Case Studies of Three Wyoming Museums and the Impact of Each on the Community
By Patty Kessler
Since the 1960s, regional and local museums have played an ever-expanding role in their communities. They serve as repositories of artifacts and documents, but they also discharge a variety of educational activities including school tours, in-house projects, and outreach programs. Additionally, museums are responsible for the traditional activities of the care, exhibit, documentation, and interpretation of their collections.
In his article, “An Agenda for American Museums in the Twenty-First Century,” Harold Skramstad, president emeritus of the Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village in Dearborn, Michigan, summarizes the principles behind the origin of local museums in the United States:
Museums came early to America, and the story of America’s first museums is one of lively entrepreneurship combined with a strong sense of educational purpose. In a nation characterized. . .as creating and recreating new, transient, “upstart” communities, most museums were formed as voluntary associations that brought together civic boosters in an eclectic mix of collecting, education, and entertainment activities. Museums, like other community institutions such as colleges and universities, theaters and opera houses, were often built and in business before roads were named or paved. They functioned to anchor and stretch the communities for which they were created. Characteristic of these museum enterprises was a practical bias toward community values and a governance structure that reflected a blurring of private and public spheres.
A museum provided an opportunity for the “community leaders” to establish and legitimize their place in the community, and have a hand in molding the overall values and beliefs of the community at large. Further, the museum structure was considered a legitimate setting where community values could be housed, exhibited, and taught.
Since these institutions were governed and directed by predominantly white, affluent, individuals, their values and beliefs reflected the sentiment of their Euro-American peers throughout the region and the nation. Therefore, the institution founders could make a legitimate claim to their position as community leaders and, in such a position, they could disseminate the values and beliefs that were shared, not only in the community, but also throughout the country. They were then free to interpret their heritage as being the only true and correct one.
Evolution in thought and practice in museums occurred in the later half of the twentieth century. Theoretically, today’s museums ought to resist the efforts of individuals to appropriate the past for their own purposes. However, a museum cannot totally dismiss the prevailing views of the times or of their patrons. It is additionally controlled by the bulk and extent of its collections. If the collection consists primarily of railroading artifacts and documents from the mid- to late 1800s, then the story the museum will tell will be from the perspective of the railroading industry of this era. The museum could, of course, compare and contrast the railroading business of today and the past. However, the artifacts from the earlier era would slant the point of view in favor of the past rather than the present which would not be similarly represented with artifacts.
Museums, therefore, do not exist in a void . Although it is inherent in their nature to speculate on how values and beliefs may change or be altered given a variety of events or conditions that exist, they continue to be influenced by the prevailing views and beliefs of their administration, beneficiaries, and members. Additionally, an individual or group of individuals may not necessarily be a bad influence when their views and ideas can be show in reference to others--either supporting or opposing them and their actions.
The Wyoming Pioneer Association
Local and regional historical associations and societies had a strong influence on the creation of museums. The founding accounts of many museums are full of references to the organizations that supported them. Such affiliations make sense. The organizations often served to strengthen the influence of a handful of individuals in the creation of the image of a historical time or event. Certainly, portraying the image within the walls of a museum was important as maintaining the image outside it.
The history of the Wyoming Pioneer Association mirrors that of the privileged groups of the 1800s and 1900s who molded history in an effort to legitimize their claim to the nation’s heritage. The founders of the Association created an exclusive club of individuals who had settled Wyoming in the days when it was still a territory, when there were no fences, and when cattle roamed free on the open range. The Association personified the mystique of the mythic territory that was lost with the closing of the frontier in 1890 and symbolized its members’ longing for the freedom of the wild and untamed lands of old, even though the memory of those times had become altered with the passing of time. The founding members of the Association were described as “men of stature, each having played colorful roles during Wyoming’s territorial days.” They claimed to stand as symbols of the character that had come to exemplify the settling of the West–a hardy, strong, rugged individualism that stood in the face of adversity and then tamed the West.
The Wyoming Pioneer Association is the oldest still functioning historical association in Wyoming. (The current Wyoming State Historical Society, founded in 1953, is the third “state historical society,” the two others of similar names having ceased variously for reasons of the economy or war). Founded in Douglas, Wyoming, in 1925 at the site of the State Fair, the purpose of the pioneer association was “to effect a permanent organization for pioneers who had resided in Wyoming 25 years or more.”
Actually, occasional meetings of pioneers had been held in Wyoming since 1884. At that time, members had to either be a resident of the Wyoming Territory or be doing business in the Territory. They also had to be 21 years of age.
Forty-one years later, members met formally for the first time as a statewide group. At the Association’s first annual meeting, held in September 1926 at what was then described as the “Princess Theater,” it commissioned construction of a log cabin as a meeting hall. The building was finished in 1927, just prior to the Association’s annual meeting. At the first meeting, beyond resolving to build a club building, the association members heard various speakers. John Hunton, first president of the Wyoming Pioneer Association, presided.
B.B. Brooks, ex-governor of Wyoming, was reported to have made an “interesting talk, mentioning Fort Fetterman in particular.” Others addressing the group included W.S. Kimball of Casper, who spoke on the aims and advantages of the Association, and Colonel LaTrobe who told of the activities of the 4th U.S. Cavalry in Wyoming. Special musical numbers, a feature of the Association’s annual meetings to this day, were provided for that first meeting by Mesdames Charles Clark and S.S. Call of Douglas, and by Bert Wagoner of Casper, who claimed “. . .that 25 years in Wyoming gave added expression to the difficult piano solo which he rendered.”
By the 1930 annual meeting, the Association’s membership had grown to 720. Officers had to pitch a large tent to accommodate the growing crowd, “the log cabin having proven too small to accommodate the many pioneers who attended.” Just as at every other annual event in future years, photographs were taken of members. The group pictures were taken of members “by decades. . .beginning with those who had arrived in the 1860's.”
