Tribal lands’ importance endures even when members live elsewhere

BOULDER, Colo. – A full-fledged homecoming to tribal lands occupied for more than a century by non-Natives may seem impossible or, at best, improbable.

But to Nelson White, keeper of the sacred bundle of the Northern Arapaho Tribe and member of the Northern Arapaho Tribe Council of Elders, returning is natural.

“It is our homeland – where our people used to be before the non-Indians came and found some gold up in the hills. That’s why we say it is good to be back here where our ancestors used to be. When we get here, we feel at ease – we’re at home.”

He and more than 100 citizens of the Northern Arapaho Tribe journeyed from the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming to Boulder as part of the city’s sesquicentennial celebration.

Speeches, music and traditional dancing were part of a Coming Back Home celebration conducted Aug. 8 by tribal members at a downtown mall, where throngs of the area’s current residents applauded.

Tipi poles were lying flat on a grassy area. After the city voiced concerns about the possibility of stake holes damaging its sprinkler system, tribal members said they planned to erect a light, skeleton structure by using only the poles without a covering.

“We always tell our people, ‘Regardless of what they say, we’re still in charge of this land,’” White said, when asked how it felt to return to an area once occupied by the Northern Arapaho but now long occupied by others.

“Lots of our culture is here – a lot of medicines we used to use, even water,” he said, adding that there are eagles and elk in the area. “We use the animals. With our hunting time, we slice the meat and dry it and use it in the winter. That meat is used in our ceremonies and we hold that in high regard.”

The eagle has a special place in Northern Arapaho tribal ceremony, and one tribal citizen paid a price for shooting a bald eagle for the Sun Dance as part of his family’s sponsorship of the annual event.

The price was exacted in a traditional homelands area – nearby Denver – in the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals, which overturned an earlier exoneration for the violation of the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act.

“We educated that judge about the eagle,” White said of the initial victory in a Wyoming lower court. He understands that, although the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear the case, there may be a further appeal of some kind.

Past and present joined in more ways than one at the Boulder event, as the Sand Creek Massacre of 1864, a focal point of the anniversary celebration, was cited by White and others as an event that needed greater awareness.

A three-day, 200-mile Sand Creek Massacre Spiritual Healing Run marked commemoration of the massacre of Arapaho and Cheyenne people in southeastern Colorado, where the 2009 run originated.

In 1864, a training camp for state militia was held near Valmont Butte east of Boulder, and troops left the camp to travel to the massacre that year, local historians have said.

At the same time, the butte – a volcanic formation rising sharply from the plains – is one of a number of sacred sites that ring the area, White said.

“Not too far from here there are important sites. North, tipi rings; nearby, that medicine wheel; medicines in the mountains to the west. And the (Valmont) butte itself is a marker where the people used to go.”

Arapaho people would sometimes take a vow “and that vow, what it really means is loving one another – someone might be sick and that person would vow” to spend a certain time, perhaps three days and three nights fasting at Valmont Butte, he said.

One of White’s functions as keeper of the sacred bundle is to travel with tribal delegations such as the one that journeyed to Boulder, where he was one of the official speakers. Others were Tribal Chairman Harvey Spoonhunter, Anthony (Al) Addison Sr., a former tribal chairman and elders council member; and Gail Ridgley and Benjamin Ridgley, Sand Creek representatives on the council.

Events preceding the arrival of Sand Creek runners in Boulder and the events at the downtown mall included a visit by Northern Arapaho to a “Tribal Paths” exhibit at the Colorado History Museum, Denver, and a presentation on the history of the Native American Rights Fund at NARF offices in Boulder.