STEPHENS -- Wayne C'Hair slipped across the stretch of hides, buffalo
skins worn soft by the handwork of elders and children working together.
parade of combat and peacetime warriors followed him, blessing hides
that would soon become something more than just skin.
drum and song, they honored the chiefs who brought them to this
region. By calling youth to join them, they looked to the future.
took nine years to get here, to the lawn outside St. Stephens Indian
School with 12 buffalo hides sewn together in a sheet.
took scraping, tanning, sewing and braiding.
Thursday, the Northern Arapaho Tribe erected a 16-foot-tall buffalo
hide tepee, becoming the first tribe in 130 years to create a tepee
in an entirely traditional fashion.
tepee comes at a time when the Northern Arapaho are doing all they
can to preserve a culture. As tribal elders age, the language, the
stories are starting to vanish.
students, teachers, elders and community members started, there
were no manuals, no instructions.
five authentic tepees from the 1800s are in existence today. It
took years of research to discover an authentic building method.
tepee project is part of an ongoing effort to revitalize culture
and bring youth closer to traditions.
C'Hair, an elder and language teacher, English is like black and
white television. But Arapaho, it's rich, full color.
aren't learning the language like they did when he was a boy. Of
about 9,000 Northern Arapaho members, fewer than 200 speak Arapaho
fluently. All are over the age of 55.
Arapaho children face distractions and are stuck searching for an
identity, pulled simultaneously by tribal culture and mainstream
society, said Wayne's brother, William C'Hair.
16-character Arapaho language is now taught to young students in
school. The tribe has been competing to obtain a small, genetically
pure bison herd from Yellowstone National Park.
2001, St. Stephens teacher Dara Weller wrote to 200 buffalo ranches
asking for buffalo hide donations. Through several grants, elders,
teachers and students traveled to the Smithsonian Institution in
Washington, D.C., to view an original tepee. They got special permission
to inspect and trace it.
students began documenting everything on video. They interviewed
elders who recounted stories about hide tanning passed to them by
their own grandparents.
documentary crew, Moonstar Productions, joined to make two films.
came Larry Belitz of Hot Springs, S.D., considered the world's leading
expert on brain tanning, a method by which cow brain is massaged
into hide to treat it. He contributed what he knew, what he learned
from travelling and carefully studying the only five remaining tepees.
pieced stories together to get the bigger picture.
donations came in several years ago. Students and elders soaked
the 12 hides in the river, one by one, for two weeks each to loosen
the fur. They scraped off hair using tools made of elk horns and
rocks during the spring and fall.
later, the hides were ready for the final stage. Last week tribal
members cut the hides and sewed them together with sinew, or buffalo
sat with women, and they told stories while they stitched.
solid sheet, ready to become a tepee, was finished at 5:30 the night
before the ceremony.
thought this was lost forever," said Wayne C'Hair. "It's
like the culture and the language is coming back.
skeleton of 19 wooden poles propped against one another creates
the tepee's structure. Every piece has meaning.
hide is like a woman spreading her arms over her children to protect
them. Two flaps at the top of the hide are her ears, listening for
danger. The tepee represents love.
door stands for openness, always welcoming of all people. Thirty-five
feet of seenook, a rope braided from hide, pull the poles taut at
the top. It's long and strong, like the way of life.
Ridgely III made that seenook. The drum keeper and high school culture
teacher examined a rawhide rattle a since-deceased ceremonial elder
made for him years ago. He examined the braiding detail and applied
it here to a piece of hide that once stretched the entire length
of a basketball court. It took an entire day.
Thursday's ceremony, men carried the hide, hung loosely on a pole,
to the wooden frame.
unfurled it slowly, sweeping it around the poles like a giant cloak.
wove lacing pins through the front of the hide, making the door.
hide, seenook and pins became a finished tepee, bringing another
piece of fading tradition home.
is a historic day not only for the students, but for the whole Arapaho
tribe," said Norman Willow, of the tribe's business council.
A crowd of more than 100 looked on. "This took care of us,
buffalo took care of us. Remember this day."
make more sense now.
Jenkins, 18, worked on the tepee project for a year. She photographed,
interviewed, filmed, taught younger students how to film. She cut
hides and sewed with the sinew tendons. She still has blisters on
understands now why certain traditions are the way they are.
been to ceremonies before, but never really asked questions. After
the project, now she knows how the ceremonial drums are made, why
the Arapaho language is vanishing.
has heard the stories of her elders. Her documentation will keep
makes you look at things a different way," Jenkins said.
structure complete, men inside the tepee finished the final step.
They released a contained fire to brown, or waterproof, the hide.
clouds of gray seeped from the tepee's flaps, the air smelling of
the door was opened, smoke billowing out, tribal members and students
lined up together to look inside for the first time since the 1870s.
was done. Niiinoon. Tepee.
will stay here, on the reservation -- a constant reminder of the
link between past and present.
more than a structure, said Sergio Maldonado Sr., a board member
at St. Stephens. It teaches respect, humanness, that life is both
good and a lot of work.
Now everybody can learn from it. It's no longer an issue of white
and red, white and black, white and brown. This is a teaching tool
that is going to be inclusive of all human beings, and this is what
we want to stress," Maldonado said. "... Before we are
Arapaho, before we are Lakota, before we are mixed-blood, full-blood,
we are human beings. Even before we are man or woman, we are human
features reporter Margaret Matray at 307-266-0535 or email@example.com.