which would be the land for the the man and his people, the Arapaho.

This is perhaps why the most prominent sacred object is a sacred pipe, called “saeitca” by the Arapaho. The pipe was cylindrical, two inches in diameter, and two feet long. It was kept wrapped in many separate pieces of cloth and was housed in its own, specially painted tent. The sacred pipe was of great spiritual importance because it was the keeper of this pipe who remembered and kept the tribal origin myth. No one else but the keeper of the pipe was allowed to tell the tale, and even he could only do so during a special, four night ceremony.

Sacred wheels also had a role to play in Arapaho spirituality. There were a few of these wheels in existence and they were also kept in the possession of special individuals. They were about one to two feet across, with the hoop representing a snake. Like the sacred pipe the wheels were kept wrapped in cloths. During sacred wheel ceremonies offerings and sacrifices were given to the hoops. These offerings were usually new wrapping cloths which would then replace the old ones. Whoever made sacrifices to the wheel usually did so because they were seeking some help or benefit, such as healing for a sick loved one.

Sacred bags also accepted offerings during their own ceremonies. In a sacred bag ceremony, the owner of the bag would sit in the back of the tent and the bag would be opened. Gifts to the bag were usually in the form of food, with the giver usually seeking food and prosperity for themselves. Aside from offerings, sacred bags also held incense and paints. Like the pipe and the wheels, the bags were kept wrapped in cloth.

Finally, sacred pictographs, as they were termed by anthropologists, were pieces of buckskin with relatively simple designs painted on them in three or four colors. The designs often depicted creation myths or tribal ceremonies. Others showed the sun and the moon, the course taken by the son through the sky, and some even bore depictions of spoons made out of mountain goat horns.

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All of these four sacred objects had to be handled with care and with ceremony. The owners of these items, particularly of the sacred pipe, were often regarded with awe and reverence. The history of how these items arose and gained status as sacred objects is lost to us now, but it is telling that all, aside from the sacred bags, are in one way or another associated with tribal creation myths. Such myths must have been thought to hold spiritual power, power capable of bringing prosperity and abundance.

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