Chief Black Coal’s Headdress returns to Northern Arapaho Tribe

h/t Koby Michaels - (LtoR): Pat Moss, a descendent of Chief Black Coal; Sam Dresser, Northern Arapaho Business Councilman; and Temple Smith, donor of headdress.

h/t Koby Michaels – (LtoR): Pat Moss, a descendant of Chief Black Coal; Sam Dresser, Northern Arapaho Business Councilman; and Temple Smith, donor of headdress

Chief Black Coal’s Headdress was picked-up yesterday, January 27th, from the University of Wyoming (UW) after spending the past two weeks being cleaned and preserved. Before its arrival at UW, it was driven across the country from Massachusettes after having been in the hands of the Smith family for around 140 years.


The Northern Arapaho Tribal Historic Preservation Office (NATHPO) received an unexpected phone call from Temple Smith in early December 2019 that began the journey to bring this important piece of history home to the Northern Arapaho Tribe.

They were blown away when Temple said what he had in his possession, shared Jordan Dresser, NATHPO Collections Manager. “I didn’t know what to think when I heard it.” Artifacts like this can be anywhere. “Chief Yellowcalf’s Headdress is at the British Museum. You never know.” There is also an ethical obligation to return items like this. “I’m really grateful for Temple.”

Having had several phone calls like this before, they were skeptical about it at first, explained Crystal C’Bearing, NATHPO Deputy Director. “We had to research to make sure it’s legitimate, and request documentation from him [Temple].” Fortunately, his grandmother wrote everything down and kept photos of how their family came to have the headdress.

Temple shared with NATHPO that his great grandfather, Dr. John Essig, was a dentist in Buffalo, Wyoming, during the late 1800s. He would routinely travel by wagon down to work on tribal members’ teeth, including Chief Black Coal. During his visits to the Wind River Reservation, Black Coal befriended Essig. A time came when Essig planned to move away from Wyoming, and Black Coal gifted him the headdress before he departed. Since then, it has remained a family heirloom passed down from Essig and lastly to Temple.

Temple learned from his son that it is illegal for anyone other than Native Americans to own eagle feathers, Crystal shared. This prompted him to begin the process of returning the headdress. Not knowing where to start, he began calling around and eventually got in contact with NATHPO. “He was just as skeptical about returning it and wanted to make sure it would be protected and preserved.”

Crystal and Jordan, along with two NATHPO Cultural Specialist, two descendants of Chief Black Coal, and Northern Arapaho Business Councilman Samuel Dresser, all traveled to Marblehead, Massachusettes, the second week of January to collect the donated headdress from Temple. “We worked really hard to make it happen,” Jordan said. In light of the stressful two months, Jordan remained optimistic. “A positive attitude goes a long way, but the energy you give is what you get back.”

h/t Koby Michaels – (LtoR): Back row: Brian Soundingsides, THPO Tribal Cultural Specialist; Jordan Dresser, THPO Collections Manager; Devin Oldman, former THPO Director and Black Coal Descendent; Jerel Kohler, THPO Tribal Cultural Specialist; Crystal C’Bearing THPO Deputy Director. Bottom row: Pat Moss, descendent; Sam Dresser NABC member; Temple Smith, Donor

Both Crystal and Jordan shared having the headdress returned has been emotional and positive. “Chief Black Coal is coming back for a certain reason,” Jordan said. “I think it’s to pull the community together and teach us what a leader is and how each of us can do our part.” Jordan also noted this is a basis for NATHPO to get a museum finally.

“It brought up a lot of emotions,” Crystal said. “This is a huge thing. We feel like these items that are out there, and they want to go home. This is for our future, for our children to learn who they are and their identity. I feel that is what the headdress is bringing back. It is a good sign, we are going in the right direction, and everything is falling into place.”

NATHPO’s ultimate goal is to have a museum. This was great on-the-job training for what it’s like to bring back an artifact, noted Crystal. “It brought up a lot of things we hadn’t thought about. Things like how we are going to clean it, how are we going to take care of it.” Our first step is a repository right now. The Smithsonian has offered advice on how to set it up. Somewhere that everything can be together with the right controls.

NATHPO is hosting a community cedaring, and viewing of the headdress on Saturday, February 1st, from 2:00 pm – 5:00 pm at Great Plains Hall. For more information, visit NATHPO’s Facebook page.