Family of Crawford White Eagle shares about his life, posthumous honorary doctorate from UW

    (Wind River Reservation, WY) – Crawford White Eagle Senior, a ceremonial elder of the Northern Arapaho, was posthumously awarded a Doctorate of Humane Letters honoris causa during the University of Wyoming graduation ceremony on May 15, 2021.

    White Eagle was nominated and selected for the honor in 2019, but he died in January 2020 before the university was able to hold the formal ceremony. Crawford White Eagle’s wife Jacqueline White Eagle, and his eldest son Crawford Larry White Eagle Jr., surrounded by other family members, accepted the honorary degree from University President Edward Seidel.

    h/t Kyle Spradley, University of Wyoming – Crawford White Eagle’s wife Jacqueline White Eagle, and his eldest son Crawford Larry White Eagle Jr. accepted the honorary degree from University President Edward Seidel.

    Ryan Wilson (Oglala Lakota), also a son of Crawford White Eagle Sr., was the commencement speaker for the graduating class.


    For Wilson, the degree honored his father’s life work in language revitalization and culture preservation, but more importantly, it represents recognition for a whole generation of ceremonial elders across Indian Country.

    “It’s profound that in his twilight years, the university was able to reach out and find value in his life,” Wilson said. “It isn’t just for him, it’s for our Tribe and for all the ceremonial people across this great land.”

    “I felt really strongly, that the university recognized traditional knowledge and the Indian way of life,” Wilson said. “That is really important — that we continue to carve out a space for it in this world, and in America. For this brief moment this university took time out to say, ‘this means something,’ not only to the Indian, but to all of society, and it’s important.”

    h/t Kyle Spradley, University of Wyoming – Ryan Wilson, son of Crawford White Eagle, gave remarks to the University of Wyoming graduating class on behalf of the family.

    Many American Indians born during the 1930s and 1940s — especially those children from traditional and non-English-speaking families — were not extended the opportunity to pursue a university education, Wilson explained. Those who dedicated their lives to preserving language, culture, and ceremony were largely overlooked by mainstream society, he said.


    Often American Indian people carried on language and traditions in direct opposition to government and church-sponsored efforts at assimilation. Some of them, including White Eagle Sr., pursued national efforts to promote laws protecting American Indian religious freedoms, cultures, and languages.

    “That’s what this award is,” Wilson said. “It’s for all those ones that held it together and carried on, even when it wasn’t in tune with popular culture. They went against the prevailing winds of assimilation, and they paid a price for it.”

    For Wilson, the degree showed how the University of Wyoming had come full circle in its relationship with American Indians since it was founded in 1886 as a land grant institution, funded in part by sales of land that had once been Arapaho and Cheyenne Territory, as recognized by treaty.


    “At that time,” Wilson explained to the university graduates, “The Arapaho people were a persecuted people. They were on the verge of being wiped from the face of the Earth. Their ceremonies, their languages, their customs, their values, their land, was all being wiped out.”

    “The University of Wyoming,” Wilson said, “is reciprocating after all these years, by giving this honorary doctorate to an Arapaho ceremonial person.”

    According to Wilson, Crawford White Eagle Sr. is the only known Indian Doctor/Medicine Man to have received an honorary degree. Other ceremonial leaders of the Northern Plains tribes who have received an honorary degree includes Arvol Looking Horse (Lakota), and John Woodenlegs (Northern Cheyenne).


    The University of Wyoming previously granted Arapaho historian and language teacher Pius Moss with an honorary degree in 1992, after he helped promote the creation of the Northern Arapaho Endowment scholarship fund in 1987. A few other Plains Nations leaders, language experts, and scholars who have received honorary degrees include Earl Old Person (Blackfeet), Edwin Benson (Mandan), Henrietta Mann (Cheyenne), Joe Medicine Crow (Apsalooke), and Gerald One Feather (Oglala Lakota).

    Crawford White Eagle was born in 1941. “He was in that first generation of kids were their parents were going English-only, and his parents didn’t do that,” Wilson said. “They wanted to continue those sacred beliefs. They just remained steadfast, and didn’t cave in to any of that.”

    As a young man, Crawford White Eagle attended St. Stephens, a Catholic boarding school on the Wind River Reservation, where he was discouraged — and sometimes physically abused — for speaking his language and resisting assimilation.

    Despite the brutality, Crawford found comfort in the school activities and camaraderie with fellow students, and was part of the 1958-1959 state champion basketball team. At one time, he scored over 100 points in a single game, earning a state scoring record. He was inducted into the St. Stephens Hall of Fame.

    White Eagle’s boarding school education was geared toward the trades, and after graduation he worked as a barber in Chicago, during an era when the federal government promoted American Indian relocation to urban areas.