At later annual meetings, the Association adopted projects that would commemorate the pioneering spirit. In 1932 they moved an old school house onto the State Fairgrounds next to the log cabin they had built for the annual meetings. The school was an artifact that could be used to interpret education on the frontier.
The Wyoming Pioneer Association also established events such as the Old-timers’ Picnic and the annual Oregon Trail Trek, the general principle of which is now continued annually by the Wyoming State Historical Society in its “annual trek.” However, the Association’s greatest accomplishment was appropriation of funds from the Wyoming State Legislature to build a “State Pioneer Museum. . .for the preservation of relics, many of which were rapidly being lost to posterity.” With these funds, in 1956, the Association commissioned construction of the Wyoming Pioneer Memorial Museum, built on the State Fairgrounds next to the “pioneer log cabin.”
As years passed and the founding members died, the purpose of the Association evolved to reflect the prevalent beliefs and values of the times about what the pioneering spirit had once been. By then, the courage and trials of these earlier times had become sanctified. The callousness of the frontier have been removed from the presentation as generation after generation died. What was left was a vague resemblance, complete with the material evidence, of what that past might have been like. From out of this revised past, the men and women who had participated in the making of that history were glorified. They were immortalized as the dominant actors of the era.
This view of the founders of the Wyoming Pioneer Association and, subsequently, the Wyoming Pioneer Memorial Museum, is perpetuated in the Museum’s statement of purpose. The director of the Wyoming Pioneer Memorial Museum, Arlene Ekland, wrote recently that the museum’s “purpose is to collect, preserve, interpret and display historical and cultural materials related to the westward expansion, to Wyoming pioneers in particular and the west in general.”
Ironically, this also includes the interpretation and exhibit of an “extensive Indian collection” whose existence is explained in the Museum’s brochure as being important because “[t]he Native Americans played a major role in the development of the West.” This collection, however, is represented from the pioneer’s point-of-view. It is described as some of the Museum’s “earliest acquisitions” which implies that the objects that represent the Indian culture were acquired and not inherited items. Second, the brochure explains that the Indian relics are a part of the collection because “[t]he pioneers bought or traded many Indian relics and later donated them to the museum for safe-keeping because they felt they were important to the heritage of this area.” Therefore, a visitor to the Museum will find a large collection of Native American objects on exhibit, interpreted within the context of the westward expansion. A visitor would likely walk away with some technical knowledge of this part of the collection, but with very little knowledge of Native Americans’ actual role in the development of the West.
This irony is furthered with one of the objects on exhibit in the Museum. It is a “1864 Sioux style Indian teepee used in the 1990 production of the movie ‘Dances with Wolves.’” This exhibit alone may lead a visitor to view the entire collection in the context of the movie, “Dances with Wolves,” but also from the ethnocentric viewpoint that the Sioux people must have made little claim to the greatest expanse of the territory that was called Wyoming at the time it was being pioneered.
In essence, the Native American culture represented by these objects like these were donated by the pioneers and their descendants as souvenirs—subtly asserting the pioneers’ superiority over native people. Earlier pioneers appropriated the native people’s culture to legitimize their claim to the conquered people’s country. In this case, the museum served as the vehicle through which proponents of the pioneering spirit could justify the actions the pioneers took in the conquest of the West and its native people.
While the museum is probably true to its mission, it is not able to present a factual past from the collections that it has acquired over the years. These collections are mostly gifts or acquisitions from pioneering families and their descendants. While the Museum curators may attempt to present this past in the most accurate way, their efforts will continue to be over-shadowed by the image of this era of the region that the pioneering descendants and their proponents wished to be represented. One of the opening paragraphs in the Museum’s brochure describes how this concept is manifested in the Museum’s collections:
Dedicated to the documentation of the past this fine western history museum houses one of the largest collections of historical memorabilia which will stir your imagination and take you on a trip back through time. . .to an era when buffalo roamed free, the Indians were the undisputed rulers and the pioneers struggled in a hostile and uncharted land.
The buffalo ceased to roam free not long after the pioneers began settling this region. The Indians were proven not to be the undisputed rulers, and although the land may have seemed to have been hostile and uncharted at times, it had been well-documented by explorers and mountain men years before. Since 1956, the museum has developed an image of the pioneering west that is a mix of myth, fact, and partial truths.
This is not to suggest that the Wyoming Pioneer Memorial Museum has deliberately set out to deceive its audience. The museum and its staff are influenced in part by the items of their collection, as well as the sentiments and prevailing views of the board members, patrons, and in the case of this museum, the policies of the Wyoming Department of State Parks and Cultural Resources. In the words of Benedict Anderson, this institution has become “profoundly political.”
Because of the museum’s very specific subject matter it is not completely representative of the community where it is located. Douglas is a small town of approximately 5,288 people, with most of its residents working in service, power, construction, or agriculture-related industries. Many of these individuals can make no claim or have no tie to the pioneering families of the late 1800s. To these people, the museum must seem more like a tool of indoctrination to the history and past of the region, or maybe even as a curious oddity in the midst of their day-to-day lives. To many people, the Museum stands merely as a memorial to the past members of a very elite group. Yet, it continues to exist and is funded and supported by individuals and groups who believe that the values and beliefs that are represented as having been important to these early-day pioneers are still relevant today. The institution stands in the stead of those pioneers that once existed, now quite apart from the current community.
Homesteaders Museum, Torrington
The Wyoming Pioneer Association’s relationship with a museum also can be seen in the case of the Yoder Memorial House at Torrington’s Homesteaders Museum. The Homesteaders Museum is located on the southern edge of the town of Torrington, a community of approximately 5,800 people, situated along the North Platte River in eastern Wyoming. It is the county seat of Goshen County, with a population of 12,600, that has strong roots in the territorial history of the State. Although the county was created relatively late in the state’s early history, in 1911 under the administration of Joseph M. Carey, it was carved from Laramie County. In earliest territorial times, Laramie County was the most easterly county in Wyoming, spanning the entire eastern portion of the state from its southern to northern borders. Heavily agricultural Goshen County is located directly north of the current much smaller Laramie County.
