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The Via Ferrata and the importance of adequate Tribal consultation

 The Northern Arapaho Tribal Historic Preservation Office
Signa McAdams
Wyoming Public Radio
The Northern Arapaho Tribal Historic Preservation Office on the Wind River Reservation fall 2021.

The climbing aid's official name is called a Via Ferrata where climbers can take guided trips scaling the walls of Sinks Canyon. The term is Italian for the "iron path". But while the plans for the Via Ferrata have been in the works since the summer of 2018, the Tribes who have historic ties to the canyon have not been adequately consulted.

Crystal Reynolds is with the Northern Arapaho Tribal Historic Preservation Office (THPO), and she said the first time she heard about the Via Ferrata was August 16 of this year, and after looking around her office, and not finding a letter that initiates Tribal consultation, she went to a public meeting about the Via Ferrata and asked where that letter was.

"Oh, yeah, it was sent out was the response I got," she said.

After a few more weeks the Northern Arapaho THPO office has been in more direct contact with those involved with the Via Ferrata project but Reynolds kept hearing that their office was consulted.

"And the more we keep asking the more we just get, keep getting told that the letter of Tribal consultation was sent out and that we were consulted with and we never came to the table," Reynolds said.

Reynolds said that Sinks Canyon was originally part of the Wind River Indian Reservation but was removed by the federal government in the 1870s. Projects like this traditionally require notification.

"I mean, they're literally putting the Via Ferrata right off the border of the reservation. So if this is our reservation, and that whole area used to be part of the reservation, one of the first things they should have done was consulted with us," Reynolds said.

Reynolds said that her office needs to conduct a cultural resource inventory, a practice that uses oral traditions and elder knowledge to better understand the spiritual and historical importance of land before a project like the Via Ferrata begins.

Chris Floyd with the Wyoming Office of Outdoor Recreation is with the Via Ferrata project. Floyd maintains that emails were sent to include the Northern Arapaho THPO office.

"The steering committee did include the THPOs from both Tribes. And so that meant that they were on every email, they were invited to every meeting, whether public meeting or steering committee meeting, throughout the process," Floyd said. "To my knowledge, the Northern Arapaho did not engage much until the very last meeting."

Floyd goes on to say that there will be more projects through the Sinks Canyon master plan using American Rescue Plan Act funding and that he hopes that the tribes send representatives to future meetings.

"Yeah, we're going to have to try even harder than we have in the past to try to engage with both Tribes when these types of recreational projects come up," Floyd said.

Floyd said that the Eastern Shoshone Tribal Historic Preservation Office had spoken with an elder of the Tribe and that there were no concerns brought up then.

However, Josh Man the director of the Eastern Shoshone Tribal Historic Preservation Office said via email, that the only official meeting with his office was in 2019. He said there was a casual visit about areas of interest to the tribe that Man would not consider to be a cultural resource inventory.

In June, the Office of the Wyoming State Archaeologist conducted their own cultural survey on the proposed site at the time posted on their website quote, "no cultural materials were identified during the survey and there are no previously recorded cultural properties on or adjacent to the trail," end quote.

But Reynolds with the Northern Arapaho THPO office says that cultural resource inventories include aspects of oral traditions that are not written down anywhere that the state would not know about.

"And that's something that professional archaeologists and CRM firms don't have access to, like Tribal members," Reynolds said. "Tribal members don't tend to share those very willingly. Kind of our history, you know, we like to keep those recorded within the Tribe or a lot of world history stay within families."

Chris Floyd said via email as of this week the Via Ferrata's final location is undetermined, and there will be another cultural survey conducted where there will be Tribal and community input.

Lander state Senator Cale Case says he is not impressed with the clip at which the state has pushed through the master plan for not only the Via Ferrata but a series of other projects as well.

"And in fact, the master plan implementation will have more implications for what happens on the ground with respect to cultural and archaeological resources," Case said. "So it might be an even bigger deal than I know, it's a bigger deal than the Via Ferrata itself."

He said he's been in talks with the Eastern Shoshone THPO office to flesh out responsibilities of the National Historic Preservation Act Section 106 that requires consultation between federally affiliated projects and Tribal entities.

"I can tell you Sinks Canyon has an astounding history for Native peoples, and it has cultural and other significance to this day for Native Americans for both Tribes, and that meets the criteria of the 106 involvement. Not that it is on the reservation or Native American land, but that is culturally important to Native Americans," Case said.

Currently, it is unclear if the National Historic Preservation Act will be in play, it all depends on the final proposed location of the Via Ferrata on the canyon walls, Floyd said. But since most of Sinks Canyon is either federal property or was purchased with federal funds the National Historic Preservation Actprotections will probably be implemented.

In an effort to improve communication Case says he plans to introduce legislation in the next session to address the lack of opportunity for the Tribes to comment on such sensitive issues.

Taylar Dawn Stagner is a central Wyoming rural and tribal reporter for Wyoming Public Radio. She has degrees in American Studies, a discipline that interrogates the history and culture of America. She was a Native American Journalist Association Fellow in 2019, and won an Edward R. Murrow Award for her Modern West podcast episode about drag queens in rural spaces in 2021. Stagner is Arapaho and Shoshone.
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