(This is the final story in a multi-part series on the Wind River Reservation)

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RIVERTON–As a child in California, Helsha Acuña was so sensitive about her Native American heritage—her father was Apache, her mother Aleut—that she sometimes tried to pass herself off as Italian. But the racism she encountered was rarely personal. For that, she testified in federal court, she had to come to Riverton.

Fresh from graduate work at the University of California at Santa Barbara, Acuña moved to Riverton in the mid-1990s, her daughter and two horses in tow, to teach Native American Studies at Central Wyoming College. She was thrilled when the owners of a nearby ranch, where she had arranged to board her horses, invited her to live in a trailer home on the property in exchange for caretaking duties. But Acuña’s relationship with the couple quickly soured. She was still unpacking her things when the husband stopped by with the news.

“My wife, uh, um, she’s a little concerned,” Acuña quoted the rancher as saying. “And, well, you know, we’ve had Indians out here before who have worked for us, and it’s never worked out real well, and, um, well, we just don’t know that we’ll be able to sleep at night with you on the property.”

Acuña called the man’s wife, who first berated her for rescheduling a gas delivery to the trailer without telling her, then for who she was.  “You know what, Helsha?” the woman said. “We’re not the niggers here.”

“What?” Acuña said.

“You heard me,” the woman replied, according to the college professor’s sworn testimony. “You know, you may not be from around here, you may be an Apache, but you’re no better than these fucking Arapahos or fucking Shoshones that are out here.”

The couple barred Acuña from returning to the property until she had paid the boarding bill for her horses, relenting only under pressure from her attorney. But when she showed up to collect her furniture and other household items, she found them heaped outside in the rain. “Everything was just soaked,” she testified. The rancher’s wife and several others, including a man with a shotgun, kept watch as she loaded her belongings onto a truck. “It was very demeaning.”

Racism usually takes subtler forms in this blue-collar town of about 9000 people, which was founded on land carved from the Wind River Indian Reservation in south-central Wyoming in 1906, when a portion of the reservation was opened up to white settlers. The reservation is the home of the Northern Arapaho and Eastern Shoshone tribes. As elsewhere in Fremont County, whites and tribal members mingle in schools, the checkout lines at Wal-Mart, and the restaurant at the Arapaho-owned Wind River Casino, which is said to serve the best steak and lobster in town. Not since the 1950s have local businesses displayed “No Dogs or Indians” signs in their windows.

But hard feelings remain. Over the last seven months, two separate but related developments have cast a harsh light on white attitudes towards the reservation and the 10,000 tribal members who live there. First was the collapse of a cooperative agreement between the city of Riverton and the Northern Arapaho, who withdrew from the deal in February in the face of bitter opposition stirred in part by supporters of the conservative Tea Party movement. The other came in late April, when a federal judge cited “ongoing” discrimination against Native Americans—including that experienced by Acuña —in ordering the Fremont County Commission to scrap its at-large electoral system in favor of one based on single-member voting districts. The judge found that the county’s system had diluted Indian voting strength. Until 2006, no Native American had ever served on the commission, though the ethnic group makes up 20 percent of the county’s population.

The ugly feelings unearthed by these two episodes are rarely acknowledged among whites in Fremont County. Yet a close look at the public record reveals the deep reservoir of prejudice, suspicion and paranoia that–as elsewhere in the rural West–still shapes white perceptions of Indians.  Whites here may have legitimate concerns about the quasi-independent state on their borders, such as issues relating to law-enforcement jurisdiction or water rights. But that doesn’t explain the bigotry that often seems a holdover from another time: the high-school sports fans mocking Indian players as “prairie niggers,” for example, or the white civic leader, subsequently elected to the county commission, declaring in a private meeting, “I hate goddamn Indians,” to cite examples from the voting rights trial.

Even among those who eschew such naked hostility, Indians are often described, in effect, as freeloaders who are constantly maneuvering for political leverage and a bigger share of resources, often with help from the federal government and usually at the expense of the white majority.  This sense of  white victimization is striking. It turns the standard narrative of American history–a story of native people robbed of land, buffalo herds and culture–on its head.

One day I drove north from Riverton to meet Lois Herbst, a rancher and former president of the Wyoming Stock Growers Association who had spoken out against the agreement between the city and the Northern Arapaho.  Herbst, a flinty septuagenarian in slacks and a brown sweater, met me by the side of the road in her gray Ford Expedition, not far from the single-story beige house that she and her late husband purchased in 1962. Her father-in-law, an Austrian immigrant, was a homesteader who came to this area in a one-horse cart, now proudly displayed in Herbst’s front yard.

