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Law and museum politics come together in repatriation efforts of an Arapaho headdress

A close up view of the beadwork on Chief Yellowcalf's headdress.
Alyson White Eagle Sounding Sides
A close up of the beadwork on the headdress that belonged to the Northern Arapaho Chief Yellowcalf.

At a Ethete powwow this summer, the University of Wyoming Stealing Culture team was honored for their work getting Alyson White Eagle Sounding Sides to London to see Chief Yellowcalf's headdress. White Eagle Sounding Sides is one of Yellowcalf's descendants and the first Arapaho to see his headdress at the British Museum in London in one hundred years.

"It was emotional because I thought about at that time, early reservation era,people, especially our chiefs, were just doing the best that they could to make sure that our people were going to continue on, that we were going to survive," she said.

White Eagle Sounding Side explained that the headdress is more than an item, and the word "headdress" does not do justice to what Chief Yellowcalf's headdress means to her and the Arapaho people.

She said the headdress was removed from Chief Yellowcalf's possession during the filming of Covered Wagons, a film shot in the 1930s. Some say it was a gift to someone in film production but White Eagle Sounding Sides said that's not what she's hearing from her community.

"I just don't believe…I find it hard to believe that this headdress was something that he was willing to give away, considering how much this headdress means to our people," she said.

It's hard to know exactly what happened, but moving forward, there are a lot of unknowns regarding the nuts and bolts of getting the headdress back. Stealing Culture is trying to help. They are a team of two University of Wyoming professors who are endeavoring to pick apart the complicated relationship between how museums work and laws that govern repatriation.

Repatriation is the reclamation of old stolen items from museums, much like what is happening with Chief Yellowcalf's headdress.

Two women dressed in colorful clothes and a man stand together.
Alyson White Eagle Sounding Sides
Nichole Crawford (left), Alyson White Eagle Sounding Sides (middle), Darrel Jackson (right) at the Ethete Celebration Summer 2022 on the Wind River Reservation.

The Northern Arapaho and Eastern Shoshone, the two tribes of the Wind River Reservation, have been looking for cultural artifacts for years now. The locally produced 2017 film "What Was Ours'' explores how many sacred and cultural items were taken off the reservation years ago, only to sit undisplayed in the basements of non-Indigenous institutions, much like Chief Yellowcalf's headdress.

Nicole Crawford is part of the team and is the curator at the University of Wyoming's Art Museum. She said museums are only now coming to grips with their history of exploitation.

"Museums are collecting institutions, and they were really formed on a colonial basis, right? Somebody would go around and collect things. Think of Napoleon in the Louvre, or the British Museum," she said. "There's a joke that says, 'We named something that seems British but really isn't and it's the British Museum.'"

She said many curators are now looking at their collections and asking important questions about where items came from and the ethicacy of their acquisition.

"But that takes time and money to look at these things. And a lot of museums don't have those resources," said Crawford.

One issue curators have is that it's hard to know who to reach out to about an item, especially if the history of the item is unknown or contested.

"So you can't just call up Kenya and say, 'Hey, I've got an object. Do you want it back?' Who do you call? Who can claim these things? And that's what part of Stealing Culture is, is helping think about these issues," she said. "Can an individual claim something? Does it have to be a community such as a tribe?"

University of Wyoming Law Professor Darrel Jackson is also with Stealing Culture. He said in the world of museums, the history of a particular item is called provenance. It states whether an item was acquired, stolen or gifted. But historically, museums have left these types of details out.

"That's something the law would never do. Law has the equivalent that is massively ahead of provenance, it's called title. You have title to your car, you might have title to your house. But I can literally go to a courthouse and track your title, all the way back to origin. And if I can't, we call that stolen, and we will prosecute you for that," he said.

Jackson said this is where Stealing Culture comes in. They want to help navigate between different nation's, country's, and institution's protocols. All of which can be really difficult to move between.

"Our goal has been to try and be a bridge between analyses between individuals and organizations, even between countries, because we have this kind of neutral third party access point where we can insert into the dialogue in a way that sometimes two opposing parties can't," he said.

Stealing Culture has consulted on projects in Europe, Japan, Australia, and Rapa Nui talking with museums on policy that governs repatriation. Jackson said he's noticed at this point, museums have one of two options moving forward.

"The international dialogue surrounding repatriation is pulling museums in a direction that they can either accelerate and say, 'Okay, we're going to fix this.' Or they can pull back and say, 'We want to fight this,'" he said.

Chief Yellowcalf's headdress sits on a table. One of his descendants stands behind it.
Nicole Crawford
Alyson White Eagle Sounding Sides with her ancestor, Chief Yellowcalf's, headdress on a trip to the British Museum.

Stealing Culture went with Alison White Eagle Sounding Sides to the British Museum to see Chief Yellowcalf's headdress. That's the first repatriation they've worked on so intimately.

Since White Eagle Sounding Sides has come back from London, she's researching how the headdress got there in hopes to prove the provenance, or title, of the headdress. She's dreaming of its eventual return.

"I went into law because I love my people. I am so proud to be Arapaho. I'm very fortunate to be Arapaho. And so, this idea of bringing this headdress home is for the well being of my people, the healing of my people," she said.

She said during her research, she will talk with ceremonial leaders and tribal council to decide how to move forward, an integral part of the repatriation process.

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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