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Carving a contemporary tribute to history

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NIWOT, Colo. – Annual Nostalgia Days festivities in this community north of metro Denver recall the past for the area’s original descendants as well as for those whose 19th century ancestors settled here.

An eagle capture was depicted in a massive carving dedicated at the high point of a celebration for area residents and Northern Arapaho tribal members from the Wind River Reservation, in Wyoming. Noted Arapaho leader, Niwot (Left Hand), gave the town its name and brokered a temporary peace with white settlers in the gold rush era.

People dressed in outfits recalling pioneers, pirates, swordsmen, cowboys, Scots, and others mingled with members of the Northern Arapaho Tribe in traditional regalia along an Old Town street where, in a refurbished grange/community center, a modern-day author signed books about the Wyoming reservation and tribal members discussed a new capital campaign for Arapaho education.

Nearby, Eddie Running Wolf, Northern Cheyenne descendent and artist/sculptor, prepared for the dedication of his “Eagle Catcher” sculpture, carved from red willow, commemorating the region’s Arapaho roots.

“Eagle Catcher,” a massive carving in red willow by Eddie Running Wolf, Northern Cheyenne, at Niwot, Colo. north of Denver, is part of an ongoing cultural exchange between that community and the Northern Arapaho Tribe of the Wind River Reservation, Wyoming, whose ancestral home is in the area and whose noted Chief Niwot (Left Hand) gave the town its name. The carving was dedicated during Niwot’s annual Nostalgia Days.

The current piece adjoins another he carved, which he describes as his interpretation of the way Chief Niwot might have looked at the age depicted in the sculpture, and it will adjoin a third that will portray an Arapaho woman or woman and child with Niwot Ladies Club funding support.

It’s all part of an ongoing cultural exchange that began as a Warming of the Hearts Coat Drive for the Wind River Reservation and evolved into the tree sculptures, said Mike Anfinson, president of nonprofit Ni-wot Prairie Productions, which was a sponsor of the project.

William C’Hair, co-chairman of the Northern Arapaho Language and Culture Commission and co-host of the “Eagle Catcher” dedication ceremony, said of the homelands area, “It was not so much that the land belonged to us, but that we belonged to the land,” and the Arapaho still feel a connection to it.

In an address to dedication attendees Sept. 11, C’Hair said he represents the past, while Harvey Spoonhunter, Northern Arapaho tribal chairman, represents the present, and Jola WallowingBull, development coordinator for the Arapaho Educational Trust, represents the future.

Spoonhunter described the tribe as the largest organic beef producer in the U.S., noting, “We’re also going green here.” WallowingBull, the first enrolled Northern Arapaho woman to earn an engineering degree, described an $8 million Sky People Higher Education Capital Campaign to serve nearly 10,000 tribal members, even though “philanthropy is new for all of us.”

In the process of making his sculpture, Running Wolf was told by tribal members that catching an eagle meant fasting beforehand, digging a pit at a high elevation, using a rabbit as bait, and undergoing a lengthy wait with others in the dugout. No weapons could be used in catching the eagle.

The self-taught sculptor, who lives in nearby Boulder, said he has been doing art since about age 15. He consulted the Northern Arapaho on the Chief Niwot carving as well as the “Eagle Catcher” sculpture. For example, he had not planned on a feathered headdress for his depiction of the chief, but representatives from the Language and Culture Commission wanted it so it was included.

Direct tribal influence also shapes the work of mystery writer Margaret Coel, the author of mysteries whose setting is the Wind River Reservation and who did a book signing in space shared with the Arapaho Educational Trust and the University of Colorado’s Center for the Study of Indigenous Languages of the West. Coel also wrote a history of Chief Niwot.

She once had a book’s character describe the Wind River landscape as a “landscape of the moon” to the dismay of one of her Northern Arapaho friends who regularly read the manuscripts before they are submitted to her publisher: “This is the Middle Earth and the place the creator gave us and we can’t be disrespectful.” Her critic allowed the description to remain “as long as we know he (the character, not Coel) is saying it.”

The dedication ceremony concluded after letters of support were read from U.S. Rep. Jared Polis and U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, both Democrats of Colorado, and traditional dances were performed by Darrell Lone Bear and the Wind River Dancers.