RIVERTON, Wyo. — About 25 people, mostly children, gathered silently in the teepee's cool, shaded interior as Eugene Ridgely Jr. talked about owls representing an ominous sign.
"An owl is a bad omen with some Arapaho families," Ridgely said, seated in a chair opposite the teepee's waist-high entrance while his listeners sat on the grassy ground and stared back.
"How many have heard that an owl brings bad luck?" Ridgely asked, getting about a dozen hands in the air.
The belief is not commonly shared among Northern Arapaho people, he said, noting that "owl medicine" is known by some to heal and help.
"So it's either way with owls," he said. "This is the stuff I was taught when I was growing up. I still practice that today."
The many tribal beliefs he told at a recent Northern Arapaho Women, Infants and Children agency Healthy Families Conference allowed participants to learn about owl medicine and other information to help their lives.
"Mainly I'm looking at the healing aspect, the healing component of it," said Blanche Friday, the agency's outreach coordinator, several feet from the three teepees erected for the event at St. Stephen's Indian Mission.
"There is intergenerational trauma for a lot of the families out here. When a community comes together, they heal. They don't have to have those other negative behaviors, the drinking, that kind of stuff," Friday said.
She and others want the participants who included 13 families with children to learn about ways they can build their relationships, trust and positive interactions.
"I think they can learn different ways of association such as campouts, dinners," Friday said. "This is a family event."
Rain Chippewa, who also works community outreach for Northern Arapaho WIC, said Ridgely's stories are part of how families can learn to improve themselves by understanding their past.
"The purpose is just to teach positive skills to parents. Like with the storytelling, it's to show there are other ways to teach children and pass on knowledge," Chippewa said.
Ridgely covered a range of topics during his talk. For instance, it's a sign that a bad spirit is around when a dog or cat lets out a yelp or distress call. He said a cedaring is helpful at those times.
"Ask that person to leave your place with good health and good luck," Ridgely said.
He recalled living at his grandparents' one-room home lit by kerosene lamps. When a storm would arrive, his grandmother would cover the heads of the little girls in the home with scarves or towels and sit them on one side of the home with the boys on the other side.
"As soon as the storm went by, 'All right all right, go out and play.' That doesn't happen anymore," Ridgely said. "Today our way of life is fast. We've got to be somewhere. We've got to go someplace."
He talked about fetching water from rivers by swiping either against or with the stream flow depending on whether it was day or night.
"Wintertime was pretty tough," he said, cracking a smile. "Today is pretty different. You guys have got it made."
His other advice came with a serious tone.
"Never go outside at night eating or having food in your mouth. Again, it has something to do with spirits," he said.
"Never shake a blanket at a ceremony. Never run to a ceremony but walk to your destination," he said.
The teepees represented an important part of the conference, Chippewa said.
"They're images of how our life used to be. This represents the home of native people," he said.
A circle formed by about two dozen gray folding chairs was next to the teepees. Chippewa called it a talking circle that would be used later in the day.
"We always keep a circle theme," he said. "It helps with the therapeutic value of the circle, that nobody is higher than anybody. In the circle formation, everybody's on the same plane."
The circle promotes healthy communication among the participants, Chippewa said, noting that Saturday focused on interaction while Sunday's conclusion delves into spiritual topics and prayer with a cedaring ceremony by Nelson and Crawford White.
Yolanda Hvizdak attended the conference as both an organizer and participant. She had her parents Steve and Eugenie Hvizdak also attending and helping.
"I'm helping with the language," she said, expressing concern about the Arapaho language facing extinction because tribal members are not learning as they should.
Her tribal name is Plume Singer, which in Arapaho language is "Biixonoo Niibei." She explained that people refer to their own mother as "no'oo" or father as "neixoo," while they tell others about them by saying "neinoo" or "neisonoo."
"You've just got to be patient and practice," Hvizdak said about teaching and learning the language.
For the participants, creating a healthy family could be a story away.
"The overall hope and message is to get people to see we have the resources out here to get what we need done," Chippewa said.
Information from: The (Riverton, Wyo.) Ranger, http://www.dailyranger.com