On a Saturday afternoon in January, Great Plains Hall in Arapahoe was packed with hundreds of people standing in line to bless themselves with cedar smoke, and visit with the very imposing 6-foot-long headdress. Hand-sewn and beaded, each of the dozens of eagle feathers adorning it commemorates one of Chief Black Coal's greatest accomplishments.
"It just makes you feel like he's in the room and he's watching us," said Crystal C'Bearing, deputy director of the Northern Arapaho Tribal Historic Preservation Office. "He's saying, 'What kind of Arapaho person are you?' So, it just makes you stand up straight when you see it."
Chief Black Coal led the Northern Arapaho in the late 1800s - through a period of conflict with the federal government and the tribe's transition to life on the Wind River Reservation. At this repatriation ceremony, Black Coal's headdress was among Arapaho people for the first time in more than 140 years.
In early December, the historic preservation office got a message from a man on the other side of the country who said he had something of value to return to the tribe.
"He had a treasure, basically," said Jordan Dresser, the historic preservation office's collections manager.
Dresser got in touch with 80-year-old Temple Smith, who told him that Black Coal had gifted the headdress to his great-grandfather, who had worked as a dentist on the Wind River Reservation, and that it had been passed down through his family ever since.
"And he said, 'I want to donate it back to the tribe.' And so it was just a month of busy-ness," Dresser said.
The office went back and forth with Smith for days, working to verify the authenticity of the headdress and negotiate terms of the repatriation. Next, Dresser had to get the Northern Arapaho Business Council on board, gather a team to retrieve the headdress, and round up the resources to properly display and preserve it.
In early January, along with a group of tribal historic preservation experts, a member of the Business Council, and a descendent of Chief Black Coal, Dresser flew to Massachusetts to retrieve the headdress and drove it over 2,000 miles back to the Wind River Reservation. But as repatriations go, Dresser said this one was a breeze.
When the Northern Arapaho Tribe wants their things back from a museum or a University, they typically have to request them using a federal law called the Native American Graves Protection Repatriation Act, or NAGPRA.
It requires museums and universities that receive federal funding to return human remains, sacred objects, and other items of "cultural patrimony" to federally recognized tribes. But the tribe and the institution have to agree that the item truly has roots with that tribe, and that it has a sacred purpose a defined by NAGPRA. Many tribes find that the burden of proof falls on them.
Dresser said that his office is currently in talks with the Chicago Field Museum about the potential repatriation of several items which had been labeled in their collections inventory as Arapaho.
"We did a consultation with them a few years ago and they said 'Oh, we don't think they're Arapaho. We think that the box that they were housed in was mislabeled. Oh we think they were found in Utah,' and just giving these excuses," Dresser said.
According to the Chicago Field Museum's Repatriation Director Helen Robbins, the museum is committed to repatriation and actively seeks to return sacred items in its collection to tribes. But because many were collected hundreds of years ago, she said it can be difficult to piece together their lineage.
"It's like taking a 1000 piece puzzle, and you throw it up in the air and it scatters everywhere and you lose anywhere from half to nine-tenths of the pieces," Robbins said. "Then you've got whatever's left to try and figure out what this item was. And it's really hard and sometimes you just don't have the evidence."
The Chicago Field Museum doesn't comment on specific repatriation claims. But Robbins said that cases like the one Dresser described -- where there's uncertainty about where an object really came from—are some of the toughest ones she deals with.
"It's very difficult. We have an obligation to make sure we are repatriating to the appropriate group, because if we repatriate an item to the wrong group, we are doing harm," Robbins said.
Ultimately, it's up to the museum to decide whether an item falls under NAGPRA, and should be repatriated or not. That's a painful reality for tribal members. People like Jordan Dresser argue that collectors usually didn't ask before removing these items from tribal communities. So why should tribes have to go to such lengths to get them back? Robbins acknowledged that it's not a perfect process.
"No tribe is going to say it's fair that the museums are required by law to make these decisions, and I don't necessarily disagree but that's what the law says," Robbins said.
Precious Arapaho cultural items are scattered all around the world. Chief Yellowcalf's headdress is at the British Museum. The Smithsonian has dozens of Arapaho ceremonial items in its collection. Those are the things Dresser dreams about bringing back to the Wind River Reservation. The spontaneous return of Black Coal's headdress gave him some hope.
"He came home for a reason, because he wanted to come home, but also he's calling all these other ancestors to come back home, too. He's saying, 'Now's the time, come here. Let's piece together our Arapaho people. Let's bring our people back together and let's get us strong again,'" Dresser said.
But there's another thing that stands in the way - the Northern Arapaho Tribe doesn't currently have a place to put many of these objects or the resources to preserve them the way museums do. Crystal C'Bearing said that's why the historic preservation office's recent repatriation efforts have been focused on human remains and other objects that need to be re-buried. But she said she hopes that the community's excitement at the return of Black Coal's headdress will inspire tribal leaders to invest in a museum space on the Wind River Reservation.
"That's kind of our goal, is to get a repository, a museum, a library, just a cultural centers for our tribal members to come learn from these items. And just to have a place for them to go and learn everything they can about our tribe," C'Bearing said.
Black Coal's headdress is being held at a secret location while the historic preservation office builds a museum-quality display case. It will be on exhibition in the Arapaho Experience Room at the Wind River Hotel and Casino, but C'Bearing said she hopes that someday, her office can move it to the Northern Arapaho Tribe's very own museum. For now, she counts it as a victory that Arapaho people won't have to travel to a big city of pay an admissions fee to visit their chief.
Have a question about this story? Contact the reporter, Savannah Maher, at email@example.com.
Savannah is a Report For America corps member.