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A tradition ends but other events will take its place

DENVER – The Spring Buffalo Feast and Honoring Ceremony has traditionally welcomed the return of warmer weather, the arrival of visitors to the Denver March Powwow, and the Native community in general, but 2009 marks the end of the annual event.

The Denver Museum of Nature and Science has hosted thousands at the feast over the last 13 years, but a move toward other Native events has been developing during the last year as part of the museum’s community-building program.

“When we looked at the needs of the Native community in the greater Denver area, we felt the needs weren’t being met by a four-hour event,” said Chip Colwell-Chanthaphonh, curator of anthropology, who confirmed that the buffalo feast will not be held this year.

“We want to convey to the Native community that we welcome and invite them to the museum,” he said. “It was a hard decision, but I think with the new programs and projects we’ll be able to better meet the needs of the community.”

To underscore the museum’s commitment to Native visitors, 500 free passes to the museum will be offered at Denver Indian Center at an annual Career Day.

“The buffalo feast has really been a good event for the museum and the Native community, but there’s a huge amount of time and effort as well as financial resources – add in time as well as cash, and it’s $60,000 to $70,000 and the problem is that it’s only a four-hour event,” he said.

Although the buffalo to help feed 1,000 people at the community meal has often been donated by tribes, there has sometimes been a problem with USDA approval, further complicating preparation for the event.

In describing the museum’s new approach, Colwell-Chanthaphonh said, “We’re a science museum, so if we can help Native youth to pursue science careers and encourage Native people to come to the museum and use the collections it goes more to the core of our mission.”

The new programs, or those expanded from last year, include visiting indigenous fellowships, First Nations Film and Video Festival, Native American Science Career Day, and Native American science scholarships. The first two are initial projects of the museum’s Indigenous Inclusiveness Initiative, which seeks to oversee “the best understood and most ethically held anthropology collection in North America,” according to the museum’s Web site.

“A key part of this initiative will be the inclusion of Native American perspectives and voices at the DMNS, cultivating novel partnerships that create better and more holistic understandings of Native American culture and history.”

Mutually beneficial collaborations between museums and Native communities are a mainstay of the inclusiveness initiative, which will involve, “welcoming Native Americans into the museum and finding creative ways for their voices to be heard.”

Colwell-Chanthaphonh said museum exhibits are an opportunity to assert contemporary Native values and to present different points of view.

The privately funded adult indigenous fellowship program will provide for three tribal members to connect with museum exhibits and work with museum professionals to “benefit personally, and they will also help ensure the DMNS accurately and sensitively represents Native peoples.”

Native American elders, artists and scholars are among those who may participate in the indigenous fellowship program, expanded from a single award last year, Colwell-Chanthaphonh said.

In addition to the First Nations Film and Video Festival will be the Native American Science Careers Day, begun last year but planned for expansion to a mentorship program, and $1,000 scholarships to Native college students with an interest in science careers. A reception for the Native students is planned as part of community-building.

“The whole point is to use the resource toward what will be more meaningful projects and programs,” he said, reflecting a philosophy that museums should connect with the indigenous community in order to remain relevant.

In its work in Denver, the museum has had input from its volunteer Native American Resource Group which, with the museum’s Department of Anthropology, developed the past buffalo feast as well as current events.

The museum has extensive Native American collections, including North and South American Indian ethnographic objects and North American Indian archaeological objects. It has returned some tribal materials under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act.