After more than a decade, Karen Wilde is leaving her position as tribal liaison with the National Park Service Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site to take an extraordinary position with the National Forest Service where she will serve as a Tribal Relations Specialist between the USFS and all thirty-nine American Indian tribes located in Oklahoma. It is an exceptional opportunity for both her and the tribes with whom she will work. And, as she is working towards her Masters in Juris Prudence in Indian Law (2022) and a time when so many long standing laws are being challenged by the Indian Nations in the state, it is a job for which she is perfectly suited.
And it is also a loss. There is no other way to describe it. An American Indian woman strongly rooted in her native culture who is also well versed in governmental laws, policies and politics related to Indian Affairs serving as a liaison between the NPS Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site and the tribes of the Northern and Southern Cheyenne and Arapaho was a stroke that was equal parts remarkable vision and extremely good luck.
This soft spoken, humble yet assertive woman will be the first to admit that the decision to leave was reached only after a great deal of thought and prayer. But, ultimately, she came to the obvious conclusion. “It was time to move on.”
While to some this may seem like the end of an era – which, in many ways, it may be – for Wilde, this is the next step in fulfilling the vision she has had of her life since she was a teenager. This is the next step of a long journey home that began before she was even born.
Karen is the daughter of Kathryn Bible, a member of the Muscogee nation of Oklahoma, and Jim Wilde of the Pawnee Nation of Oklahoma. Although Jim and Kathryn were divorced when Karen was young, Karen grew up hearing the stories her mother told of her own life and what she knew of the early life of Karen’s father.
Born in 1929, Kathryn Bible was the oldest of nine children. As that oldest child, Kathryn was assigned the difficult tasks that always fell to the eldest, despite her still being a very little girl. Her most vivid memory is of her father. After finishing a day of plowing with the horses exhausted and thirsty, her father would tell tiny Kathryn to take the horses to the creek, a duty, as she later recalled, had the horses almost dragging her into the creek with them in their craving for water. But she also had memories of being with her grandmother who lived on 160 acres of Indian allotment land and often went walking out on the land where her grandmother picked those herbs that would be used for healing.
One day, when Kathryn was no more than six or seven years old, an Indian agent – typically a white man hired by the federal government – came to the house and took her away, telling her parents that Kathryn was required to go to an “Indian boarding school.” Kathryn remembers them leaving the only home she had ever known and then going to another house where another Indian child was taken from her family, as well. Kathryn was transported to the Eufala Indian Girls Boarding School.
In the 1930s and for decades beyond, American Indians were meant to feel like strangers in their own land, land that had been inhabited by their ancestors for centuries. Indian Boarding Schools were created to foster that belief. Run by the federal government, the Eufaula Boarding School forced Creek children to assimilate into the mainstream culture, starting with their language.
Although the only language spoken in Kathryn’s family was Creek, teachers at the Eufala Indian Boarding School “denied her first language”, forbidding the six-year-old girl from speaking in her native tongue anywhere and at any time to anyone -- not just to her teachers but to other children who were forbidden from speaking Creek, as well. When other white children were discovering the joy and power in expressing what they learned and thought and felt, Kathryn was muted. To make matters worse, she was not allowed to go home, for reasons that were never fully explained.
Tragically, whatever methods they used were successful. As an adult, the language was not lost to her, for Kathryn could understand Creek very well. But, when she wanted to speak, the words did not – would not – come.
Karen’s father, Jim Wilde, had likewise been forced to go to an Indian boarding school. In his case, it was the Pawnee Indian Boarding School, although he never shared stories of what happened to him while he was there.
Eufala Indian Boarding School
When asked, Karen speaks of her own childhood in her quiet, straight to the point, unembellished way. “Well, I had three brothers,” she says with a bit of a laugh, “so I had to learn to be kinda tough.” She also speaks of when her mother and father bought a house in Tulsa, and it was there that her parents divorced.
“It was a really white suburb,” Karen says, and her mother – now single with four children to provide for – took a job at a factory to support the family. “We were the poorest family on the block, and everyone else lived in a two-parent household. My mother worked really hard, but sometimes we didn’t have food. Sometimes we didn’t have power. Sometimes, we didn’t have water, so we’d take gallon jugs and borrow water from the neighbors to cook or to bathe.”
But in direct contrast to her own childhood where Kathryn was physically cut off from her culture and heritage, Kathryn made sure her children stayed connected to the roots of who they were by being part of a Pawnee and Creek community. “I was raised in the Indian Methodist Church,” Karen says. “Whenever they had services, my mother took us out to this little building in the country. It didn’t have running water, so we used outhouses and hauled water from the creek. It didn’t have power, so we used a woodburning stove. But we were surrounded by Creek people and sung hymns in Creek.”
When Karen was seventeen, she had an experience that gave birth to a vision for her life. “I was in high school,” she says, “and I read Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee. I know some people say it isn’t exactly accurate, but it doesn’t matter to me. That book changed my life. That’s when I decided I wanted to work for the Indian people.”
Karen attended Haskell Indian Junior College, an accredited junior college in Lawrence, Kansas, where she got her associates degree. She then went on to Northeastern State University in Tahlequah, Oklahoma where she earned her Bachelor’s degree in Business Administration and Management.
Over the next decades, Karen’s path kept on leading her forward as each job she accepted provided a broader, deeper, stronger foundation in realizing her vision for her life. To an outside observer, the path may seem circuitous, but nothing could be further from the truth. Each job, each move, each new role brought with it new knowledge, new understanding, new relationships and responsibilities, weaving a blanket that encompassed a profound vision stated in such simple words: I want to help the Indian people.
