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Monday, October 9, 2017

A Summer with Helen

Joseph Garry and Helen Peterson at the NCAI Convention in Spokane, WA, 1955. National Congress of American Indian Records, Photo Folder 158. National Museum of the American Indian, Archive Center. 
As I neared the end of my internship at the National Museum of the American Indian Archive Center this past summer, I was able to take some time to reflect on my work processing the Helen Peterson papers (NMAI.AC.016).  While I was not the first person to process this collection, I do think I got to see a different part of Helen Peterson’s life.  My predecessor, Carla Davis-Castro, dealt mostly with Helen’s materials from her time working at the National Congress of the American Indians (NCAI), the City and County of Denver Commission on Community Relations (CCR), American Indian Development, Inc. (AID), and the White Buffalo Council which deal with Helen’s work between the 1940s to the 1970s.  You can read Carla's blog about here work here. While I did get to process through some materials relating to her time in NCAI, CCR, AID, and the White Buffalo Council, most of what I processed related to her life before and after working at these institutions.  Helen was alive from 1915 to 2000 so there was a large portion of her life that had not yet been explored through the collection.

From 1970 to 1985 Helen was a part of the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA).  During her time with the BIA, she went to the United Kingdom to talk about Native Americans.  Around this same time, President Reagan made some uneducated remarks about reservations, catching the attention of the BIA and people that Helen knew, and prompting a response from the Native American community.
Helen was also a very religious person, who was active in the Episcopal Church.  She started her own church called the Church of the Four Winds.  While she wasn’t a pastor she was the leader of the church.  She maintained an active role in the church during the late 1980s through the 1990s.

Church of the Four Winds Flyers, 1991. Helen Peterson papers. National Museum of the American Indian, Archive Center. 

While it was interesting learning more about the professional side to Helen Peterson, my favorite series to work with was her Personal one.  She had many personal materials including letters from her granddaughter, personal photographs, holiday cards, and cards from her 80th birthday.  This collection really showed how many people loved Helen and highlighted her connection to the people in her life.  Her personal papers also revealed how her life was not always happy.  I found out that following the death of her mother and brother, Helen sought psychiatric help.  As a part of the grieving process,  Helen wrote letters to her mother and brother to help her cope with the many emotions after both of their deaths.  While it was sad to go through these letters, I am glad I was able to read through them, as these letters were more than just materials that needed to be filed away they were the gateway to see Helen Peterson the person.

Letters from Helen Peterson to her mother and brother following their deaths, 1992. Helen Peterson papers. National Museum of the American Indian, Archive Center. 

Sarah Rick, Summer Intern (2017)
National Museum of the American Indian, Archive Center

For more information about NMAI Internship program please visit NMAI’s website here.

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