She took me on a driving tour of her property, a piece of it anyway, which is situated inside the reservation’s historic borders in the area opened up to homesteading in 1906. The newcomers purchased their plots of “excess” reservation land for nominal sums, a portion of which was supposed to go to the tribes, although it is far from clear how much of it actually did. The federal government then paid for the construction of a massive network of canals, ditches and dams—the Riverton Unit of the Midvale Irrigation District—to channel water from tribal lands to the white farmers. But Herbst insisted that the Indians had gotten a fair deal. “They were happy to have it,” she said of the proceeds from the land sales.

Besides, she added, “What was so great about the life they had before we came here? The women were doing all the work. I shouldn’t say that but it’s true.”

Herbst acknowledged that things have not worked out so well for the Indians, but she blamed that largely on their failure to assimilate—a consequence, she argued, of the socialist enterprise otherwise known as the reservation system. And as she sees it, hardworking people like her are paying the price, as the tribes and their attorneys scheme to take back “our water” and the land they had freely parted with. “If they can, they’ll tax us,” she said.

We got out of the car, and Herbst pointed to a distant wire fence, erected by tribal land managers, that she said intruded on her family’s property. “They fenced it without asking me,” she said. “To me that was arrogant. It is a new attitude being developed by some of them, an attitude of, ‘Take back.’”

A Record of Discrimination

Teepees are part of the view as you enter Lander, Wyoming, along Main Street, June 19, 2010. Photograph by Robert Durell

The reservation grew out of a treaty between the federal government and the Eastern Shoshone in 1868. Because the tribe was on good terms with the whites, it was allocated more than 4 million acres–much of it prime rangeland–in the drainage of the snowy Wind River range. But the situation was not to last. The Northern Arapaho, historic enemies of the Shoshone, were transferred to the reservation in 1878, and the government hacked away at its size with dubious land deals, such as the purchase of the Thermopolis area with its coveted hot springs, for $60,000 in 1896. Then, in 1905, Congress invited homesteaders to settle on 1.44 million acres of reservation land north of the Wind River, an area that now includes the city of Riverton. A million of the least desirable acres went unclaimed and were later returned to the tribes. The result was a confusing hodgepodge of ownership in which jurisdictional lines often were blurred.

The political system, of course, was tilted heavily in favor of the white settlers. Native Americans did not become citizens until 1924. And in Wyoming, literacy tests that were used until 1971, when they were finally eliminated by amendments to the Voting Rights Act, may have been a further impediment to political participation by non-whites.

In the 1960s and ’70s, Indians on the Wind River Reservation, as elsewhere, experienced a political awakening signaled by the rise of the American Indian Movement, whose sometimes-radical methods were aimed at restoring Native pride and sovereignty. The tribes also benefited from growing sympathy in Congress and the courts. In a landmark 1988 decision, the Wyoming Supreme Court infuriated white farmers and ranchers by ruling that the tribes had first claim on water flowing through the reservation, a decision later affirmed by the U.S. Supreme Court. Emboldened by their progress, the Arapaho eventually won court approval—over intense state opposition—to bring casino gambling to the reservation. The Shoshone soon followed with their own casinos.

At the local level, though, political power still eluded the Indians. Under Fremont County’s at-large electoral system, whites who ran for the county commission had a built-in advantage, and tribal candidates invariably lost. So in 2005, a group of Northern Arapaho and Shoshone plaintiffs filed suit in U.S. District Court in Wyoming against the county under the Voting Rights Act. They argued that the electoral system discriminated against Native Americans, and sought to ensure a voice in local government by dividing the county into single-member voting districts, one of which would be mostly Native American.

Much of the trial transcript reads like a sadly familiar history lesson, with references to such infamous crimes as the Sand Creek massacre, in which scores of Arapaho and Cheyenne, mostly women and children, were slaughtered by a Colorado militia in 1864 (whites celebrated the killings with a parade in Denver). On the reservation, meanwhile, disease and malnutrition took such a toll that by the late 19th century the Arapaho population had dwindled from about 6000 to fewer than 900, according to expert testimony. Children who survived their early years often were taken from their parents and forced into boarding schools of notorious cruelty and squalor. Their braids were chopped off, and if they dared to speak Native languages instead of English, they were beaten or had their mouths washed out with soap. At one such school on the Wind River reservation, living conditions were so dreadful that half the students died between 1892 and 1902, according to data, compiled by an Episcopal priest, which was presented at the voting rights trial.