A few years after graduation, she got a position with the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma (Tahlequah) in tribal government. She moved on from there to work for the Creek Nation, working in the area of business enterprises. Karen left Oklahoma for the state of California where she used her degree in business administration and management at the Robinson Rancheria, owned by the Band of Pomo Indians. While in California, she met her husband and, together, they moved to Colorado. It was in Colorado where Karen’s path took a different turn as she accepted a position with the Cherry Creek School District, working in Indian Education as the program coordinator for American Indian children in any school where ten or more students of native heritage were enrolled.
Then, in 1996, she took a significant step forward into the world of state government with the Colorado Commission of Indian Affairs. Serving under the direct supervision of Colorado Lieutenant Governor Gail Schoettler, Karen was the liaison between the state of Colorado and two reservations – the Southern Ute and the Ute Mountain tribe. She was essentially responsible for all Indian Affairs within Colorado’s borders.
This was a pivotal time in state history as, finally, the myriad of issues under the umbrella title “Indian Affairs” were getting the attention that had deserved for so long. As executive of the department, Karen dealt with pressing legislative matters, such as Indian education, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, the Indian Children Welfare Act, the American Indian Religious Freedom Act which impacted religious practices of American Indian men and women who were incarcerated in the state’s prison system.
At this point, Karen was in the highest profile position in Indian Affairs in the entire state. Yet, unlike her predecessors and in tremendous agreement with the style of government followed by many American Indian nations, she did not use the position to assert her own personal perspective and agenda. Instead, she used the latitude in the state statute to reach out to community members for their guidance on the best way to enact legislation, often crafted by non-native officials to address native American issues.
Little did she know that the knowledge, skills and abilities she grew in that position were preparing her for the role she would later play at the Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site.
After close to nine years with Colorado Indian Affairs, Karen was recruited for a position with the groundbreaking brainchild of Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell: the American Centers for Indian and Alaska Native Health located on the Anschutz medical campus in Denver that was devoted to proving that diabetes and heart disease – the leading cause of death among American Indians -- could be prevented.
With a massive catalog of past experiences teaching her the importance of American Indians being counted, as were all other groups, in services due them from the federal government, Karen took on the Tribal Partnership Specialist in the 2010 Census, responsible for making certain census responses were gathered from seven reservations scattered over the five states of Colorado, Utah, Nevada, New Mexico and Wyoming.
And it was in that capacity that she coincidently was reacquainted with Otto Braided Hair, the highly respected tribal representative for the Northern Cheyenne in consultation for the Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site, and first met Alden Miller with the National Park Service who, as the superintendent, was most persistent in his recruitment of Karen as tribal liaison.
Karen first went to the Sand Creek Massacre site in 2007 for the dedication ceremony. It wasn’t until three years later when Alden Miller asked her to come to the site for a burial of an ancestor. “As I was standing on Monument Hill,” she says, “I could immediately see their emotional attachment to the land.” Thinking of the generations in her own family who had struggled to keep their 160 acres of Indian allotment land, she adds, “I understand why the Arapaho and Cheyenne are so protective of the land.”
But the first time Karen was alone at the site and stood on Monument Hill to overlook a “definitely spiritual place” she had an experience that confirmed and shaped the years that followed. “They were welcoming me,” she says. “The spirits of the ancestors were welcoming me to that place.” That was just the first of many times when she had similar experiences, especially in 2011. “During that year, there were times that I was called to the site. Times when I would be at home and feel called to let the ancestors know I was there. So, I would go to the site and tell them ‘I’m here. I will make sure your voices are heard.’”
She also speaks of the day when NPS staff were doing some work on the site and moving around a lot of dirt. Karen was walking past the construction and remembers being near a couple of pickup trucks parked nearby. “I heard voices of many women and children. They were frightened and confused. They were asking what was going on. So, I comforted them and told them it was all right.” She hesitates and then offers a brief explanation for those who might not understand. “They were killed there in 1864 in the most horrible way. No one, none of the Arapaho or Cheyenne could ever go back, and those people who were killed were never properly laid to rest. Their blood was never covered up.” When asked if she believes the ancestors will ever find peace, she hesitates again. “Yes, I think they will. That’s why there are ceremonies and prayers – to bring them peace. To lay them to rest.”
Karen was willing to share a third experience that her grandson, Cedar, experienced with her. “Otto was praying,” she begins. “We all had our eyes closed. And suddenly I heard drums in the trees. I heard it so clearly. At the same time, I felt Cedar lift his head and look at me. His eyes were wide open and he mouthed the words ‘did you hear that?’ He heard the drums, too. But no one else around us reacted in any way. I think Cedar and I were the only two who heard the drums that day.”
In all of the moving and packing and planning that Karen is doing, there is one task that remains undone. “I have one particular spot where I go,” she says. “I have to go out there and tell them that I’m leaving.”
When asked if she will, as she did that day by the trucks tell the ancestors it will be okay and not to be afraid, Karen is quiet for a long moment. “I don’t know,” she finally says. “Right now, the park service isn’t planning on hiring a tribal liaison to replace me, so I don’t know if it will be okay. I really don’t know.” And that is all she would say.
It has been a long, long journey that took Karen from being one of the few American Indians in a white suburb of Tulsa to being the lead liaison between the USFS and all 39 tribes in Oklahoma. But, outside of telling her story, she doesn’t really speak of that. Instead, she focused on where she started and where she’s going. “I wanted to help the Indian people, and I think I’ll be doing that. And…I’ll also be going home."