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Humanities Project to Highlight Wyoming Tribes’ Connections with Elk

August 8, 2017
elk clashing with antlers
Bull elk spar on the National Elk Refuge near Jackson. A project to explore and highlight the relationships of the tribes of Wyoming’s Wind River Indian Reservation with the iconic big-game species will begin in 2018, involving the University of Wyoming and other partners. (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Photo)

A project to explore and highlight the relationships of the tribes of Wyoming’s Wind River Indian Reservation with an iconic big-game species will begin in 2018, as a result of a $150,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) to the University of Wyoming.

The multiyear project, titled “Understanding and Communicating the Role of Elk on the Wind River Indian Reservation,” is one of 245 humanities projects nationwide selected by NEH to receive a total of $39.3 million in grants announced last week.

Private fundraising is underway for UW to match the $150,000 NEH “Creating Humanities Communities” grant. The project involves five partners, including UW’s High Plains American Indian Research Institute (HPAIRI), the Wind River Native Advocacy Center (WRNAC), the Wyoming Humanities Council (WHC), and Fremont County School Districts 14 (Wyoming Indian) and 21 (Fort Washakie).

“This award is something we are very grateful for and excited about,” says James Trosper, the new director of HPAIRI. “This is a unique opportunity to capture and communicate the stories, legends and beliefs of the people of Wind River in regard to elk, and it’s a great way to tie the humanities with science.”

The grant and matching dollars will fund research and educational programs to discover, understand and communicate the ways in which Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapaho tribes -- which share the 2.2 million-acre Wind River reservation -- have known and celebrated the natural world through stories, songs and traditions.

Both tribes have long-standing relationships with elk, a key game animal that has played a role in tribal culture and lifestyle -- a strong tradition that continues today as represented in songs, stories and visual artistic expression. One of the objectives of the project is to capture oral histories, tribal stories, songs, chants, prayers, tribal language vocabulary and unpublished documents to create an “elk cultural collection,” an effort to be led by Jason Baldes, an enrolled Eastern Shoshone who heads WRNAC.

“By strengthening knowledge of tribal histories, cultures, contemporary hunting and resource management practices, and tribal languages for the Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapaho people, this project will enhance tribal citizens’ capacity to steward and assert their tribal sovereignty,” Baldes says. “And, it will help assure that the elk’s many roles in tribal life and culture will not be lost.”

This cultural collection will be used to create a K-12 curriculum with the advice and guidance of tribal members, including elders. That curriculum will be deployed in the third year of the project in the Wyoming Indian and Fort Washakie schools -- and shared by WHC in a statewide tour that also will feature a video and other printed materials developed during the project.

“Too many of our state’s residents know little to nothing about the Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapaho people,” WHC Director Shannon Smith says. “It is time to bring their stories into the mainstream of our educational system, and I’m delighted that this project can take steps to rectify that situation.”

The project also will involve public gatherings on the reservation; a website and social media campaign to communicate elk cultural information within tribal communities and beyond; an internship program; and a professional development workshop for UW, community college and Wind River Tribal College faculty and students.

The new grant will support the humanities elements of a larger research effort on the science and culture of elk migrations on the reservation, which includes wildlife researchers from the UW-based Wyoming Migration Initiative and the tribal wildlife management agency working collaboratively to map the migratory corridors of elk and mule deer on the reservation. The collaring work will begin this winter.

The grant request was a team effort coordinated by Judy Antell, HPAIRI’s founding director, who was succeeded by Trosper upon the completion of her tenure July 1.

“Using the tribes’ relationships with elk as the focal point, important classroom and community discussions rooted in humanities-based inquiry will occur,” Antell says. “Tribal partners will play a lead role in acquiring existing knowledge about the cultural and historical dimensions of elk -- and designing ways to incorporate that information into schools and communities on the reservation. These activities will build community and enhance the role of humanities in tribal life.”

Any group or individual interested in contributing toward the grant match is asked to contact Katrina McGee, the UW Foundation’s director of foundation development, at or (307) 766-4266.

About the partners

The High Plains American Indian Research Institute was formed to facilitate research relationships between UW researchers and tribal communities -- relationships that support and sustain tribal sovereignty and have long-term, positive results for Native peoples.

The National Endowment for the Humanities is an independent, grant-making agency of the United States government dedicated to supporting research, education, preservation and public programs in the humanities. Wyoming Humanities is an independent, nonprofit organization and the state’s affiliate of the NEH and, for over 45 years, has served the cultural organizations of the state from its offices on the UW campus.

The Wind River Native Advocacy Center is a nonprofit organization that works to empower Native Americans in Wyoming for a stronger voice through community organizing, education, research, legal advocacy and leadership development.

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