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History of Native American Languages and Introduction to the Arapaho Language:

Presentation by Professor Andrew Cowell, University of Colorado


On June 16th, 2022, Dr. Andrew Cowell presented on the language and culture of the Arapaho Tribe. Arapaho is an Algonquian language, related to Cheyenne, but the two languages are quite different and not mutually intelligible. Other nearby tribes such as the Lakota, Crow, Pawnee and Shoshone represent completely different language families. Many examples showed that Arapaho names for places, birds, animals and plants are usually descriptive: the Arapaho word for pocket gopher translates to 'it blows dirt out' and the name for bald eagle translates to 'white-headed old man'. Dr. Cowell's key point was that when one knows and speaks this or another Native American language, it is liking looking at the world and the things in the world through a completely different lens. This is a big reason why tribes want to preserve their languages, as this also preserves cultural knowledge, world-view and identity. He noted however that Arapaho, like most Native American languages, is no longer learned by the younger generations. Much of his work involves documenting the language, but also helping to develop methods and curriculum to re-introduce it to young people. This turns out to be quite difficult, as the structure of the English is very different from English -- the language is "polysynthetic" so it combined multiple ideas in single long, complex words. Fortunately a few younger people are now beginning to speak again, in both Wyoming and Oklahoma, so there are some positive signs.


Dr. Cowell also presented place names and stories related to the local area. We learned the Arapaho names for the Bighorn Mountains, Tongue River, Powder River, Sheridan, Goose Creek, Ft. Fetterman and Lake DeSmet, for example. He shared the Arapaho story of Lake DeSmet (where part of the tribe disappeared into the water, never to be seen again), and also played a video of native speaker Wayne C'Hair telling the Arapaho version of the story of Devil's Tower (which the Arapaho call wox niiinon, 'bear's tepee'). Dr. Cowell expressed a willingness to provide recordings, transcriptions and translations of these and other Arapaho stories and information related to the Bozeman Trail area, so it can be more widely disseminated -- and also enjoyed a personal tour the next morning of the Fetterman and Wagon Box sites, provided by Dave McKee.

This event was partially funded by the Johnson County Tourism Association and Wyoming Humanities.   

For more information on the Arapaho language please visit

For Overview See:

These are the results of a questionnaire conducted by the Fort Phil Kearny/Bozeman Trail Association on Professor Andrew Cowell’s June 16, 2022 presentation: “History of Native American Languages and Introduction to the Arapaho Language” 

This event was sponsored by the Fort Phil Kearny/Bozeman Trail Association and Fort Phil Kearny State Historic Site and was partially funded by the Johnson County Tourism Association and Wyoming Humanities.



  1. What did you learn from the program?

“I was amazed by the presentation and so much information given to us. However, what to me was the story of Devils Tower and understanding that the Arapaho Language is critical for the younger generation to learn/speak.  I know how important it is to care about traditions and to express our native language. I identify as Oaxacana and have an indigenous background in Oaxaca, Mexico.  Even to me, it's important to share our culture, language, and traditions with the younger generation.” 

“I learned that there was not a common language between the tribes in the bighorns and that all of them shared a different language.”

“I learned a great deal from the program.  1) That language is so reflective of culture.  Since the Arapaho had names for mountain animals, and the Cheyenne don't it means the Arapaho had interactions with these animals.  2) Also, that the Shoshone and Ute languages are related to the Aztec language.  Fascinating. 3)And the fact that we picked up the names of the rivers from the Native Americans.”


“I learned about the structure of the language and what it actually sounds like in real life.”


“I learned the Arapaho language is descriptive and I found this very interesting.”


“We very much enjoyed the talk and learned so much as this is a new topic for us.  Some of the main concepts we learned include the basic Native American language groups that includes Algonquin and the area where Algonquin languages seem to have originated.  We learned that Algonquin language dialects are widespread throughout the northeastern United States and also used in Mexico and Central America!  I was fascinated to learn that various Native American groups could not understand each other’s Algonquin dialects but could communicate through a universal sign language.  We learned some of the complexities of the Arapaho language and how incredibly difficult it is to document Arapaho into a written form.  We were pleased to learn of work to preserve Arapaho and other Native American languages.”


