Many American towns and metropolises have initiated unions with international locales — “sister cities,” where citizens travel to each others' hometowns and build cultural bridges. Rarely have local leaders considered such an arrangement with tribal nations, until now.
Longmont, Colo., and the Northern Arapaho Tribe recently became sister cities — a partnership for which tribal leaders hold high hopes. For one, they say it could offer Indigenous youth a window into life outside the reservation.
The northern Colorado city of Longmont sits on the ancestral homeland of the Northern Arapaho. After the U.S. government broke an 1860s treaty with several tribes, the Northern Arapaho lost their land and were forced onto the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming.
Stephen Fasthorse, a Northern Arapaho tribal councilman, says the significance of the partnership “can’t even be explained in words.”
The new agreement will be anchored by educational initiatives that allow children to visit each others' communities. Fasthorse says this will give Northern Arapaho a sense of identity when they set foot in the places “where our ancestors once roamed, and lived, and called home.”
Lee Spoonhunter, co-chairman of the Northern Arapaho Tribe, says the union has the potential to carve new paths for young tribal members. Indigenous youth who visit Longmont will see opportunities for higher education in the nearby college town of Boulder, home to University of Colorado.
“On the Wind River Reservation, there's a lot of poverty,” Spoonhunter said. “And we understand wholeheartedly that the way out of poverty is through education.”
A Colorado law passed this year extends in-state college tuition to Indigenous students whose tribes have ties to Colorado, including the Northern Arapaho.
The partnership came to fruition after several years of work between Longmont leaders and tribal officials. Longmont Mayor Brian Bagley conceived the idea. Longmont has built partnerships with sister cities in Japan and Mexico, and that gave Bagley pause.
“We are reaching out to other countries trying to understand them,” Bagley said. “But here we have Indigenous populations in our own country. And it just dawned on me that why don't we look inward?”
Sister Cities International, a nonprofit member organization for sister cities across the globe, called the partnership “a historic first” — "the first sister city relationship between a sovereign tribal nation and a U.S. city."
Fasthorse hopes it spurs other cities to create similar partnerships.
“There's so many other tribes and other communities that could really benefit from this type of relationship,” he said. “We have the stereotype and the stigma of what reservation life is, or what a Native American is. Well, now we're going to have a chance for Longmont youth to really be with our people and know who we are.”
That could go a long way toward forging understanding, Fasthorse said, given there are few non-Natives “that actually want to know what it's like to live on the reservation.”
This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Nevada Public Radio, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
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