Northern Arapaho Tribe Launches New Project to Preserve Culture and Traditions |


When the Northern Arapaho Tribe finally got their hands on the Cleaver Warden Notes, the tribesmen knew they had discovered a window to the past..

Warden studied the Arapaho in the early 20th century for the Chicago Field Museum. A member of the Arapaho tribe himself, he has written extensively about indigenous communities, the people he encountered, and the customs and ceremonies he witnessed.

Specialists at the Northern Arapaho Tribal Historic Preservation Office plan to use the Director’s Notes to uncover lost pieces of Arapaho history and culture.

The project is funded by a $50,000 grant through the Association of Tribal Archives, Libraries and Museums. The money comes from federal US bailout funds intended to help Indigenous cultural programs recover from the coronavirus pandemic.

Communities on the Wind River Indian Reservation in Wyoming, like other Indigenous populations, have suffered disproportionately high rates of COVID-19. With that loss came a heavy cultural toll — only adding to the devastation, said Crystal Reynolds, tribal archaeologist for the Office of Historic Preservation.

“There’s a lot of really good information that’s been lost due to people’s deaths or oral histories that haven’t been memorized or recorded,” she said.

That’s why Warden’s journals are such a blessing, Reynolds added. They can help reconnect the tribe with its past.

The office hopes to use the materials, supplemented by interviews with tribal members, to teach northern Arapaho children about their culture.

“We can start to re-teach them things that have been lost,” Reynolds said.

The Northern Arapaho tribe were unaware of Warden’s notes until relatively recently. The documents were hidden in the inventory of the Chicago Field Museum – a familiar story to native groups.

“With museums, they got their collections in multiple ways, and that didn’t always involve consultation with the tribes or even communication with the tribes,” Reynolds said.

Indigenous communities are increasingly pushing to repatriate lost historical and cultural objects, such as Warden’s notes. Jordan Dresser, former collections manager for the Northern Arapaho Tribe Historic Preservation Office, started contacting different museums a few years ago to see if they had anything that belonged to the tribe, Reynolds said.

Since then, the tribe has discovered artifacts all over the country. According to Reynolds, there were even items in the British Museum in London.

That’s how the tribe found Warden’s notes. The Office of Historic Preservation finally obtained scans from the Chicago Field Museum about two years ago, Reynolds said.

Now the challenge is to make sense of them.

Notes can be difficult to read – sometimes there are words or phrases that experts have trouble decoding. Nor does Reynolds expect everything to be perfectly accurate. A document can’t tell you everything about a culture, after all.

That’s why the office is teaming up with a group of ex-Northern Arapaho to help unlock Warden’s job.

The elders have experience teaching Northern Arapaho language and culture, Reynolds said. Consulting them will help you fill in, check facts, and add a new level of depth to notes.

Reviewing documents can also jog seniors’ memories of things they forgot long ago, Reynolds said. This can lead to additional discoveries.

“It’s like that conversation starter that everyone needs,” she said. “And once you have that little piece, everything blossoms.”

Reviving a culture

Government-sanctioned killing and starvation of native people, followed by forced assimilation and discrimination, left native communities systematically disadvantaged for generations.

In this way, their devastation during the coronavirus pandemic is “hundreds of years in the making,” Sen. Affie Ellis, R-Cheyenne, told the Star-Tribune in 2020. Ellis is a member of the Navajo Nation and became in 2017 the first Native American to hold a seat in the Wyoming Senate.

Cultural loss is only part of that devastation, but a tragedy nonetheless, Reynolds said.

The pandemic has forced cultural institutions in Northern Arapaho to scale back their programs, limiting opportunities for members to learn about their history and traditions. More devastating has been the deaths of elders, tribal government leaders, language speakers and cultural practitioners, Reynolds said, who play a vital role in keeping northern Arapaho traditions from fading.

For Reynolds, the Warden documents are a source of hope ⁠— a way to bring out the resilience of the tribe.

The Historic Preservation Office officially kicks off its new project in a few weeks.

After studying, deciphering and rearranging the notes, scholars will compile a “narrative map” of Arapaho cultural heritage sites, complete with oral histories from elders, Reynolds said. The group also hopes to use their findings to build a Northern Arapaho family tree.

Reviving a culture is a daily endeavor, Reynolds said. She said tribal experts have been working overtime throughout the pandemic.

“It’s a process,” she says. “But we are working on it. And we are getting there. »


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