Historical grievances aside, the trial produced ample evidence of how little some things have changed in Fremont County over the last century. One of the tribes’ witnesses was Todd Guenther, a former director of the Pioneer Museum in Lander who now teaches anthropology and history at Central Wyoming College. Guenther testified that when he came to the museum in 1995, Native Americans complained to him about the use of offensive terms, such as “squaws” and “bucks,” in some exhibits. So he applied for a $10,000 grant from the Wyoming Humanities Council to replace or redesign the exhibits.

Guenther got the grant, sharing the news in a meeting with the association that oversees the museum. But a member of the group, who also was on the county museums board, asked him to stay after the meeting. “He wanted to know more about what I was undertaking with that project,” Guenther testified. “And when I explained that to him, he terminated the meeting by slamming his notebook and saying, ‘I hate goddamn Indians, and I won’t have anything to do with this.’” The association member, Crosby Allen, subsequently was elected to the Fremont County Commission (Allen did not return phone messages seeking comment).

Others apparently shared the same view. “I have had people come up to me and say, well, I’ll support that museum if you don’t spend much time, you know, if you don’t emphasize those prairie niggers, which is a slur that’s heard around the area referring to Native Americans,” said Guenther.

Native Americans lacked a voice on the county commission until the election of Keja Whiteman, a member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa, in 2006. The dearth of representation meant that tribes were at a distinct disadvantage when it came to competing with the rest of the county for services. Tribal leaders have commissioned studies showing that the reservation generates significantly more in revenues for the county than it receives in the form of services. County officials countered with their own analysis, which they say shows the reservation does receive its fair share of attention from county government.

But there is no dispute that the reservation makes a significant contribution to the county’s revenue base.  Much of the money comes from the severance tax that the state collects on oil and gas extracted from the reservation, then redistributes to counties on the basis of a revenue-sharing formula. Tribal members also pay state sales taxes–part of which comes back to the county–on purchases from businesses off the reservation.

“Some of our money is going into those [county] coffers, and I think we should be on the Commission saying, ‘Yes, this is where some of the money should go,’” testified James Large, a plaintiff in the case.

Large, who moved back to the reservation after earning two Purple Hearts in Vietnam, told the court that he and three others lived in a trailer home with no telephone or water service, relying on monthly truck deliveries to fill a cistern. Meanwhile, the reservation town of Fort Washakie had to rely on boiled or bottled drinking water for two and a half months in 2003 because local sources were contaminated, according to testimony from Gary Collins, a Northern Arapaho plaintiff. Collins, who studied geology at the University of Wyoming, said that between 2000 and 2005 there had been numerous such “boil orders” on the reservation.

“I didn’t think any community off of the reservation would have had such, it seemed, ongoing problems,” said Collins. “It just wouldn’t have been allowed to go on for so long.” (A county official said such problems typically are resolved below the county level, as when neighbors band together to form water and sewer districts. Taxes from these districts are then used to improve water quality.)

The county was aided in its defense by the Mountain States Legal Foundation, an arch-conservative Colorado-based group whose founding director was Wyoming lawyer James Watt, who served as Interior Secretary during the Reagan Administration. Their strategy, by and large, was to deny that there was any problem. To that end, the county’s attorneys relied heavily on expert testimony from Stephen Thernstrom, a Harvard University history professor known for his controversial arguments against special treatment for minorities. Thernstrom disputed the idea that Indians had suffered unduly at the hands of whites during the frontier era—“I think there’s plenty of blame to apportion to both sides”—or in the boarding schools they were later forced to attend. The experience of Indian children who were beaten for speaking Native languages, he suggested, was not so different than that of his father, a child of Swedish immigrants, who had no choice but to learn English when he entered public school in the United States. “That’s the American story, and I don’t think that was racist,” he said.

Patrick Hickerson, one of several commissioners to testify, disputed the charge that the county skimped on services for Native Americans, ticking off a list of programs—the detox center, a homeless shelter, services for children and elderly people—that many use. Under cross-examination, however, Hickerson acknowledged that several such programs were required by law, not initiated by the county, and that none of the program offices was actually located on the reservation—which, in fact, he knew little about:

“You’ve never attended any cultural events on the reservation, such as powwows, have you?

“Not that I can remember, no.

“And you’ve never had any interest in doing that, isn’t that right?

