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Chief Black Coal’s Headdress Returns Home

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Courtney Pierce

Center for Art Collection Ethics Graduate Assistant

Elizabeth Campbell

Director of the Center for Art Collection Ethics

Blog  •

In early December 2019, the Northern Arapaho Tribal Historic Preservation Office received a phone call from Temple Smith, a retired professor in Marblehead, Massachusetts. Smith wanted to discuss an item that had been in his family’s possession for more than one hundred years: the headdress of Chief Black Coal, an important Northern Arapaho leader from the late 19th century, who played a key role securing territory for the tribe in Wyoming. According to Smith, Chief Black Coal had given the headdress directly to his great-grandfather, a dentist based in Buffalo, Wyoming who provided dental care to tribal members, including the chief, in Wind River country. Smith believed it belonged back with the Northern Arapaho.

Northern Arapaho Chief Black Coal. Image retrieved from
Northern Arapaho Chief Black Coal. Image
retrieved from

Following the phone call, a group of cultural specialists and tribal members traveled to Massachusetts to recover the headdress. Among them was Jordan Dresser, collections manager in the Tribal Historic Preservation Office of the Wind River Reservation. For the tribe, this recovery has profound meaning, far beyond the repatriation of a mere object. As Dresser put it, Chief Black Coal himself was returning to his people “to remind us of what a leader is.”

The chief’s headdress will be welcomed back to the Wind River Reservation on February 1st, with a community gathering and cedaring ceremony hosted by the Historic Preservation Office. 

Read more about this story and the tribe’s other repatriation efforts here.