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(Many Paths)
An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America
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Northern Arapaho's Buffalo Hide Tepee Helps Tribe Link With Past
by Margaret Matray - Casper (WY) Star-Tribune
credits: photos by Kenny Huller - Casper (WY) Star-Tribune

ST. STEPHENS -- Wayne C'Hair slipped across the stretch of hides, buffalo skins worn soft by the handwork of elders and children working together.

A parade of combat and peacetime warriors followed him, blessing hides that would soon become something more than just skin.

Through drum and song, they honored the chiefs who brought them to this region. By calling youth to join them, they looked to the future.

It took nine years to get here, to the lawn outside St. Stephens Indian School with 12 buffalo hides sewn together in a sheet.

It took scraping, tanning, sewing and braiding.

On 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.

The 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.

When students, teachers, elders and community members started, there were no manuals, no instructions.

Only five authentic tepees from the 1800s are in existence today. It took years of research to discover an authentic building method.

The tepee project is part of an ongoing effort to revitalize culture and bring youth closer to traditions.

To C'Hair, an elder and language teacher, English is like black and white television. But Arapaho, it's rich, full color.

Students 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.

Northern 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.

The 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.

In 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.

The students began documenting everything on video. They interviewed elders who recounted stories about hide tanning passed to them by their own grandparents.

A documentary crew, Moonstar Productions, joined to make two films.

Then 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.

Students pieced stories together to get the bigger picture.

Hide 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.

Years later, the hides were ready for the final stage. Last week tribal members cut the hides and sewed them together with sinew, or buffalo tendons.

Girls sat with women, and they told stories while they stitched.

The solid sheet, ready to become a tepee, was finished at 5:30 the night before the ceremony.

"I thought this was lost forever," said Wayne C'Hair. "It's like the culture and the language is coming back.

A skeleton of 19 wooden poles propped against one another creates the tepee's structure. Every piece has meaning.

The 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.

The 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.

Eugene 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.

At Thursday's ceremony, men carried the hide, hung loosely on a pole, to the wooden frame.

They unfurled it slowly, sweeping it around the poles like a giant cloak.

They wove lacing pins through the front of the hide, making the door.

Poles, hide, seenook and pins became a finished tepee, bringing another piece of fading tradition home.

"This 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."

Things make more sense now.

Claudia 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 her fingers.

She understands now why certain traditions are the way they are.

She'd 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.

She has heard the stories of her elders. Her documentation will keep them alive.

"It makes you look at things a different way," Jenkins said.

The structure complete, men inside the tepee finished the final step. They released a contained fire to brown, or waterproof, the hide.

Thick clouds of gray seeped from the tepee's flaps, the air smelling of cedar.

When the door was opened, smoke billowing out, tribal members and students lined up together to look inside for the first time since the 1870s.

It was done. Niiinoon. Tepee.

It will stay here, on the reservation -- a constant reminder of the link between past and present.

It's 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 beings."

Reach features reporter Margaret Matray at 307-266-0535 or

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