Nov. 16, 2017 • by Sue Postema Scheeres
Rocky Mountain National Park may be getting a historical makeover, one that will deepen and expand the way park rangers and interpretative exhibits share information about Native Americans who have connections to the region.
This fall in Estes Park, CU Boulder faculty and students from the Center of the American West (CAW) and the Center for Native American Indigenous Studies (CNAIS) met with park officials and tribal representatives to develop a plan for how to better represent indigenous histories and ongoing tribal relationships to the land that is now Rocky Mountain National Park.
Brooke Neely, research fellow at CAW, said the workshop offered a crucial opportunity to discover what information tribal representatives would like to share with park visitors. In 2016, 4.5 million people visited the park.
“It was encouraging to hear such open and honest dialogue about how the exhibits can be updated to more accurately represent the rich histories and contemporary experiences of tribal nations at the park,” Neely said.
A CU Boulder Outreach Award, which connects faculty research, teaching and creative work with communities, provided funding for the workshop.
Many tribal nations have deep roots in the region. Tribal participants at the workshop included the Arapaho Tribe of the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming and the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes in Oklahoma. The Ute Indian Tribe of the Uintah and Ouray Reservation in Utah, the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe in Colorado, the Southern Ute Indian Tribe of the Southern Ute Reservation in Colorado, the Northern Cheyenne Tribe of the Northern Cheyenne Indian Reservation in Montana, and the Comanche Nation in Oklahoma were unable to attend; these tribes are currently scheduling meetings with park officials and CU Boulder faculty and students.
Max Bear, director of the Culture and Heritage Program and the Tribal Historic Preservation Office for the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes in Oklahoma, described the discussions as a big step in the right direction.
“We now have open lines of communication and the willingness to make changes on the part of the park service,” said Bear. “We’ll work diligently to help as much as we can and do our part.”
The National Park Service has been consulting with tribal nations across the country to include more comprehensive information about Native Americans in their education exhibits. At Rocky Mountain, park officials are currently revising their comprehensive interpretive plan.
"This workshop provided the right synergy and collaboration between the tribes, CU Boulder and Rocky Mountain National Park to focus on how to convey the park’s tribal histories in a more engaging way,” said Rich Fedorchak, the park’s chief of interpretation and education.
Indigenous peoples’ presence in the region can be traced back thousands of years. Ute, Arapaho, Cheyenne, Comanche and other tribes inhabited and traveled through the mountainous area that is now Rocky Mountain National Park. As U.S. gold prospectors and miners flooded to the territory after 1858, the tribes were forced to negotiate treaties that eventually took away all indigenous claims to the land and relocated the tribes to distant reservations.
Multiple tribes continue to maintain strong connections to this region, even though many of their members live hundreds of miles away.
Devin Oldman, tribal historic preservation officer for the Arapaho Tribe of the Wind River Reservation, said that it is essential for Native Americans to be able to portray their interpretation of the land and their view of history at the park.
“Sharing accurate information with visitors can bring an understanding and respect for each other’s culture, history and way of life,” Oldman said.
CU Boulder’s Center of the American West bridges research on the American West with public concerns and collaborates with nonprofits and governmental organizations, while the Center for Native American and Indigenous Studies works closely with tribes and advances research on issues facing indigenous peoples.
Heading the CU Boulder research team are Neely and CAW faculty director Patty Limerick, along with: CNAIS faculty Clint Carroll, an ethnic studies professor; Angelica Lawson, an ethnic and film studies professor; and Andrew Cowell, a linguistics professor. Other CU Boulder participants include: Thomas Andrews, a history professor; Alessandra Link, a doctoral student in history; Natasha Myhal, a doctoral student in ethnic studies; and Shawntá Jones, an undergraduate sociology major.