“Oh, I wouldn’t say I wouldn’t be interested in it, I just haven’t.”

“Well, didn’t you say in your deposition that you had no interest in doing it?”

“I may have.”

“Okay. You don’t really have any social contacts on the reservation, do you?”

“No, not really.”

“Now, as I understand it, the County Commission has never undertaken any specific projects on the reservation, such as improving housing, for example?”

“No.”

“Or improving drinking water?”

“Uh, no.”

“Or improving healthcare?”

“Not at—not a project, no.”

“Or to stimulate economic development on the reservation?”

“Not that I know of.”

A Sense of Community

John Vincent, mayor of Riverton, Wyoming, on a ranch outside of town, June 19, 2010. Photograph by Robert Durell

The voting rights trial was not the only threat to the status quo in Fremont County. Another was John Vincent, who in 2002 became the first Democrat to win the mayor’s office in Riverton since the 1950s. Born and raised in the community, Vincent, 61, is a shambling, easygoing bear of a man—a former college wrestler– who earns his living as a trial attorney. He runs his busy practice out of a converted 1920s bungalow, behind which is the carriage house where he keeps his private office. When I met him there one afternoon, he was dressed in gym clothes in preparation for an afternoon workout. Vincent told me he had always believed strongly in the need for better relations for the tribes, showing me a photo of a “cedaring ceremony”—a ritual blessing conferred by Native elders—held in his city hall chambers the day he was sworn in to his first term.

“It just seemed we needed to learn how to work together and get along better,” he recalled. “From the outset I wanted to develop some sense of community between Riverton people and reservation people, because our economies are so intertwined.”

A wide streak of pragmatism drove his efforts. As an assistant city attorney in the 1990s, Vincent had settled a lawsuit brought on behalf of a tribal member who had been picked up by a Riverton police officer for public drunkenness. Rather than taking him into custody, the officer deposited him across the city line in the parking lot of an Arapaho-owned bingo parlor on reservation land. The man staggered into traffic, was hit by a truck, and severely injured. The episode helped build support for the detoxification center in Riverton, which opened a few years later and now serves mostly Indians. And it underscored, in Vincent’s mind, the need for better coordination between the town and reservation, not just in law enforcement but in other areas as well.

Against that backdrop, then, Vincent and the leaders of the Arapaho and Shoshone Business Councils—the governing bodies for the tribes—signed a formal agreement on April 29, 2008. On its face, the pact was innocuous. It pledged in general terms that the city and the reservation would work together on various community matters, and asserted that “Riverton is within the exterior boundaries of the Wind River Reservation”—to Vincent and other supporters of the agreement, a simple acknowledgment of geographic fact. But the statement set off a firestorm in Fremont County, where the legal status of Riverton and other areas that were transferred to white ownership during the homesteading era has long been disputed.

“You are absolutely, positively and dangerously incorrect,” then County Attorney Ed Newell wrote in an email to Vincent. “I don’t know what compelled the City to adopt this agreement.” Accepting that Riverton is part of “Indian Country,” he wrote in another email, would “open the door for Tribal taxation and regulation of Riverton residents,” and prevent local police from arresting Indians for crimes committed in Riverton. He suggested that the city’s position could help free a “convicted baby-killer,” Andrew Yellowbear, an Arapaho man who in 2006 was convicted in a state court of murdering his infant daughter at his apartment in Riverton. Yellowbear, who had been sentenced to life, was seeking to have the conviction overturned on grounds that he should have been tried in a tribal or federal court because Riverton is part of the reservation.

Vincent, whose low-key manner masks a pugnacious streak, punched back.

“This type of fear-mongering and hateful language that Newell puts in his emails and then wants you to write is intended to do no more than to tear our people apart,” he told the Riverton Ranger. “I find it reprehensible for a publicly elected official who claims to represent the people of Fremont County.”

The battle had been joined, and it quickly got worse.

Hard Feelings

A teepee stands outside a home in Ethete, Wyoming, June 19, 2010. Photograph by Robert Durell

In September 2008, the Northern Arapaho filed a federal lawsuit against the state and county governments challenging their right to collect sales taxes and vehicle registration fees from tribal members in Riverton. Vigorously represented by the Lander law firm of Baldwin & Crocker, the tribe argued that because the town was within the reservation’s boundaries, tribal members should be exempt from such levies, as they already are on reservation land south of the river. Though the lawsuit did not name Riverton, city officials regarded it as a threat to their revenue base, which comes in part from state sales taxes. Many whites saw the tribe’s decision to file the case just four months after pledging cooperation with the city as evidence that the Indians on the reservation were not to be trusted—and that Vincent had been played for a fool.

