Sister Cities Brings Arapaho Youth to Traditional Homelands

Northern Arapaho youth, chaperones and Sister Cities personnel at the Longmont Civic Center.

Northern Arapaho youth, chaperones, Longmont youth and Sister Cities volunteers at the Longmont Civic Center.

“We want your homeland to be your home,” affirmed Mayor Brian Bagley of Longmont, Colorado, speaking to Arapaho high schoolers and their chaperones at First Nations Development Institute (First Nations), which is headquartered in Longmont. The youth were joined by their Longmont youth partners and chaperones, Sister Cities volunteers and First Nations staff members who hosted the group for breakfast on June 14, 2019.

The Arapaho youth and their chaperones, Jana Grey and Grayson Medicine Cloud, were hosted in Longmont as part of the city’s effort to create an official Sister Cities relationship with the Northern Arapaho of the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming.

“It’s great to have you here,” said Raymond Foxworth, First Nations Vice President of Grantmaking, Development and Communications. “Our work here is about making Native communities strong and innovative, and young people are important to that.” In April of this year, First Nations awarded a $90,000 grant to the Northern Arapaho as part of its Native Language Immersion Initiative to support the development of a master-apprentice language program to educate and empower Northern Arapaho tribal members.

First Nations' Raymond Foxworth, left, with Sister Cities volunteer Ray Ramirez during the visit to First Nations.

First Nations’ Raymond Foxworth, left, with Sister Cities volunteer Ray Ramirez during the visit to First Nations.

Jace Buffalo, 15, enthused, “It’s actually pretty great, the things that First Nations talked about – what they are doing for all the tribes. I’m excited about all these people here we’re getting to know. The students from Longmont are pretty awesome to hang out with. At first, I was hesitant – I’m mostly a homebody – this is a kind of new experience for me.”

“This is a great chance for the kids to have this experience,” explained Medicine Cloud, who was chaperoning the youth as part of his position as Northern Arapaho Youth Coordinator. “We worked hard to encourage kids to come. I pitched it to the parents, and they were excited. Their parents want them to do things. The kids liked the idea at first, but then they would get afraid and change their minds.”

“Take Healthy Risks”

“Some of our kids have never even left the reservation,” added Grey, also a chaperone and a youth coordinator for the tribe. “We want to encourage them to take risks – healthy risks – for new experiences that help them grow and learn confidence.”

Longmont has been involved in the Sister Cities International initiative since 1991 and has partnerships with Chino, Japan, and Ciudad Guzman in Mexico. Sister Cities International was the vision of President Dwight Eisenhower, who proposed the program at a White House Conference on Citizen Diplomacy in 1956. Eisenhower believed that forming relationships between peoples of different cultures around the world through building city-to-city partnerships would foster peace and prosperity and help to avert future conflicts. The developing partnership with the Northern Arapaho, when it is finalized, would be the first of its kind: an American city in partnership with a sovereign Native American nation.

The youth listen to a brief presentation at First Nations, along with chaperones Jana Grey at right, and Grayson Medicine Cloud in the back of the room.

The youth listen to a brief presentation at First Nations, along with chaperones Jana Grey in foreground at right, and Grayson Medicine Cloud, wearing a hat in the back.

The seeds for the connection between Longmont and the Northern Arapaho were planted when Mayor Bagley, deeply impacted by a documentary on the Lakota of Pine Ridge Reservation, decided he needed to be responsible to the history that has so severely disadvantaged the Indigenous peoples of the U.S. With help and advice from Carmen Ramirez, Longmont’s Community and Neighborhood Resource Manager, and her husband, Ray Ramirez, a recently retired staff member of the Native American Rights Fund in Boulder, Colorado, Mayor Bagley reached out to Sister Cities volunteer board members and the Northern Arapaho to open a conversation about the possibility of a Sister Cities relationship between the city and the tribe.

In August 2018, a delegation from Longmont traveled to the Wind River Reservation to open a dialogue with the Northern Arapaho. Led by Mayor Bagley, the delegation included Carmen and Ray Ramirez, Janice Rebhan – the Sister Cities board member who manages Longmont’s Sister Cities relationships with Mexico and Japan – and other Sister Cities volunteers and City of Longmont staff members. The Longmont group met with the Arapaho elders, known to the Arapaho as the Four Old Men, and the Tribal Business Council.

The dialogue ranged across topics from the sharing of Arapaho knowledge to expectations of a plan for conserved open space for tribal use in Longmont to ideas for managing efficient electricity and broadband.