Local people established the Homesteaders Museum in 1975 as part of a project to commemorate the nation’s bicentennial. The museum is located in an old Union Pacific Depot that was, at first, a gift to the City of Torrington from the Union Pacific Railroad in 1974. Later, the ownership of the depot was turned over to the county government.
The depot structure “was built by the Union Pacific in 1925 to serve as a combination freight and passenger depot. . .The brick and masonry structure is representative of a type of architecture commonly used in the U.S. during the 1920s.” The beautiful old building reeks of nostalgia for the days of passenger trains and trips many local people made to the cattle markets in Omaha and beyond.
The museum chronicles the ranching and homesteading history of Goshen County and old Laramie county from 1882 through World War II. Among several outlying structures on the grounds are a ‘shack’ built in 1910, a caboose now housing the Union Pacific Gallery, and the most recent addition: the Yoder Memorial House and its collections.
The founders of the Homesteaders Museum took great care to develop a museum and program that would chronicle the history of the pioneering families of the county. As a consequence, the Goshen County-Torrington Bicentennial Committee adopted the following objectives for the museum:
-To conserve and display collections of artifacts, relics and items representing the homesteading period 1890-1925 in Goshen County
-To help the residents of Goshen County, the surrounding region, and museum visitors to sense the reality of events relating to the settlement of this region.
-To develop and conduct special programs to convey the complete spectrum of the region’s historical and cultural heritage.
-To develop and conduct special programs and exhibits relating to the natural history of the region that influenced the settlement of the region.
-To employ accepted museum techniques in the care and preservation of the collections.
-To maintain the physical facility to insure its longest possible useful life.
These objectives are broad and far reaching, but they, nonetheless, focused on representing a past that Museum founders presumed would be relevant and meaningful to the County’s residents. The founding committee thought that everyone in the community would share the same basic values and beliefs. Founders believed that, through this apparent consensus, community members would understand the history that was to be presented by the museum.
On a hot July day in 2001 the descendants of the Philip Yoder family, their friends, neighbors, and interested onlookers gathered under awnings next to the “Yoder Memorial House” The structure stood starkly–a shadow of the Yoder home that had once stood in the heart of a community known as Bear Creek located in southeastern Wyoming.
The original Yoder house had been torn down years before and a modern version now stood in its place among the buttes and meadows that define the Bear Creek valley. The first home was built of native stone that had been quarried nearby, a structure that symbolized the heritage and pride of the entire community. On this day, Donald Yoder, the only child of Oscar and Vivian Yoder, sat across from where I stood. He was the great-great-grandson of Cinderella and Phillip Yoder and the last of their descendants to have grown up in that house.
The Yoder ranch was sold prior to Oscar’s death in 1989 to the son of Oscar’s step-sister, Marian. When Oscar died, the house was razed. A short time later, a new, modern home was constructed on the site, using stone that had been salvaged from the old rock house. Though impressive, the new structure lacked the grace, charm, and warmth of the original Yoder home. The community mourned the passing of Oscar Yoder, their friend and neighbor, but they also mourned the passing of the first Yoder home. Consequently, a decade before the turn of the 21st century, the idea for the Yoder Memorial House began to develop.
Phillip and Cinderella (Hattery) Yoder were married October 9, 1861. They moved with their family from Iowa in 1881 and homesteaded in what is now Goshen County. The stone house (or what Oscar Yoder referred to as “a large two-story rock house”) was built in 1897. Philip Yoder later built a barn at the same site from second-hand lumber, some of which had “come from buildings of [the] Chicago Worlds Fair of 1893.” The barn also was subsequently razed.
Phillip and Cinderella’s son, Frank (B. F.) Yoder, was sixteen when his family settled in the Bear Creek valley. He homesteaded at the mouth of what is known as Lone Tree Canyon, a few miles northeast of Phillip and Cinderella’s home, but returned after a time to the original family homestead on Bear Creek. He was active in the community, elected “one of Goshen County’s first three commissioners in 1913.” He was also elected as Goshen County’s first representative in State Legislature, serving for two terms.
Oscar Yoder was Frank’s oldest son. Oscar was 15 months old when his mother, Edith, died. He was raised for a time by Doc and Ida Clark, his aunt and uncle. Oscar completed his secondary schooling in Cheyenne and then later graduated with a degree in electrical engineering from Nebraska University in 1926. He lived in Chicago and worked for two years with the Chicago Thomas Edison Company.
Vivian (Lang) Yoder moved to Goshen County in 1923 and taught school near LaGrange on 66 Mountain. In 1930 Oscar and Vivian married. They moved to the old stone house on Bear Creek the following year. In 1955 Oscar was elected to the State Legislature as a representative from Goshen County. He served six years in the House, and four more years in the Senate, retiring from community service in 1965. Oscar and Vivian left Bear Creek in 1988 and went to live with their son, Donald, and his family in Wilmington, North Carolina. Oscar died in September 1989 and Vivian passed away eleven years later in December 2000.
The house that was dedicated that July day at the museum now contains the Yoder Collection had been donated to the Homesteaders Museum in the spring of 2000. It was built about 1916-1918 by the late John R. Jirdon of Morrill, Nebraska. It had been used as a Lincoln Land home and office at the turn of the century during the years that the Burlington Railroad was acquiring and building on land throughout Laramie and Goshen counties. The last known residents of the house were the McCoy brothers–rodeo cowboys who subsequently moved to Lander, Wyoming. The Lincoln Land house was situated on City of Torrington property and was given to the Homesteaders Museum specifically for use as the Yoder Memorial House.
