SHERIDAN — Decades ago, the idea of All American Indian Days came to fruition under a tree in Crow Country.
Today, the same thread of hope and healing runs through a tree-planting project led by the Miss Indian America Collective at the Kendrick Arboretum.
The MIA Collective has raised funds to plant 15 trees, with plans to add a bench and flowering plants near elk and buffalo grazing, to honor historic American Indian Days, held from 1953 to 1984 , and the Miss Indian America pageant. .
Signage near the project tree will also educate future generations about the history of American Indian Days and the contest.
“Our tree project represents our deep appreciation for the hard work of fighting racism in Sheridan, a reservation border town, with the surrounding Crow and Northern Cheyenne people,” Judy Slack, who serves as Miss Indian America’s liaison Collective and the local community, says.
As part of a project in partnership with the town of Sheridan, the MIA collective has selected trees and shrubs mainly in flower and fruit for birds, butterflies and bees. The MIA Collective held a blessing at the site on June 10 and is planning a “Tribute to History and Hope” dedication celebration in conjunction with the mayor’s proclamation of Arbor Day at 10 a.m. July 29 in the Arboretum area.
There will also be an All American Indian Days movie presented by the Yellowtail family at 1 p.m. on July 29 in the Inner Circle of the Fulmer Library in Sheridan County. Both events are open to the public.
Miss Indian America XXII Deana Harragarra Waters, who won her title in 1975, said All American Indian Days began in the early 1950s when it was born out of the Sheridan WYO Rodeo Queen pageant. In 1953, locals held the first All American Indian Days, where they also selected the first-ever Miss Indian America. Each year thereafter, they would select a different holder of the title.
“The story was told to me that there was racial tension in Sheridan, but there was also a desire on the part of people of goodwill, civic leaders and Crow reservation people to come together” , said Harragarra Waters.
A man named Don Deernose, for many years, would point to a tree in his front yard and say, “If you want to know where all the American Indian days started, it’s under that tree.” said Harragarra Waters.
“He would tell how one or two men would come from Sheridan and talk to him about what they could do to make different races understand each other or to make their part of the world better for everyone,” Harragarra Waters recalled.
“So this is a story not just about the Miss Indian Americas wanting to honor all of the All American Indian Days family members, but a story to remind people of what we can do when we sit down and talk together. , and understand each other.”
While efforts began nearly a decade ago to build a memorial for American Indian Everyday and the Miss Indian America pageant in Sheridan, with talks of a sculpture and an initial fundraising effort , there was a split in the committee, resulting in two groups with separate plans. . While the split has caused hurt and confusion, the Miss Indian America Collective remains strong, according to its members.
“Instead of accepting a sad, difficult end, we decide to use our wings and we fly. It is the full power of gratitude that gives meaning to our new upward direction,” Harragarra Waters said.
The Miss Indian America collective now includes seven living titleholders, some as young as 91, and is moving forward with its tree-planting project this summer.
“We couldn’t think of any better art than a tree, and we couldn’t think of any better artist than the Creator God,” Harragarra Waters said. “We started this (new) project last fall and raised funds this spring. We purchased 15 trees to plant at the northwest end of the Kendrick Park Arboretum.
Harragarra Waters was Miss Indian America in 1975 during the United States Bicentennial, and she has returned to Sheridan every year since 2013 to remember what once was here. For the June 10 blessing, the group contacted Leonard Bends, grandson of Don Deernose. Bends served 12 years as Sundance Crow Chief and spoke in June about the importance of the tree in the Sundance.
“The foundation we are establishing in Kendrick Park will carry on all that was good in All American Indian Days, and all that was good in those people who tried to be people of goodwill for everyone,” said Harragarra Waters. “Leonard Bends sang a Crow song for the tree and asked for trees to be a mighty force.”
At the July 29 “Tribute to History and Hope” public dedication, organizers hope many people will come to hear Leonard Bends speak. The sitemap will include QR codes to guide the visitor to an online warehouse that will share film clips, news articles, biographies and photos from this important era, from the coming together of Indians and non-Indians to put end discrimination 12 years before national civil rights legislation was passed.
“It’s as relevant a message today as it was in the 1950s,” Slack said.
Today, the group continues to bring more Miss Americas from India into the collective, with seven planning to be represented and offer words of hope and healing at the July ceremony. They include Miss Indian America II Mary Louise Defender, MIA XI Michele Portwood Robinson, MIA XII Sharron Ahtone Harjo, MIA XVII Virginia Stroud, MIA XXII deana harragarra waters, MIA XXV Susan Arkeketa and MIA XXVII Jerilyn LeBeau Church. The families of MIA I Arlene Wesley James, MIA X Williamette Youpee and MIA VIII Brenda Bearchum, all deceased, will be in attendance or send a statement.
“There’s a lot of nostalgia associated with All American Indian Days, and whether that’s true or not, I don’t know. History is important, but what we want to focus on is hope and the future,” said Harragarra Waters.