University of Wyoming College of Law student and Northern Arapaho member Alyson White Eagle-SoundingSides is working with law Professor Darrell Jackson and UW Art Museum Director Nicole Crawford to bring home from the British Museum a headdress that belonged to her great-great grandfather, Northern Arapaho leader Chief Yellow Calf.
The journey began when White Eagle-SoundingSides applied to take Jackson and Crawford’s summer course to Europe called “Stealing Culture: The Intersection of Criminal Law and Museums.” Jackson and Crawford work with museums and universities around the world as they begin the work of repatriating cultural items that were often taken without a community’s knowledge or permission.
In the case of the headdress, White Eagle-SoundingSides’ tribal elders told her it was likely taken from the tribe during the filming of the 1923 silent film “The Covered Wagon.” Her research shows it was donated to the British Museum in 1939. It hasn’t been on display at the museum since 2001, so White Eagle-SoundingSides had to receive special permission for her, Crawford and Jackson to view the headdress at a storage facility outside London this July. She became the first Arapaho to see the headdress in 100 years.
“I felt that sorrow in my heart because the headdress is not where it belongs,” White Eagle-SoundingSides says.
Yet, she was incredibly grateful to be able to see it and speak with the curator in the Department of Africa, Oceana and the Americas at the British Museum, who graciously made the experience possible.
“I walked in, and I was in awe,” White Eagle-SoundingSides says. “It was beautiful. The feathers and beadwork were perfectly intact. I leaned in close to look — I didn’t touch it. There was a long strand of black hair by the tail. I kept thinking about Yellow Calf and the life he led. I thought about what pride he took in the headdress because these are sacred objects to us. I thought about how it must have hurt him to have lost it. I thought about how the taking of it was another thing done to our people.
“The day I got to see it was the day our big ceremony, the sundance, was starting, so I thought about my people and how all of these things have affected our lives and where we’re at today,” White Eagle-SoundingSides adds. “I said a prayer for my people and a prayer for Yellow Calf. I introduced myself in Arapaho, and I told this headdress that I came a long way to see it. I said, ‘I’m sorry you can’t go home today, but you’re going to someday.’ I was so thankful, humbled and filled with gratitude.”
Chief Yellow Calf (1861-1938) is considered one of the Northern Arapaho Tribe’s most important and respected leaders in its history. The Northern Arapaho are one of four groups of Arapaho who originally occupied the headwaters of the Arkansas and Platte rivers. After signing the Treaty of 1851, the Arapaho and Cheyenne shared land encompassing one-sixth of Wyoming, one-quarter of Colorado and parts of western Kansas and Nebraska. Later, when the Treaty of 1868 left the Northern Arapaho without a land base, they were placed with the Shoshone in west-central Wyoming, on the Wind River Reservation.
White Eagle-SoundingSides’ husband works for the Northern Arapaho Tribal Historic Preservation Office, so she has seen firsthand how repatriation affects their community in a positive way.
“It’s almost like a piece of us gets put back together when these things come back to us,” she says. “When they come home, it’s like we get to heal. That’s what I want for my people. That’s why I’ve done what I’ve done so far.”
Crawford and the UW Art Museum went the extra mile to help White Eagle-SoundingSides make the trip, funding her flight and working with the curator at the British Museum to get permission to see the headdress. Now comes the hard work of further research as well as relationship building with the British Museum to perhaps one day bring the headdress home.
“This is the impetus behind ‘Stealing Culture’ as a class and an organization,” Jackson says. “From the day we’ve started, it’s been about getting communities behind it.”
Jackson and Crawford have been working on the “Stealing Culture” project for several years. They taught an on-campus version of the class with law and honors students in 2019, and this summer was the first education-abroad version of the class. They visited museums and historical sites in Scotland, England and Greece, with students giving presentations at each location. They hope to continue the project but need time set aside for it and funding. The developments with the headdress are exactly why they do this work, and they found the entire experience very moving and motivational.
The Northern Arapaho Tribe honored Jackson and Crawford as well as UW President Ed Seidel last month at the Ethete Celebration Powwow, where they were presented with honorary blankets.
“It was amazing to realize that something that seems so small — in this case, reaching out to the curator at the museum — can make a huge difference for an entire community,” Crawford says of the experience.
“That was something I’ll never forget,” Jackson says. “It was one of the top experiences of my entire career.”
For more information about “Stealing Culture,” go to www.stealingculture.org.