Oscar and Vivian Yoder’s only child, Donald, and his wife, Gloria, came to Bear Creek in 1988 to begin the arduous task of sorting out over three generations of a single family’s life that had spanned a century (1881 to 1988). They came to move Oscar and Vivian to their home in Wilmington, North Carolina. Oscar was in the early stages of Alzheimer’s at the time and Vivian had been an invalid living at a care center in Cheyenne. As noted above, Oscar had sold the 4A Ranch to Bill Sorenson, the son of Oscar’s step-sister, Marion.
The Yoders initially donated a few items to the museum, but as time went by, the collection grew into hundreds of items. The museum director and his board finally realized that the collection, consisting of artifacts, papers, and collectible memorabilia, would demand a much larger commitment then they had first imagined. Soon, the materials were sufficient to fill a small building. Hence, the idea for the house came into being.
The items that were eventually exhibited in the house include original doors from the old house, curtains and drapes, pictures, rugs, clothing, books, china, and toys. Also displayed are “documents such as certificates and awards.” Once organized as a “museum house,” the building was designed to allow visitors to move from room to room, viewing artifacts that are sealed off behind plexi-glass doors or roped off to prohibit access to a specific space or piece of furniture. In this setting, the viewer should be transported back into time when Euro Americans tamed the savage wilderness and, by virtue of their superiority, gained positions of prestige and political power in the community.
The story of Goshen County’s Yoder family is not representative of the history of the average homesteading family in this region, however. For instance, I was reared on a place where “men and women waxed nostalgic about the times when homesteads stood within shouting distance of each other and a horse and wagon were the sole means of transportation.”
Many homesteading families in the county lost their places during the Dust Bowl and the Depression. Their history was not that of the Philip Yoder family—and it was not my family’s history, as my mother, Jeannette Kessler, told me recently. My great-grandfather, Henry Zook Yoder, a cousin to B. F. Yoder, homesteaded with his wife, Sarah Luke Yoder, a short distance down the creek from where Phillip and Cinderella had taken up their homestead. My grandfather and his family lived in a humble house on the creek bottom there. They later moved east about nine miles and built a two-story stucco house. It was not as grand as the Yoder stone house, but it is still standing and currently is the home of my brother, John, and his family—the fifth generation of Henry Yoder’s descendents still living on Bear Creek.
At one time Henry and Sarah’s daughter, Olive, her husband, Ray, and their eight children lived in this home with my great-grandparents. The quarters were cramped and they had built an addition for Henry and Sarah to live in while they were there. My great-grandfather never was a politician. My father, Charles Kessler, describes him as having been a quiet and stern man. He and Sarah lived out the later part of their lives with their daughter, Mary, and her family in a home that had been converted from an old school house in LaGrange--a community 14 miles from their stucco home on Bear Creek.
Even though some of the history of Oscar Yoder’s family is set in the same region as that of my family, it is not our history. Consequently, the values represented by the Yoder Memorial House collection aren’t representative of my own. Yet, the house does rise within me a sense of longing for a better understanding of my own family’s past. Thus, the museum seems to be a venue through which our family’s history may be told. Essentially, however, the Yoder Memorial House memorializes the Phillip Yoder family and one man, Oscar T. Yoder. It does just what it was meant to do—it serves as a monument to the memory of an individual.
The Homesteaders Museum, in the Torrington community, serves as an institution similar to that of the Wyoming Pioneer Memorial Museum. It glorifies the past lives of individuals and individual events of certain groups. Therefore, it can serve as a tool of indoctrination to newcomers to the community, giving them the version of the County’s past in the way that Oscar Yoder’s family would want them to understand it. Therefore, as with any museum seeking to portray the past, it becomes the visitor’s responsibility to ask the questions, what does this mean to me and what has been left out?
I have discussed how the museumizing imagination has manifested itself in two predominantly Euro-American organizations. Following is a discussion of how the museumizing imagination has evolved in the curation of the Arapaho Cultural Museum among the Northern Arapaho people on the Wind River Reservation in the west-central part of Wyoming.
The Arapaho Cultural Museum
The Arapaho Cultural Museum is situated in Ethete, Wyoming, on the eastern slope of the Wind River Mountains. The museum is part of a greater complex known as St. Michael’s Mission. The mission was built, stone-by-stone, by the Episcopal Church and members of the community between 1910 and 1917 to serve the educational needs of the Northern Arapaho people and the church. Our Father’s House, the Episcopal church at St. Michael’s, has functioned as an Episcopal church up to the present. The stone buildings of the mission border a circular courtyard. The structures have housed a variety of enterprises, not all related to the mission of the Episcopal Church.
The Arapaho Cultural Museum’s collection consists of more than 200 objects, acquired during the early history of the mission by a teacher and deaconess to the Episcopal Church, Sister Edith Adams. In 1946 she left this collection to the Episcopal Church in trust for the Northern Arapaho people. The document that transferred ownership of the objects indicated that she intended for the collection to “preserve the cultural beliefs of a beautiful people she had come to love and respect.”
The building that houses the museum is known as St. Martha’s Cottage. Initially the building served as a girls’ dormitory during the time that the Mission operated as a boarding school. It was renovated in 1974 to house the Museum’s collection. Before the Museum was constructed, the objects were kept by members of the Northern Arapaho in their homes. They were later returned to be exhibited at the Mission.
The interior of the museum was designed by Dennis Sun Rhodes, a Northern Arapaho architect. Dennis operates his own architectural firm in Minnesota. His brother, Merle, lives in northern Montana. Although they were both born and raised Ethete, neither brother has lived on the Wind River Reservation for many years.