“This was a wonderful program. Andrew captured the attention of the audience and there was a great deal of interaction.
In Overview, Native American Languages are still being used, but are endangered and need to be maintained and passed onto future generations as a critical element of cultural self awareness and cultural continuity.   What I knew but was beautifully reinforced is that language not only provides labels for objects but more importantly articulates the cultural view of the universe, the natural world, the spiritual world, your family (both your current relations and your ancestry), etc.  In short language articulates how one has been culturally trained to see the world.”


“Prof. Cowell's presentation on the Arapaho Language was an excellent program. I learned that the Arapaho language is literal and functional when describing plants, animals and communicating. That it is connected to the natural world and evolved in that environment.”


    2. Are you interested in learning more about Native American languages?


“Yes, I am interested in learning more about Native American languages. Western Washington University, the university I attend, doesn't have a strong community of Native American Professors. All the professors that are white teach Native American studies are not the best, and they disrespect the community of Native American culture and the Native American students too.” 

“If I have time yes, it would be interesting because learning a new language you also get to know about a different culture as well.”

“I am interest in learning about other Native American languages.”

“Yes, I would enjoy attending another presentation.”




“We would enjoy attending a similar presentation format on the Sioux languages.”


“Yes Absolutely.  It is a fascinating subject and can give one greater understanding of the cultural perspective of different communities.  To me the unique wonder of the human species is the diversity of culture and how different groups creatively try to answer the common human questions and challenges we all share.  Language is the expression of this rich cultural diversity.”


“I am interested in learning more about Native American languages.”


    3. Did this program give you an understanding of the impact of threatened and extinct languages?



“Yes, this program/presentation gives me a better understanding of the impact of threatened and extinct languages.”

“Yes, I also know have a sense of how important elders are to these communities as they are the only ones that remember these languages.”

“It really did open my eyes to the fact that so much of the language is disappearing.”

“Yes, and it makes me sad that it is becoming a lost language.”


“We obtained a basic understanding of the importance of preserving threatened Native American languages.  By Dr. Cowell’s presentation we believe it is not only historically important but it is critically important for Native American cultures to document and preserve these languages.”


“Yes, many Native American Languages are in danger if extinction.  Years ago I visited New Town N.D. to consult with members of the three affiliated tribes.  At the time there were only three fluent Mandan speakers. The tribe was undertaking an effort to record these elders and have them spend time in K-12 classrooms. This challenge is present in all of the American Indian communities across America.”


“This program helped me to understand the importance of language to understanding a culture and keeping that culture alive and healthy. Diversity is a strength.”

    4. Do you have any suggestions on how to help share the importance of Native American languages?


“More talks like this would help.”

“You guys did a wonderful job and I loved attending this program. I do think you guys should get in contact with Kelsey Bean so this is becoming a required program to attend because the Medicine Wheel Crew are working in an important site that has value and culture to the Native American community. “

“I do not have any suggestions that I can think of other than trying to reach out to a younger audience.”

“Sorry, I do not.”

“Dr. Cowbell’s presentation was very well done!  We know it is difficult to cover so much material in the timeframe of a typical evening presentation to the public, however, one more slide to emphasize the benefits of language preservation to our Native American youth may be considered.”


“I think development of a series of language programs for K-12 students would be very important. One idea is for students from different communities to work together in an interactive team setting to work on language projects together, sharing their different languages to create a larger understanding and respect for diverse cultural settings. I think youth education and particularly cross-cultural youth education activities are a critical element.”

“I think more programs of this nature would help, and as many media stories as we can do to get the word out, and working with the tribes to help them pass the languages down to the next generations.” 

“More programs like Professor Cowell's and more stories on the importance of Native American Indian languages would be helpful and welcome.”

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