“People would say stuff like, ‘Did you feel a tomahawk in your head, John?’” the mayor recalled ruefully. It didn’t help that during the same period, the Arapaho and Shoshone applied to the federal Environmental Protection Agency for money to conduct air quality studies on the reservation. The studies, if they are funded, could eventually help the tribes win a greater voice in the approval process for new industry near the reservation—an outcome that county officials say could threaten the local economy.

The city sided with the state and county in the tax case, and also joined them in opposing the tribes’ application to the EPA. The Shoshone, meanwhile, dropped out of the negotiations with the city. But despite their differences with the tribes, Vincent and other city officials believed strongly in the need for continued dialogue. In the fall of 2008, city officials began a new round of talks with the Arapaho, this time with help from former Wyoming Gov. Mike Sullivan, a Democrat and former ambassador to Ireland who had been brought in as a mediator.

In December of the same year, Vincent’s conciliatory approach was vindicated to some degree when U.S. Magistrate William C. Beaman found that city’s pursuit of better relations with the tribes did not amount to giving away the store, as the mayor’s critics had argued.

“The city has not conceded that it is Indian country,” Beaman wrote in an interim ruling in the tax case. “Rather, it has merely taken an approach of governmental cooperation with the Tribes given its proximity to the Tribe and the reservation.” (U.S. District Judge Clarence Brimmer subsequently dismissed the Northern Arapaho’s tax lawsuit, which is currently on appeal.)

The discussions brokered by Sullivan produced a new package of agreements known collectively as the MOU, or memorandum of understanding.  They were carefully written to take account of non-Indian concerns, or so the authors believed. Gone was any talk of Riverton’s place “within the exterior boundaries” of the reservation. In fact, the Arapaho explicitly disavowed any claims to land in Riverton. They also agreed to accept the city’s master plan for the city and its surroundings, and promised not to try to take over the municipal sewage plant, so long as it was operated effectively. In return, the city agreed to seat a tribal member on its planning commission, and to help the tribe work for federal tax breaks for local businesses that hire Native Americans. Both sides agreed to seek help from outside mediators before taking disputes to court.

“I think for too long we’ve let a river divide us and we haven’t worked together very well,” Vincent said at a city council meeting where the agreements were unveiled last Nov. 16.

But white reaction to the proposed pacts was hostile. As word of them spread in the community, opponents circulated petitions, flooded city hall with letters and emails, and took out a full-page newspaper ad warning that the MOU “has no value to Riverton and is detrimental to the citizens’ of Riverton position that Riverton is not part of the Reservation.”  Hostile county officials couched their arguments in legal terms, asserting that the documents implicitly supported the Indians’ position that Riverton and other parts of the reservation ceded by the 1905 act were still under tribal jurisdiction, at least for some legal and regulatory purposes.

“They’re not overt, they don’t say that, but when you read it in the context of what’s happening, it’s a red flag to me,” Doug Thompson, the chairman of the Fremont County Commission, told me in an interview this spring. “A lot of these cases hinge on the definition of what are the boundaries of the reservation.”

Thompson’s point is at least debatable, but it was clear that legal worries alone were not driving the opposition. As captured in video recordings, city and county residents who packed the November city council meeting and an even noisier session on February 9 denounced the accords in angry and emotional terms that often had little to do with their substance.

“They need to understand that they cannot keep on bearing this hatred toward the white man,” said a white-haired woman in a flowered dress, accusing the Indians of plotting to take white-owned property in Riverton. “They’re not forgiving and they’re planning all the time.”

A bearded man in a cowboy hat described the documents as “a trap” filled with “weasel words.” Another woman said the tribes’ taxation lawsuit “makes you question their values and ethics.” Someone else blamed the casinos on the reservation for driving up Riverton’s crime rate. Many of the sharpest comments were greeted with hearty applause.

Some of the nastiest comments came in the letters and emails to the city, which were obtained by the Northern Arapaho’s attorneys under the Freedom of Information Act and posted on the tribe’s website.  “If you give these Indians what they want now, they won’t quit. Then they will want to take more, possibly your business,” said an anonymous letter from A Concerned Citizen.