For reasons uncertain, the museum discontinued its operations three years after its inauguration in 1974. It was opened from time to time for visitors to the mission who asked to see the artifacts and to show visiting dignitaries. At some point in the late 1980s or early 1990s, St. Michael’s Bishop Committee decided to reorganize the Arapaho Cultural Museum. They decided to enlist the help of an individual with experience in museums and administration to create and implement a plan for the museum. In 1992, I was invited by the Bishop’s Committee to come to work at St. Michael’s. In August1992, I sold my home of ten years in Laramie and moved to Ethete to work on the museum full time as a volunteer. I lived at the mission in the vicarage next to Our Father’s House.
It took a while to figure out what my place in the community would be. Like all relationships, mine to the people that I worked and lived with, was complex. In the community I had friends and was welcomed as family member in many homes. I attended celebrations, wakes, ceremonies, and funerals. In light of the warmth of the People toward me as an individual and their acceptance of me as a non-Indian, professional working with the Adams collection, I lived a quiet and comfortable life there. But there were matters that I did not question or discuss, and conversely, that were not discussed or shared with me. Therefore, there are issues that are addressed in this essay that I will touch on, but I do not feel that I understand well enough to discuss. My purpose for being there, as I understood it to be, was to “restore life” to the museum. This may sound vague and open-ended to a non-Indian. In fact, the entire process was vague and open-ended, but for me it was exactly the type of challenge that I loved.
The priest at that time was Father Richard Mendez. He and his wife, Jo, lived at the Episcopal vicarage in Fort Washakie. Father Mendez is of Shoshone and Hispanic descent. He was a tattooed, braided, bearded, ball of energy with a bib heart and a warm smile. Father Mendez had been a medic during the Vietnam War and was equal to any challenge. He was priest, janitor, counselor, maintenance man, and friend. During the two years that I was there, he helped move whatever barriers he could in order that I could successfully complete my commission.
On May 29, 1993, the community celebrated a Grand re-Opening of the Arapaho Cultural Museum—ten months after my arrival. During the two years I worked there, we not only reopened the museum, but we staffed it with elders supported by the Green Thumb Program, opened a public community library, and started up a recreation center for local young people. We sponsored craft fairs, developed internships, provided training in museum studies, and entered into collaborations with local and regional organizations and agencies, including the Wind River Extension Office at Fort Washakie and the Snake River Institute in Jackson. We were involved in projects of parenting and nutrition, youth task forces, teen pregnancy, language and culture, transportation, art institutes, alcohol and drug rehabilitation, and master gardening. We were part of a project to start a radio station. Somehow, all of these projects were related to the function of the museum in the community.
Instead of a purely historical or cultural institution that was devoted to the collection, preservation, and interpretation of artifacts associated with the Northern Arapaho people, the museum became a venue through which individuals, groups, and organizations could rally together to support various interests. The Arapaho Cultural Museum became a multi-functional and multi-factional organic entity that took on social, cultural, political, spiritual, and economic issues.
I do not use the term “entity” loosely. It is an accurate word that describes the relationship of the museum’s collection to the People. In November of 1993 the newly formed Arapaho Cultural Museum board described the museum’s mission as follows:
The Arapaho Cultural Museum’s mission is to provide for the preservation of the Northern Arapaho cultural heritage through the collection, preservation, and exhibition of artifacts, photographs, and manuscripts. The collection’s total parts are of historical and contemporary value. In addition to the aforementioned, and as an integral part of it, the Museum will also provide for the erection, acquisition, and maintenance of structures as well as for the programming needed for the gathering, preparation, exhibition, and display of existing and future collections. The Museum intends to continue to operate in a manner that will support the perpetuation of the traditions and language of the Northern Arapaho People and declare that the Arapaho Cultural Museum is a “living museum,” its collection will be maintained with dignity and respect (emphasis added).
Soon after I arrived at St. Michael’s in the fall of 1992, the museum was given a blessing and purified to honor the spirits that reside in the objects and to put everything in order for the upcoming renovation. This ritual was also performed at the vicarage where I lived.
The concept of a living entity is reflected in the daily and non-secular lives of the Northern Arapaho and in the events and activities associated with it. Since my arrival, I have witnessed, on more than one occasion, the power of these objects to transform an individual.
One such noteworthy event occurred recently. I was preparing to transport five of the bonnets in the Adams collection to a conservator in Boulder. A ceremony was performed that was intended to prepare the bonnets to travel. A young man who was assisting in this observance had endured, in the last year, the hardship and pain that can come from making errant decisions in his journey from adolescence into adulthood. He is a loving and kind person who is deeply devoted to his family, his community, and his heritage and he is also full of humor and life. As we prepared to honor and bless the bonnets, my young friend became filled with the spirit of someone who is in the presence of another being that they honor and respect. He was wholly focused on the task of honoring and caring for the bonnets. Throughout the ritual of this event he acted in a state of grace. This is one example of how the objects become manifested as living members of the community.
To the Northern Arapaho people, the objects housed in the museum are not merely representative of a long-gone past, but rather, are part of each individual and, collectively, of the community. Each object lives its life alongside the People–day-in and day-out. These objects are their grandmothers and grandfathers–living, breathing entities. They are part of the mundane, but also of the spiritual life of the People. Each object holds in its being an essence that is integral to the beliefs that form the foundation on which the Northern Arapaho community is built. More specifically, each serves as a visual, as well as spiritual, indicator of the place (literally and figuratively) where the People should be at any moment in their lives.
The symbolism that is woven into the life of these objects has the power to influence and bring a community together. Perhaps my secular view of the Adams collection makes it seem even more extraordinary to me than to the People, in that the power of objects to heal has always been commonplace in their culture. To the Northern Arapaho people the power and life inherent in their cultural heritage is without boundaries. It sometimes can take the form of objects that live among them, literally; the collection had been housed with individual families prior to the time the museum was constructed. These objects are literally members of the Northern Arapaho community and their essence is vital to the existence of the People. And, just as the ancestors of the Northern Arapaho had been brought together to live in this place as a community, the objects had also been gathered together in one place, with the consent and under the care and watchful eye of their own people.