A Starting Point

“At this starting point, we discussed beginning with something small scale,” explained Rebhan. “We opened the idea of a getting the youth of the communities together, and that was important to Crawford [White, one of the Four Old Men] – to do something that would make the kids comfortable and to allow them to expand their horizons and know their actual homeland.”

The youth enjoy breakfast burritos and fruit during their visit to First Nations.

The youth and chaperones enjoy breakfast burritos, granola bars and fruit during their visit to First Nations.

Just a few weeks later, in September, the Arapaho Business Council including Chair Lee Spoonhunter and Stephen Fast Horse, along with the rest of the business council and other tribal members, visited Longmont. The group decided to use the Sister Cities template for youth exchanges to organize a visit during which Longmont youth would host Northern Arapaho youth.

Jenny Diaz-Leon, a chaperone for the Longmont youth during the gathering, has been a chaperone for the Longmont Sister Cities youth exchanges to Mexico and Japan. Diaz-Leon emphasized the importance of building youth relationships across cultural lines: “My culture is who I am; I am submerged in my traditions, celebrations and norms. I believe when we come together and honor other people’s cultures, learn about their music, dances, food, ceremonies, we learn so much; we learn more about ourselves and build genuine friendships.”

To prepare for the visit, the Longmont youth and their parents engaged in an experiential exercise on the Doctrine of Discovery with Boulder Friends Meeting, a Quaker group, called “Toward Right Relationship with Native American Peoples.” Jennifer Kamenides, mother to Gwendolyn, one of the Longmont youth participants, said the experience impacted her deeply. “History is not history,” she emphasized, “it’s now. We are living on Arapaho ancestral lands because they were forced away. We have to figure out how to understand and deal with that in a fair way.”

“Need to Keep Learning”

Longmont youth host Estella Percarpio added, “After learning about such a dark and sad history, I thought there would be a lot of heaviness for the weekend. But there isn’t. We’re having fun. We’ll keep getting to know each other, and we need to keep learning.”

“Guilt should never be the base of this relationship,” affirmed Ray Ramirez. “We need these kids, the parents, everyone, to be open to education and for people to be willing to be responsible and take good actions.”

The Arapaho teenagers first met their Longmont youth hosts at dusk in Dawson Park for pizza and cake. Silhouetted by the sunset and reflections off Macintosh Lake, they began to get to know each other. It did not take long for them to share smiles and start their journey toward friendship.

The youth learn about First Nations during their visit to Longmont.

The youth learn about First Nations during their visit to Longmont.

The next two days were filled with events like painting ceramic tiles and skateboard decks, learning about interviewing and storytelling with local radio station KGNU, swimming and game-playing at Longmont’s recreational center, sharing communal meals, and each Arapaho teen sharing supper at the home of their Longmont partner host.

“This has been such a wonderful experience to be a part of,” stated Carmen Ramirez. “We’ve worked in Native communities, and there are always the stereotypes. This generation needs to be proud of who they are, their own cultures, and proud of where they come from. We older folks need to step back and allow them to grow into leaders and to lead.”

Longmont Mayor Brian Bagley, near left in suit, discusses the city's developing relationship with the Northern Arapaho Tribe of the Wind River Reservation.

Longmont Mayor Brian Bagley, near left in suit, discusses the city’s developing relationship with the Northern Arapaho Tribe of the Wind River Reservation.

Final Celebration

On the final night of the youth gathering, the Arapaho visitors, hosts, city officials and allies met at the Longmont Museum and Cultural Center for dinner and a celebration of the gathering. The celebration featured a ceremonial dance and blessing of the youth by Tlahuitzcalli, an Aztec dance group, a Grass Dance by 14-year-old Nemo Divers, a performance of songs by sisters, Cedar and Miracle Manzanares, and a video sing-along thank you from the Longmont youth, featuring the lyrics to the Beatles’ iconic “Hey Jude” and photos from the weekend. The Manzanares sisters also led the audience in a Round Dance on stage to, in their words, “promote love and good feelings.”

Cedar was reflective in the quiet moments before breakfast at the Ramirez home the morning after the closing celebration. When asked about why she participated in the youth gathering, she explained, “Sometimes kids don’t get to have a life or they make bad decisions, get stuck just partying and not thinking about the future. I want to keep this partnership, to keep in touch, to be a role model for kids so people can be proud and don’t give up. It’s all about kindness and communication and making community.”

By Virginia Kennedy, West Nottingham Academy