“Every day there are many Indian people listed in the paper for drunk, disorderly conduct, etc.,” warned another. “I think they should be deposited at the door of the Indian police–then, if they are caught again in Riverton, they would be trespassing and ordered to forfeit any incoming monies to the city gov’t.”

Intended as a vehicle of reconciliation, the pacts had instead become a lightning rod for white resentments and anxieties that were as old as the frontier, and as new as the Tea Party.

One of the emails the tribe obtained was from Karlee Zach, who identified herself as the Riverton organizer of the conservative movement. She warned that the proposed agreements would trample on the rights of ordinary citizens and perhaps add to their tax burden. “We have had enough extras shoved down our throats with the Stimulus funding,” she wrote. Many speakers at the council meetings used similar language to condemn the agreements as government meddling. “It kind of reminds me of Obama and the health care bill,” said one man.

The Arapaho kept a low profile during the debate. At the November meeting, Norman Willow, a member of the tribe’s business council, sought to assure the audience that Natives had no hidden agenda.

“We’re not going to rediscover America,” he said.  “What happened to my people, I swallowed it, so we can have agreement. I’m not going to hold it against anybody, what happened to my people. This is America.”

Mayor Vincent was more combative. At the second meeting, where extra police were on hand, he accused county officials of  “using emails and other things to whip up hate and discontent” and noted that in recent cases in which non-Indians had chosen to fight the tribes in court–as on water rights and casino gambling–they had not often prevailed.

“The idea here is that instead of suing each other that we learn how to communicate,” he said. “We don’t think as a council that it serves anybody’s purpose to simply go to the square-off place, hire your lawyers, and duke it out for the next five years.

But the fight was already lost. At the opening of next meeting of the city council on February 16, Vincent somberly read a letter from Arapaho Chairman Harvey Spoonhunter announcing that the tribe was withdrawing from the agreements, sparing the council from a vote.

“Recent stories, public statements and a petition show that among some, little has changed about historic attitudes and resentments toward Indian people,” said the letter, which was drafted with one of the tribe’s attorneys. “We did not expect that our communication and cooperation with you would have generated such an extreme and unfortunate response.”

When Dennis Heckart, the county commissioner who had organized the petition drive, approached the microphone to speak, the mayor cut him off. He looked weary and defeated.

“We’ve hurt each other enough,” he said.

No Resolution

A mural overlooks the main downtown area of Riverton, Wyoming, June 19, 2010. Photograph by Robert Durell

Several months later, the gulf between the two sides seemed as wide and unbridgeable as ever.

“Racism is alive and well here in Wyoming, and Riverton,” Spoonhunter, the Arapaho chairman, told me when I went to see him in his business council office. A youthful-looking man in his fifties, he was dressed in jeans and a black cowboy hat and wore his hair in a thin braid. He was still perplexed by the bitterness of the opposition he had encountered. “We just wanted to come together and cooperate.”

In Riverton, meanwhile, Vincent’s quixotic crusade had cost him dearly in terms of public support. A few days before I met him, there had been an ugly scene in a restaurant where he was dining with his wife and daughter, and many people subscribed to the theory that Vincent had pursued the agreements out of self-interest—to curry favor with the tribes in hopes of winning a share of their legal business. When I asked him about this charge, Vincent laughed.

“It’s a lot easier to be against the Indians than for them,” he said. “The notion that standing firm on issues like this does anything to help one’s business prospects in Riverton is far-fetched, to say the least.”

But change may yet come to Fremont County—and, as in the past, a court is the reason why. In a strongly worded opinion on April 29, U.S. District Judge Alan B. Johnson made mincemeat of the county’s arguments in the voting rights case, ordering it to draw up a new electoral system based on single-member districts, as the tribes had sought.

“The long history of discrimination against Indians in the United States, Wyoming, and Fremont County is undeniable,” he wrote. “The evidence presented to this court reveals that discrimination is ongoing, and that the effects of historical discrimination remain palpable.”

Even after Johnson’s unambiguous order, the commission was not ready to comply. Instead, it proposed a pair of alternatives to the Indian plaintiffs’ remedy. One of the county’s plans would have created a predominantly Native American district, while the four remaining members still would be elected at large. The Casper Star-Tribune editorialized that the county seemed not to have grasped that it had lost the case.

On August 12, Johnson rejected the county’s proposals, writing that they had been “crafted in such a manner that they preserve the racial separation of the county.” He ordered Fremont County to adopt the tribe’s plan for five districts.

Last week, the county commission voted to appeal.