This folk curation evolved in this relationship. The policies and procedures that have been established for the perpetual care of the collection have grown out of the public they serve. A Euro-American approach to curation dictates to the public a pre-established set of rules and procedures for the care and exhibit of their collections—in many cases “a look, but don’t touch” edict that canonizes objects and removes them from the common sphere of life. But the collection at the Arapaho Cultural Museum is an adjunct of the community. Even though it has been housed behind glass during part of its history as a collection, it continues to be accessible to the People. Consequently, in assuming the role as director of the Arapaho Cultural Museum I had assumed the role of guardian of objects that embody the spirits of the People’s ancestors and transcend any understanding that I may have had of curation of a collection. It is probably rare that a museum would presume to represent its collection or the community on such a level in a non-Indian community.
The museum is divided into two parts. Four cases were built on the eastern side of the building to house the collection. A photography gallery was added in 1993, located in the western half of the building. The gallery includes photographs of elders that were donated to the museum by photographer Sara Wiles.
At the museum entrance is a wall--or rather “the wall” as the museum staff and I referred to it. We had named it “the wall” in 1993 while we struggled to define its purpose and to establish who our audience was. The wall is a physical barrier between the entrance to the museum and the two galleries. It is about four feet from the entrance and it divides the entrance of the museum from the collection.. Originally a large painting by Merle Sun Rhodes hung on the wall. Later, photographs, a map, and a narrative of the history of the Northern Arapaho people were exhibited there.
The wall was the first thing that a visitor to the Museum would see when they entered and it causes visitors to the Museum to stop and contemplate what they are about to see and learn. Navigating the wall could even be viewed by some as a right-of-passage. It is actually a magnificent device, however unintended the original purpose was. Despite the wall’s built-in value as a fortification to the collection the Board and I had decided to adapt the wall in a manner that would appeal more to a non-Indian audience. Therefore, we turned our attention on what to do with the Merle Sun Rhodes painting.
The painting is striking to the senses, with bright shades of reds, yellows, and oranges–all colors that bear some significance to the Northern Arapaho culture. There is an impression of figures in the painting that appear to be Indian. However, for a non-Indian visitor to the museum the painting could act as an assault on the senses. Perhaps the artist intended the painting to have this effect, but it worked against the objective of the Museum at that time. We were hoping to attract outside supporters and investors to assist in the creation of a more Euro-American-type of facility—as an institution that would be familiar to and comfortable for non-Indians. Ultimately, we hoped to create a healthier environment for the collection through that outside support. The painting, consequently, was moved to stand against a wall on the side of the Museum that houses the Adams collection.
In its place, on the wall, we designed a project to interpret the history of how the Northern Arapaho came to be on the Wind River Reservation. We began with the Sand Creek Massacre in Colorado. Biographical material about three of the chiefs of the Northern Arapaho, Yellow Calf, Black Coal, and Sharp Nose, was also included on the wall. This project was a manifestation of traditional non-Indian beliefs about how a museum should work.
In order to accomplish the effect we were hoping for, we removed the “Indian-ness” from the entrance of the museum and replaced it with material presented from a Euro-American point of view. It was all in an effort to lure the non-Indian visitor into the gallery. Our choices were not the ideal solution for explaining Indian issues and appealing to a predominantly non-Indian audience. In retrospect, it was a poor method, and yet, ten years later, the non-Indian presentation is still in place on the wall. In spite of the wall, as the museum continues to serve to the needs of the community, the project has failed to encourage the type of non-Indian involvement that initially had been envisioned.
During this time Elders and other members of the community worked with me to restore the museum as a public venue. One was Robert Sun Rhodes, the father of Dennis and Merle Sun Rhodes. Robert had lived just outside Ethete his entire life. He remained involved in the community and in the traditions of his people until his death in 1997. He was instrumental in bolstering support for the reopening of the Arapaho Cultural Museum in the early 1990s as he most certainly was when the museum was first opened in 1974. Might he have been one of the keepers of Sister Adam’s collection during the 21 years that it resided in the homes of families in Ethete? We never discussed it.
While I was at St. Michael’s, Robert worked with the other Elders of the community to identify and catalog the collection. The Elders would come and go with the natural rhythm of the day. They spoke mostly in Arapaho. As they worked amidst the collections, they shared laughter and memories. The saddest or most bitter recollection would be closely followed by a comment that would act to direct their attention to the irony of a situation and the laughter would ring from the museum and across the circle.
I spent hours with my quiet, kind, and gentle friend, Robert. We shared biscuits, gravy, and coffee as I listened to his stories. His eyes were bright and lively, his smile broad and warm, and laughter always came quickly to him despite years of hard work, disappointments, and sorrows. Robert loved to just sit in the Museum when I worked there. We never shared much in the way of conversation. And during these times the man and the objects kept easy company with each other. This is the manner in which the entire community has kept company with these objects since 1946 when they officially became a collection in a document passed on to a Christian, Euro-American institution.
During the two years that I lived at Ethete, the museum grew and expanded in its services to the community. Why, after fifteen years of tranquil repose, had the Northern Arapaho people chosen a non-Indian to revive the museum as an institution? Why hadn’t the museum been able to keep its doors open as a historical and cultural organization?
Demands of managing the entity that is the Arapaho Cultural Museum are overwhelming. The curator, in essence, cares for a living, breathing collection of objects around which a diverse array of projects and activities had arisen. To accomplish the task, one needs the complete support of each individual who lives there.
