Plains Indian expert Larry Belitz, top, works with St. Stephens students on removing the fat from a buffalo hide. St. Stephens Indian School recently won a Red Nation Film Festival Oyate award for their documentary titled “Listening For A New Day: the making of an Arapaho buffalo hide tipi.”
May 12, 2015 5:30 am • Brendan Meyer 307-266-0544, firstname.lastname@example.org
What was once an idea 15 years ago is now a treasured and sacred piece of history for a tiny school in Wyoming, and even better, it was all caught on tape.
St. Stephens Indian School recently won a Red Nation Film Festival Oyate award for its documentary titled “Listening For A New Day: the making of an Arapaho buffalo hide tipi.”
The film documents the students at St. Stephens during their journey to make an authentic Arapaho buffalo hide tepee the old fashioned way, and in order to accomplish the feat, they needed help.
“We realized that to do it in the old way, the traditional way, we needed to bring in elders and find out how to make the tepee, because we didn’t know the process,” Dara Weller said, a director at St. Stephens.
“When we decided to go into the community and bring elders in for interviews, we knew that we were going to have to videotape. This was historic. This needed to be saved and archived so that future generations could look at the material and go back and duplicate what we did.”
The seed of an idea to make an authentic Arapaho buffalo hide tepee first came about in the 1970s. William C’Hair, a Northern Arapaho elder on the Wind River Reservation, made a trip to Washington, D.C., with other members of the reservation. While in D.C., they stopped by the Smithsonian, and right at the entrance was a huge buffalo hide tepee.
“We didn’t pay too much attention to it. We’ve seen tipis before,” C’Hair said. “But what made this one kind of outstanding, when we started to read about it, it was an Arapaho tepee that was collected somewhere on the plains in the 1840s or so. We inquired. They said it took about 27 pieces of buffalo hide to construct it.”
According to Weller, there are only five of these tepees from the 1800s left in the world, and this was one of them.
When C’Hair returned to the reservation, he shared what he saw at the Smithsonian. Many years later, in 2000, St. Stephens discussed the possibility of making a tepee. First, they thought about making a regular tepee, but then the idea merged with what C’Hair saw at the Smithsonian.
“Why not make a buffalo hide tepee the old, traditional way?” C’Hair said.
The history behind this particular tepee carries with it a sacred tradition. More than 100 years ago, when these tepees spread across the plains, buffalo were plentiful, and the Arapaho used every part of the animal.
“The buffalo was like a supermarket on the plains. Everything that was needed on a day-to-day basis was derived from the buffalo, from food to clothing, all the things necessary for day-to-day living,” C’Hair said.
When St. Stephens announced they would be making a traditional buffalo hide tepee, they sent thousands of letters to buffalo ranchers asking for hide. The response was overwhelming.
Students ranging from kindergartners to 12th-graders helped with the filming and making of the tepee. They played a major role in tanning, soaking and preparing the buffalo hides, stretching and sewing. Nothing was done by machine; everything was done by hand.
“Just to make the buckskin takes a lot of brains. Literally,” C’Hair said, referring to the raw cow and buffalo brains used to clean and soften the hide. “The (brains) have enzymes that unite with the hide, and that makes it pliable and changes its color from kind of a tannish color to make it pretty close to white.”
The tepee was completed during the 2009-10 school year.
Along with winning the Red Nation Film Festival Oyate award, the documentary was also an official selection at the 2015 Durango Independent Film Festival in Durango, Colorado.
Currently, the tepee is on display at St. Stephens Indian School. It will be moved to the Wind River Casino for a public premier of the documentary Tuesday and Wednesday, and after, it will be permanently housed on the reservation as a prized possession of St. Stephens and the Northern Arapaho tribe.
“We are the only school and the only tribe in the U.S. that has a buffalo hide tepee,” Weller said. “Made in the old way.”
Follow reporter Brendan Meyer on Twitter @Brendan_Meyer13.
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