    Drafted into the Army at age 26, White Eagle served in the Vietnam War. Ceremonial elders of the Northern Arapaho sent him off to war with prayer on the Riverton airport tarmac. In Vietnam, he was a squad leader and served in all three phases of the Tet Offensive. During his one-year tour, he had 250 direct combat days, and was out on point at least three dozen times. He was wounded twice and earned two purple heart medals, and a bronze star.

    h/t University of Wyoming – Ceremonial elder and Vietnam combat veteran Crawford White Eagle Senior

    On White Eagle’s return from Vietnam, his father gifted a horse covered in Pendleton blankets to the ceremonial elder that was designated to pray for his safe return home. He battled PTSD, working through his challenges to become a tribal leader and respected ceremonial elder advocating for language preservation and the Arapaho way of life.

    “It wasn’t like he lived a perfect life, it was that he overcame these struggles and imperfections,” Wilson said. “It was all the ups and downs that he walked through to overcome those ghosts with personal and ceremonial discipline, to find a way forward and persevere in life…. It’s a triumphant story of overcoming, and at the final conclusion, that he was recognized for the body of knowledge that he carried and shared.”

    White Eagle was of a generation of American Indian men for whom the path to higher education was not open. He had no counseling on how to apply to college, or any suggestion of what a university education could mean for him.

    “Our Dad didn’t even know he was smart,” Wilson said. “He didn’t have people telling him, ‘You are smart and highly intelligent,’ and he was.”

    Nonetheless, White Eagle pursued learning in many fields of life experience, ranging across linguistics, politics, diplomacy, geology, natural history, religion, and the arts. He knew how to find his way in the mountains, and about plants and animals.

    “He really knew what he was doing, whether in mechanics, construction, ranching, farming, silversmithing, hunting, fishing, painting,” Wilson said. “Whatever it was, he had magic dust.”

    Many of White Eagle’s greatest accomplishments were in the humanities and education. He championed education throughout his life, and particularly for his children as they pursued careers and undergraduate and graduate degrees in law, medicine, and other fields. He helped create the Wyoming Indian High School, and the Northern Arapaho Endowment for scholarships at the University of Wyoming.

    He served as a language and culture revitalization advisor for the National Indian Education Association, led a delegation involved with artifact identification at Yale University, and helped to create the Wind River Education Project and the American Indian Education for All curriculum, among many other projects.

    The Northern Arapaho were the first Tribe to repatriate remains of students who died from 1879-1918 while attending Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania, America’s first all-Indian boarding school. Mr. White Eagle was involved from the beginning in this effort to heal historical trauma. He served as a consultant and participant in the related documentary Home From School, to be released June 20, 2021.

    White Eagle’s first language was Arapaho, and he worked tirelessly to promote revitalization of American Indian languages at the federal level. These efforts culminated in his work to encourage U.S. Senator Enzi and others to help pass the Esther Martinez Native American Language Preservation Act, the Native American Code Talker Recognition Act, the Native American Immersion Student Achievement Act, and the Elementary and Secondary Education Act that provided for language immersion programs in Head Start and other venues.

    On the Wind River Reservation, White Eagle served on the Northern Arapaho Business Council and the Northern Arapaho Council of Elders. He was selected for the ceremonial role of being one of the Four Old Men, which are the highest authorities on spiritual matters in the Northern Arapaho Tribe. The role involves providing counsel and support to members of the Tribe, as well as guidance to Tribal leaders.

    White Eagle was often called to offer prayer and cedaring at prayer meetings and family events on the Wind River Reservation, as well as at public events around the state and the nation. Even as his health declined, he continued to attend events, and carry out his ceremonial duties in spiritual service of sovereignty and diplomacy. Anyone who witnessed Crawford in prayer will remember how humbly and quietly he spoke, a unique Arapaho voice of his generation.

    During the honorary doctorate ceremony, Wilson called for the University of Wyoming to develop greater opportunities for American Indian students, including building a state-of-the-art American Indian student facility, promoting business and e-commerce on the Wind River Reservation, and opening a Northern Arapaho language immersion lab on the Reservation.

    Most significantly, Wilson called for naming a Northern Arapaho to the university’s Board of Trustees.

    “It’s time now,” Wilson said, while gesturing to the university leaders on stage. “It’s time now for full inclusion. They need to be here, sitting up here as well.”

    During the ceremony, family members presented James Trosper, director of the University of Wyoming’s High Plains American Indian Research Institute, with a quilt and American flag knife sheath, to thank Trosper for his efforts to promote American Indian education at the university, including nominating Crawford White Eagle Sr. for the honorary degree.

    h/t Kyle Spradley, University of Wyoming – During the ceremony, family members presented James Trosper, director of the University of Wyoming High Plains Indian American Indian Research Institute with a star quilt and American flag knife sheath, to thank him for his efforts to promote efforts for American Indian at the university, including nominating Crawford White Eagle Sr. for the honorary degree.

    At the conclusion Crawford White Eagle Jr., Jacqueline White Eagle, and family members presented a song to honor all the University of Wyoming graduates.

    “Relatives, I ask you to hold, everybody hold their hands out like this,” said Crawford White Eagle Jr. as he waved his eagle fan toward the graduates. “Get that good blessing, from my Dad. Aho. Thank you.”

    h/t Kyle Spradley, University of Wyoming – At the conclusion, Crawford White Eagle Jr., Jacqueline White Eagle, and family members presented a song to honor all the University of Wyoming graduates.

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