In a non-Indian community, a museum would be supported by a board and/or an association and/or a membership pool. Any of the groups alone or in combination would act to rally support for their museum in the community—many of them may act as benefactors or patrons. Consequently, regardless of the size of the facility, the determination of the supporting group or groups would work in concert to assure the museum’s continued operation and service to whatever community it was imagined to serve.
The community that supported the Museum at Ethete did not function in the same manner. Rather, they lent me their collective support in a manner unfamiliar to the non-Indian. They listened, shared stories, and nodded their heads in approval if they agreed. If in opposition, they would remain silent, allowing me an opportunity to reflect on whatever the point of contention may have been. Each person I sought advice from would then stand ready to discuss a resolution of the situation afterward. Fundraising, public relations, and promotions were not of interest to the People. To them, it was of no importance to perform these activities on behalf of the museum. It did not make sense in that the collection as a whole was a member of the community and their families. As such, it would not be appropriate to exploit the collection in this manner. Since I was not a member of the collection’s community, my efforts to promote the museum to outsiders was acceptable as long as it was under the watchful eye of the family.
Euro-American museums, if not government-funded, often rely on wealthy patrons to keep operating. The members of the Northern Arapaho community are not, for the most part, what non-Indians would consider financially affluent. Honor and respect are valued differently among the People. Individuals are valued for their loyalty and service to their People, their traditions, culture, and ancestors. This fact alone excludes them from acting as patrons or benefactors in the way that the Euro-American community would understand. In short, the Northern Arapaho people are similar to the collection I cared for—quiet and unassuming.
I have found nothing in my life experience that I can draw on to understand how the museum’s collection functions in the Northern Arapaho community and I have chosen not to dwell upon it…. Perhaps even my friend, Robert Sun Rhodes, could not have verbalized what it means to his people—rather its value lies in its existence alone.
Recently, I was asked to return to clean dead bugs out of the collection, I felt compelled to return. There had been some water damage to part of the building and subsequent to this event the museum was plagued by Japanese beetles. Two years after the beetles were first discovered, a sample of the insect was taken to the extension agent at Fort Washakie. The agent counseled the mission to fumigate the museum to rid it of this pest.
The beetle had penetrated the four exhibit cases that housed the Adams collection. The objects were in danger of being permanently damaged and lost. After the museum had been treated, dead Japanese beetles were layered in the window sills and on the floors one to two inches deep. A resident at the mission had gone in with an industrial strength vacuum cleaner and cleaned up the beetles as best she could. I learned of it only after Velma Rhodes, a quiet, unassuming woman, and my son’s godmother, mentioned, in passing that the museum needed some attention.
I left Laramie with our seven-year old son, Caleb, at 5 a.m. on Saturday, June 15, 2002. We drove directly to Ethete–about a four-hour drive. I found the current Episcopal priest, Father Eagle Bull, at Our Father’s House.
Father Eagle Bull, who had been at St. Michael’s for three years, held the keys to the museum, but he only had the responsibility because the building is part of the mission complex over which he had charge. His primary responsibility was for the spiritual well-being of his community at and around St. Michael’s, although he did honor the spirit of the collection and the traditions and beliefs of the Northern Arapaho people.
On the day that we arrived, he was visiting with a member of a white Episcopal youth group from northern Colorado. The mission sponsors Episcopal groups from across the United States each summer. On this day there were three groups at the mission, the Colorado group, one from Kansas, and another from Missouri. Father Eagle Bull introduced me to Mary, the Colorado group leader and also their priest. The other two groups seemed disinterested in what we were doing. We walked across the Circle to the museum and Father Eagle Bull escorted us inside the museum.
I was overpowered by the stench from the fumigant. Clearly, we needed to begin cleaning the collection immediately. The ten young men and women of the group, volunteered to help and by that afternoon, we had cleaned the remaining dead carcasses of the Japanese beetles from the cases. Sara Wiles came out to Ethete from Lander that day to inspect and clean her photographs. The damage to the photographs was nominal and she took a couple home with her to attend to more thoroughly and returned them a few days later.
During cleaning, I discovered remnants of feathers on the floor of one of the cases. This indicated to me that the Eagle feather bonnets were under attack and needed immediate attention. Two days later, we sent four Eagle feather bonnets and a hawk feather headdress to Boulder, Colorado, to a conservation lab to be treated for carpet beetles–an insect that feeds on the carcasses of other insects and on organic materials. Prayers were offered for the safe return of these grandfathers to the place where they are kept as reminders of the inheritance of the Northern Arapaho people and of their right to exist and believe in a manner that is appropriate for them. In Boulder the bonnets were frozen to kill the carpet beetles and then cleaned to prevent a reinfestation.
Soon, the objects were back and, once again, a focal point of the community. Over the years the bonnets and the other items in the collection have served as a visual reminder of who the People are, where they have come from, and of what the possibilities are.
Recently my friend, Paul Revere, a Northern Arapaho and an uncle to our son, told me that his grandfather had told him that someday he would be rich–not in the sense of having a lot of money–but in family, friends, and community. Today, Paul is a very rich man and he considers these bonnets and the rest of the collection to be a part of that wealth shared by the entire community.
The objects in this collection do not presume to stand in the stead of the People’s history in an effort to remind them that they were once a great and glorious people–they are a great and glorious people. Although, in non-Indian terms, the collection is priceless, its value to the People is not measured in the same way that it would be in a non-Indian community. The collection is not used to legitimate the political power of a particular group or individual. The clue to its importance to the community may be found in the fact that it exists as a collection at all.
Before each item had been acquired by Sister Adams, it had resided in the home of its owner or family. Each object had been gathered together in the early 1900s as part of a community in the care of the Deaconess. At the time she passed guardianship of the collection to the Episcopal Church on behalf of the People, the objects returned home for a period of almost 31 years. At the end of this time they were reunited as a single organic community.