John Lancaster, Writer: (website john-lancaster.com)
Lancaster is a former Washington Post correspondent who covered national environmental issues. the Pentagon and served as the newspaper’s bureau chief in Cairo and New Delhi. A free-lance since 2007, Lancaster has written for National Geographic, The New Republic, Slate, Smithsonian, National Geographic Traveler and The Smart Set.

Robert Durell, Photographer: (website robertdurellphoto.com)Durell is an award-winning free lance photographer based in Northern California. As a former staff photographer for the Los Angeles Times, Durell covered floods, fires and political turmoil for more than ten years, producing more than 5,000 published photographs. His subjects included meth addicts, a Down Syndrome boy trying to make it in a traditional classroom and an Arcata, Ca, neighborhood overtaken by medical marijuana cultivation.

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Published on August 30, 2010

{ 24 comments }

Jon R Horton September 7, 2010 at 11:34 am

The Eastern Shoshone were traditional “enemies” of the Arapahoes’ first cousins, the Northern Cheyenne, in the competition for the buffalo commons and there has been some degree of enmity ever since the re-location of the Arapahoe to Wind River. Now it is both nations against the “Whites” again. Sadly, thinking that our beautiful home state should be the one place in the world free from racism is completely unrealistic. We are almost all racists to some degree, whether we admit it or not. Perhaps putting it into a larger perspective would help us to take the personal edge off the problem. We are just people, not The People. None of us are God’s Chosen, the Lord knows.

Sonja Reagle September 6, 2010 at 8:25 pm

I read your article for the second time and find it very thourough in that you are able to bring to light, all, or many of the variables involved in telling the story of Riverton, Wyoming and the racial problems existing there. For many years, I lived in Santa Fe, New Mexico, surrounded by the Pueblo Indians, Navajos and oher area tribes. For the most part the Native Americans were treated like national treasures and treated with respect. They were the artists, writers, and story tellers, and a joy to be around — a priceless piece of American History.

On another subject — why, with all your background in things nuclear (the A. Q. Khan Nuclear Scandal) did you not explore the issue of radiation contamination in Riverton, an area that has never been totally cleaned up from previous uranium activities, and an area that has recently been acquired by a company whose home office is in Canada. This company is in the process of beginning new operations on the original site. Has anyone given any attention to the human health issues resulting from existing contamination?

John Martin September 5, 2010 at 1:26 pm

Those of us who grew up in Riverton recognize this article as an all-too-accurate account of differences that have festered for generations. (Geoff O’Gara’s book, What You See in Clear Water, is a remarkable description of some of this history.) But among us non-Indians, it’s easiest to ignore differences.

That’s what makes John Vincent’s courage so striking. John didn’t need this fight; he could have sat back and enjoyed a placid and profitable legal practice. Instead, he did his best to reconcile differences between folks in Riverton and the residents of the Reservation. John worked very hard to find a middle ground. And, to be sure, it’s not made him popular. While he may not have been successful this time, the effort is well worth it.

Debbie RE-H September 4, 2010 at 3:36 pm

Albsolutely one of the best written articles I have read in a very long time. I have traveled through the state and vacationed there, just recently in Jackson Hole for a wedding of friends. And I have held my breath many times in every situation or business I have frequented. I love the natural beauty of the state and the wonderful parks…but the blatent “unfriendliness” is alittle hard to take. I always travel with my daughter( who favors her german side) or a dear friend (that happens to non-native) and I always let them speak for me when staying at a motel or ordering food. I try to be very careful where I stop and am very very friendly when I do, why? Because I have experianced fear on more than one occassion. Bravo Mr Vincent! Please stay there and continue to share your influence with the people of your county and the state. Lets hope that people will cast out their ignorant predujices and move forward!

Robert Martinez September 4, 2010 at 11:08 am

Mr. Lancaster & Mr, Durrel,

I just read your story about racism on my home reservation. I was surprised to see pictures of a Mural that I created depicting all the races and historical elements that make Riverton and the surrounding area what it is today. On the end of the mural is a message that dedicates it to the community and is signed by me as the artist.

My first thought is “Good Article…the writer and photographer even underlined the theme by not giving credit or understanding of the Mural they used as a photo reference. As a Mixed Northern Arapaho/Latino/Anglo artist I created that Mural (and retouched it) to give pride and illustrate ALL THE PEOPLE that made/make Fremont County what it is today. It seems you missed your own point.

Racism takes myriad forms…up to and including not giving credit to those who deserve it.

