Northern Arapaho Tribe Begins Cemetery Mapping Project

Jul 12, 2019

If you've driven past the cemetery along 17 mile road on the Wind River Reservation recently, you might've noticed some young people walking around in the hot sun carrying notebooks.

When Jordan Dresser and Nico Holt started mapping it in early June, they thought the process might take two weeks.

"Oh yeah, ten skin tones ago and when we were both young men with clean shaven faces," Holt joked during a day of field work. "We thought we'd be done a long time ago. But anything that's worth doing takes time."

Nico Holt finds the GPS coordinates of an unmarked grave.
Credit Savannah Maher

This summer, a team of employees from the Northern Arapaho Tribe's Historic Preservation Office has taken on the ambitious task of creating a record of every person buried on the Wind River Reservation. This cemetery, sometimes called St. Stephen's Cemetery or the Arapaho Catholic Cemetery, is the team’s first stop.

Here's how it works: the cemetery is divided into five sections. Each grave is assigned a number within its section. Then, using a handheld GPS device, the team finds the exact coordinates of the grave and records that information, along with the person's name, birth and death date, in both a paper and digital log.

Dresser, who has taken the lead on this project, said this information is useful for a few reasons. For one, St. Stephen's isn’t organized in a grid. 

"There's no rhyme or reason to this cemetery," he said. 'You have a grave going this way, that way. It's just really how people were buried."

Plus, while some of the newer graves are marked with marble headstones, most have wooden crosses. Many are intricately painted works of art surrounded by gifts from family members. But wood is vulnerable to weathering and deterioration, making some graves impossible to identify.

Nick Quiver-Whiteplume, Corwin Howell and Jordan Dresser during a day of field work.
Credit Savannah Maher

"This one right here is wood, it's painted," Dresser said, standing near a grave in the western part of the cemetery. "You can see that it's chipping already. You can barely make out the name."

Bridger Lawson, the groundskeeper at St. Stephen's Mission, recognized these challenges. When he was hired, he inherited a bin full of old burial maps drawn in neat freehand. Each grave is marked with a number, but the names that correspond with those numbers are a mystery to him.

"The guys that were here before me told me there was a key for this that matched it up, but I've never found it," he said. 

Like a lot of Northern Arapaho people, Lawson has family buried at St. Stephen's cemetery. He said that an updated map and database will be useful to people who have trouble locating their relatives.

"A lot of families from out of town that want to go see somebody over at the cemetery, it'll be easier for them to use the map," Lawson said. "Because it's really easy to lose track. We do have a lot of funerals, so [the cemetery] fills up pretty quick."

Bridger Lawson holds an outdated burial map of St. Stephen's cemetery.
Credit Savannah Maher

But the project has also been useful in identifying some of those unmarked graves at St. Stephen's. At the cemetery, Dresser pointed out a grave that wasn't marked but had a painted vase full of flowers placed on top of it. He said that's a sign that somebody in the community knows who is buried there.

"We've been very public about this project because we want people to come forward and say, 'This is so-and-so,'" Dresser said. "Because the idea is that down the road, we would love to find grants to get them proper markers."

Sometimes, Dresser and his team come across a grave that stirs up emotions for them -- a grave that belongs to a loved-one, or to an ancestor who was repatriated. They suspect that some unmarked graves at St. Stephen’s belong to children who died when the mission operated an Indian boarding school.

But they've also learned about their families and their tribe from spending time at St. Stephen's. That's one reason that Dresser said the place is worth preserving.

"These graves all tell a story in a sense," Dresser said. "It breaks your heart when you see these unknowns, but then it fills your heart when you see graves like that one with the flowers on it. In a way, we're trying to do that for all of them and show them the respect and love that they have here."

While most feedback has been positive, Dresser said a few community members would rather the project didn't move forward. They see it as an unnecessary disturbance of a sacred place.

Still, the Historic Preservation Office plans to map every cemetery and identify every grave on Wind River. Some tribal members have even asked the office to map their families' private burial grounds.

The team has at least 15 cemeteries left. Their next stop is the Chief Black Coal cemetery in Arapahoe.