To members of Euro-American communities, the intrinsic spiritual value of a collection is seldom a focal point. Rather, the focus is primarily on celebrating the past rather than valuing it as an organic part of their society. However, in the Northern Arapaho community, the spiritual value of the museum’s collection is the focal point–it is no more and it is no less–it just is. The collection at the Arapaho Cultural Museum is a reflection of the People themselves–it is not proud nor does it presume to be something it is not. It is a collection of living objects. It has done so for over fifty-five years and we have no way of knowing how long individual objects of the collection have played that role prior to the Arapaho Cultural Museum, and Sister Adams, and the Episcopal missionaries, and me.
The museum is not like the two institutions I discussed previously. The objects of the Arapaho Cultural Museum are not memorialized—they are still living. They are not icons of the past, but more accurately are active members of their community and, as such, share in the humanity and day-to-day lives of their people.
However, these objects are sacred—but not in the same manner as objects in a Euro-American museum can become sacred in their transformation from a common object to one that has become a symbol of a glorified past. The objects in the Adams collection are honored for what they are—valued living beings that represent the life of the People. They are sacred in the same manner that all life should be considered sacred.
The Wyoming Pioneer Memorial Museum and the Yoder House at the Homesteaders Museum stand as repositories of their communities’ local and regional history. The Arapaho Cultural Museum is not a repository of the People’s history; it houses members of the Northern Arapaho tribe. Although it does serve in that capacity to the non-Indian observer, it is simply what it is to the People. This may be evidenced in the positioning of the Sun Rhodes painting.
Initially, when the painting was hung in the entrance into the museum—a place where people would visually fall into it as they walked through the door. The painting spoke in a way that gave the impression of “here is this place.” This is an interpretation that would support the value that the Northern Arapaho hold for the Adams collection. When “the wall” replaced the painting, a new message was encountered at the entrance to the museum of “this is how the Northern Arapaho came to this place”—a traditional non-Indian approach to the introduction of a history museum. However, as a visitor navigates “the wall” to tour the gallery, they will once again be faced with the truth of “here is this place” in the midst of the Adams collection and the Sun Rhodes painting.
It does not function to remind the native population of its glorious, but lost past, as Anderson suggests it may. It does not serve as a monument to inspire a nationalist uprising against the colonizing state. And, it certainly does not serve to validate the Northern Arapaho people’s right to exist or their claim to their current territory. The Arapaho Cultural Museum stands in opposition to everything the non-Indian community has come to understand about the museumizing imagination and the ways in which it is expected to manifest itself. Each act on behalf of the museum by the Northern Arapaho people speaks of a care and understanding of the collection that was not discussed in Anderson and is rarely evident in non-Indian facilities. In the midst of the Adams collection blessings are given, people are transformed, and company is kept. Nothing more.
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Peg Layton Leonard, Wyoming Pioneer Association 1925-1975: An historical account of the Association’s founding and its activities through the years, (Douglas, Wyoming, 28 August 1975), n.p.
“Wyoming Pioneer Memorial Museum” brochure produced in cooperation with the Converse County Tourism Promotion Board and The Wyoming Pioneer Association.
Ibid., n.p. Pomp and circumstance play an important role in launching any providential event. The opening of a new exhibit is generally ushered in with a reception similar to the one described above. But, it is the striking resemblance of the Association’s annual meeting proceedings to those of other “special” events that feature the presence of a dignitary and “special musical numbers” that inspired me to believe that the traditions that have been passed down from association to museum are also another example of how prevailing values are passed along from one privileged group to a community.
Personal correspondence from Arlene Ekland <email@example.com>, Thursday, June 27, 2002.
“Wyoming Pioneer Museum Brochure,” n.p.
Ibid., n.p. For an example of how Native Americans may interpret their own history and material culture, see the section below on the Arapaho Cultural Museum.
 The Ft. Laramie Treaty of 1851 reduced the Sioux people’s territory in
Wyoming to that area north of the Platte River with their western border extending to the Red Buttes (west of present day Casper) and then diagonally to just west of the Black Hills. Although they continued to hunt beyond the borders of their Dakota reservation, their claim to Wyoming territory had finally been severed with the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868.
“Union Pacific Donates Depot”, (Torrington Telegram, no. 89, 3 June 1974), n.p.
Museum, from http://www.city-of-torrington.org/museum.htm, accessed10 October 2001.
This objective was later expanded to include WWII and post-WWII events and history.
This would include those policies and procedures adopted and approved by the American Association of Museum as well as the American Association of State & Local History.
From the minutes of a “Special Meeting of Museum Committee–19 Nov. 1974,” 1.
Trails, Rails, and Trevails, ed. Elizabeth Wilkinson Johnson, (Frontier Printing, Inc.: Cheyenne, 1988), 213.
“Yoder Home, Again,” Casper Star Tribune, (Saturday, 7 July 2001), B1.
From the transcript of tape OH-396B, Side #1, Oscar Yoder, Wyoming State Archives, 4.
“Torrington Telegram Online,” at http://www.zwire.com/news/newsstory.cfm? newsid=2036699&PAG=461, accessed on 10/29/2001.
From notes contributed by Larry Armstrong, fall 2001, p. 1.
From notes contributed by Larry Armstrong, fall 2001, p. 5.
From Saint Michael’s Mission to the Northern Arapaho: The Walking Tour, A brochure compiled for Saint Michael’s Mission by the Wyoming Episcopal Diocese, Laramie, Wyoming, 2002.
From Arapaho Cultural Museum, A brochure compiled for Saint Michael’s Mission by the Wyoming Episcopal Diocese, Laramie, Wyoming, 2002.
Arapaho Cultural Museum “Mission Statement,” From the private papers of Patricia Ann Kessler, Laramie, Wyoming, 1993.