Chief Black Coal's Headdress Repatriated To The Northern Arapaho Tribe

Jan 24, 2020

Chief Black Coal of the Northern Arapaho.
Credit John K. Hillers/Wikimedia Commons

A headdress belonging to Chief Black Coal, one of most influential Arapaho leaders of the late 19th century, has been repatriated to the Northern Arapaho Tribe.

The Northern Arapaho Tribal Historic Preservation Office received a call in early December from a man in Massachusetts who said he had an important cultural item to give back to the tribe.

"He had a treasure, basically," said Jordan Dresser, collections manager with the historic preservation office.

Temple Smith said that Black Coal had gifted the headdress to his grandfather, who had worked as a dentist on the Wind River Reservation in the late 1800s. For more than 100 years, the headdress remained in the family's possession. Most recently, it was kept in museum-quality storage box in Smith's attic.

Dresser, along with several historic preservation specialists, Northern Arapaho Business Councilman Samuel Dresser, and a descendent of Chief Black Coal travelled to Marblehead, Massachusetts to retrieve the headdress.

Top Row, L-R: Brian Soundingsides, Jordan Dresser, Devin Oldman Jerel Kohler, Crystal C'Bearing. Bottom row, L-R: Patrick Moss, Northern Arapaho Business Councilman Samuel Dresser, Temple Smith.

"It was really emotional. This was the first time [Cheif Black Coal] has been around his people in a long time," Dresser said. "He was such a big figure, along with Sharp Nose, Chief Friday, Chief Goes In Lodge, Chief Yellowcalf. They were there for these pivotal moments when we were transitioning to this reservation. He's coming because he's going to remind us of what a leader is."

The team drove Black Coal's headdress across the county, and dropped it off at the University of Wyoming, where it is currently being disinfected and kept in temperature-controlled archival storage. It will complete the final leg of its journey to the Wind River Reservation in the coming days.

The return of the headdress comes after a series of major victories for the Northern Arapaho Tribal Historic Preservation Office. In 2014, then-director Yufna Soldier Wolf led the charge in repatriating the remains of two Arapaho boys who died at a government boarding school in the late 1800s. Devin Oldman succeeded last year in bringing a small herd of buffalo to Northern Arapaho land for the first time in 130 years.

When Buffalo Vila, a cultural resource specialist for the department, learned that the headdress would be returned, she said she knew the timing wasn't a coincidence.

"That's almost like a complete circle," Vila said. "Our children coming back from Carlisle, the buffalo returning. All of that took place, and then what happens after that? Our chief wants to come home. That's pretty powerful to me."

The historic preservation office will host a community gathering and cedaring to welcome Chief Black Coal's headdress back to the Wind River Reservation. Tribal members are invited to that event on Saturday, February 1 from 2 - 5pm at Great Plains Hall.

Have a question about this story? Contact the reporter, Savannah Maher, at smaher4@uwyo.edu.