Five years ago, when the Wind River Reservation casino opened in Riverton, Wyoming, the attached Northern Arapaho and Eastern Shoshone tribal museum stood closed, its glass display shelves empty. As the tribes (which share the reservation) had recently learned, many of their historical ceremonial items — everything from beaded moccasins to painted hides to sinew quivers — were owned by a nearby Episcopalian diocese and the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago.
“It was baffling to me that there weren’t a lot of artifacts on the reservation,” says Northern Arapaho/ Eastern Shoshone tribal member Jordan Dresser. “As Native people, we always have to negotiate, we always have to compromise, we always to have to ask permission. A lot of individuals within Wyoming have an idea that Native people can’t do things on their own. They can’t take care of ... their own artifacts, their own money, their own language, their own education. ... It gets old.”
Dresser’s comments about outsider ownership of tribal cultural items come from What Was Ours, a newly released independent documentary that screens at 7 p.m. on Tuesday, Aug. 16, as part of the Native Cinema Showcase of the Santa Fe Indian Market.
When the film opens, Dresser, who was raised on the Wind River reservation, has recently returned from studying journalism in college to take a job leading the tribe’s operation to recover its cultural objects for its casino museum. He is one of three Wind River Reservation members profiled in the film — Mikala Sun Rhodes, a teenage Arapaho powwow princess, and Philbert McLeod, an Eastern Shoshone Vietnam veteran and tribal elder, are the other two. Their three distinct points of view offer an inside look at how the two tribes attempt to answer a question posed early in the film: “How can we reclaim our past when we don’t own it anymore?”
Director Mat Hames found his subject five years ago, when he was hired to film and photograph the remaining cultural items for the tribes’ online virtual museum. “Together,” Hames told Pasatiempo, “we learned there were thousands of items that were theirs scattered across the world. I got upset. I couldn’t believe it.” Recognizing that there was a larger story here, the Austin-based Hames returned to Wind River in 2011 with his camera and microphone booms. Over the next four years, Hames would come back to the reservation 13 times, following his three subjects as they gradually learned how their sacred religious objects came into the possession of outsiders.
In What Was Ours, the three tribal members make their case to leaders of an Episcopalian diocese some 150 miles away in Cody, Wyoming. The church is deeply skeptical of lending the items to a museum housed at a casino, even the Wind River Hotel and Casino, where tribal policy forbids alcohol sales. But the church leaders are also forthcoming about the legitimate — but heartbreaking — way they came to own these items. In the early 20th century, a well-loved deacon served at the Wind River Reservation, leading services and bartering basic foodstuffs to hungry, cash-poor tribal members who traded in many of their families’ cultural objects — a collection the deacon deeded to the diocese in her will. “In a way, I’m grateful for her to do that. Without her, who knows where they could have ended up?” Dresser says in the film.
Later in the film, when a small tribal delegation flies to Chicago to meet with curators at the Field Museum of Natural History, their reception is far more clinical. An emeritus curator explains how, in the late 19th century, anthropologists and antiquities traders, believing Native Americans to be a dying race, swooped in to acquire as many tribal material-culture items as they could. At the Field Museum, the camera pans across hundreds of the two tribes’ ancestral objects, all pristinely preserved in sliding metal drawers in temperature-controlled facilities, untouched and unseen for decades. To handle the objects made by their ancestors, the tribal delegation must snap on latex gloves: The artifacts were once coated with arsenic-based pesticides, the literal residue of an era when archaeologists could only conceive of these items being touched by devouring insects, not the feeling hands of humans descended from those who made the objects.
“I knew that during the trip home, we weren’t going to return home with the artifacts. They wanted us to see them, provide a certain context for them, but they own them,” Dresser says on leaving the museum. “It was a sad thought. We went there to go view pieces of ourself, but we had to leave them there.” After a meeting spent discussing the items with an anthropologist, one tribal elder jokes, “I would only tell him a little about the objects. If I told him more, he would write a book about it and make money off it.”
It’s this human connection to ancestral tribal objects that separates What Was Ours from the myriad other books and films on the subject. For example, to explain the value of a beaded medallion given him by his mother, tribal elder McLeod shows Super-8 footage of his tour of duty in Vietnam, where he was a helicopter gunner who survived three crash landings under fire. He attributes his survival to the medallion. “As long as the Creator is involved with it, it has power,” McLeod says in the film.
Over the four-year span of filming, the diocese slowly warms to the tribe’s request to display the church-owned Northern Arapaho and Eastern Shoshone artifacts. But tribal members reconcile themselves to the fact that the Field Museum will, for the foreseeable future, neither loan nor return their patrimonial items — so they focus on doing what can be done. Mikala begins beading her own medallions, one of which she gives to Dresser, who in turn is also doing what is possible: heading off to a fully funded master’s program in museum studies, while landing a Native American fellowship at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts. His goal isn’t to climb the heights of the museum world but rather to return home with a set of skills that will enable him to professionally care for and curate ancestral artifacts.
“What Was Ours is not necessarily a story about people who get all their items back. It’s not just about physically reclaiming those items,” said Hames. “A lot of the film is also about teaching younger people how to create these items, how to have a connection to them. It’s a counterpoint to the idea that Native Americans only exist in the past. The culture is very much alive, and it is going to be passed on.”
Documentary, 75 minutes, not rated, in English, Shoshone, and Arapaho, 3 chiles. Mat Hames (producer/director), Jordan Dresser (Northern Arapaho/Eastern Shoshone, co-producer), and Beth Hames (executive producer) will be present at the screening. See full schedule.