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Celebrating Elk

September 5, 2019
very old photo of a Native American man and young girl in front of a teepee
In this photo of Chief Washakie, his granddaughter is wearing an elk tooth dress. Photo credit: Baker and Johnson Studio Collection, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming

By Micaela Myers

The Northern Arapaho and Eastern Shoshone have a long-standing relationship with elk, which are important tribal ancestors with spiritual, economic, political, social, linguistic and artistic dimensions.

“We see beautiful paintings that documented history on elk hide—also instruments made from elk, saddles and bags made from horns, and elk teeth dresses,” says James Trosper, director of UW’s High Plains American Indian Research Institute (HPAIRI). He also notes that elk appear in stories, songs, ceremonies and religion.

“Understanding and Communicating the Role of Elk on the Wind River Indian Reservation,” also known as the UCR Elk Project, is a National Endowment for the Humanities-funded matching grant—a collaboration among HPAIRI, Fremont County School Districts 14 and 21, and the Wyoming Humanities Council. It includes documenting the significance of elk to the tribes, gathering related images and creating a K–12 curriculum. This cultural research will incorporate biological information collected by a separate migration study conducted by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Wyoming Migration Initiative at UW, in close collaboration with Shoshone and Arapaho Tribal Fish and Game. The data will be used to better understand seasonal ranges and migration corridors. The Nature Conservancy of Wyoming is collaborating on the effort to map migration corridors.

Integrating humanities and biological science research on the significance of elk and their migration on the reservation will provide students and tribal communities with a broad, integrative and innovative educational experience.

In 2017, then Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead signed the Indian Education for All legislation, which aims to educate all Wyoming children about Native American tribes of the region, including the Northern Arapaho and Eastern Shoshone.

“What that has done is required all schools to teach our history,” Trosper says. “A piece of this grant is to develop curriculum. It can be utilized by all school districts throughout the state to help students understand our tribes and our connection to elk. Elk are something we all have in common. People can understand how important they are to our culture and who we are today.”

Elementary education Professor Emeritus Tim Rush was recently hired as the director of the UCR Elk Project. He brings with him a wealth of experience working in curriculum and in partnership with the tribes.

“The curriculum is important for our young people,” Trosper says. “There are so many ways elk has influenced our way of life and culture. If we can document those things, that knowledge and wisdom will be preserved.”

UW Libraries is another partner on the project, working with HPAIRI to bring the images gathered into virtual reality so students can view and interact with them in 3D.

“To see things in virtual reality is a lot more exciting to students than just looking at a book and seeing it two-dimensional,” Trosper says.

They hope to expand the work beyond the initial three-year grant.

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