Robert Martinez
Artist

Louis Stanley Schoen September 3, 2010 at 3:35 pm

This is a painful story but, sadly, expresses ideological and emotional realities still prevalent among many of my fellow so-called “white Americans.” Co-facilitating three anti-racism workshops for Wyoming Episcopalians in the Wind River region, in recent years, I heard fears and, in a very few instances, resistance that are more fully explained by Mr. Lancaster’s excellent journalism.

An irony in the story is in the county’s name. Like the Nebraska town that recently voted, in a referendum, to prohibit retail services to illegal immigrants, Riverton’s county is named for explorer and general John C. Fremont, a Georgia Republican who declared opposition to slavery a generation before the Civil War. Yet, he was a complex man with a record of mixed principles, perhaps not too unlike some of the characters Lancaster interviewed.

April September 2, 2010 at 10:58 pm

This artical really does shed light on the ongoing issues in Riverton. I would have like to have more positive views between the “White’s and the natives. I work on the reservation. I am also “white”. I love working with the families and learning the culture. I have had my eyes opened from what I was taught as a child. I have seen all the issues first hand. I have to defend the native community, not because I feel obligated but because I know the truth about thier culture and most of the comments are made out of ignorance. It makes me sad that it is 2010 and people are still living in the past. Every culture has a precived negitivity. I worry that the native people I work with will have a peconcived notion about me because of the color of my skin. Luckly I have found that if you treat people with respect you get it in retun, no matter what your culture is!

JT Trosper September 2, 2010 at 3:37 pm

it is a sad tale for those just opening their eyes to it, or realizing it is happening. But for us natives, it is something we grew up with, and far from a occasional happening. Although outright racism sadly does happen still in wyoming, the veiled tones of predudice are far more common. one only needs to listen to tales from the players on our reservation high school teams to know that racism is alive and well not only in fremont county, but state wide.

the veiled or hidden racism is far more common and just as hurtful, that type happens nearly every day around riverton. we are followed in stores, cause all indians steal you know…we dont but thats the mentality. once long ago my wife worked for Woodwards deli…she had people daily that refused to accept her service and would rather wait for her white coworkers to get free…they didnt want a indian woman to touch their food. The really sad part is this veiled racism is in the elected leaders. former commisner Cosby Allen the guy who stated he hated indians…he and his family have a outfitting business, they cross miles of tribal land to operate it, in fact he was the biggest crier when the tribal landowners and councils closed down the mocc lake road…maybe he should not cross indian land if he hates us so much?

this story needed to be told.

Louis September 2, 2010 at 10:35 am

Helsha Acuña should have called the sheriff on these misfits, they belong in prison. This isn’t the old west, you can’t threaten someone with a shotgun and expect to get away with it. Law enforcement dropped the ball on this one.

Bill September 2, 2010 at 9:39 am

The article is well written and it is good that it is being brought to light. Although, there are always two sides to each story. What about the non natives, non enrolled natives and gays/lesbians that are treated in a less than fair manner in terms of employment. The tribes recieve federal funding and are essentially domestic dependent nations with incidents of sovereignty (in terms of these federal funding) and should be required to adhere to rules and regulations in the treatment of these individuals that work on the reservation. Please, don’t interpet this in a negative manner; I just want to identify that racism is on both sides. There are people on the reservation being discriminated due to their race, non enrolled status and sexual preference and are not being alloted due process. This is just the reality- unfortunate but so real. I hope the on-going story touches on this. I think both sides need to take responsibility and treat each other in a more humane manner.

Daniel Cardenas September 1, 2010 at 3:44 pm

The bottom line is that there are problems on the Wind River Indian Reservation. These are opportunities for the communities to rise up and start to create solutions. It is good to know where we have been so we can see where we are going. We need to understand the past, but we need to understand it in the context of Indian Policy in this country for the past two centuries. We should not forget it, but we need to get past it so that our communities can heal and move forward.

There are many in our communities that are tired of the “hand out” mentality and want to work for a “hand up”. We need help to get on our collective feet, but then we can help ourselves.

Our tribal governments are full of corruption, nepotism, cronyism, and are not accountable to their citizens. Their finances are kept secret from the people. We can not wait for the tribes governments to get their act together. The people themselves must take back their lives, their culture, and move forward without their governments.

The Northern Arapaho have two new casinos. They should be helping the elders, getting them homes, making their lives comfortable for all that they have sacrificed for the people. Those elders need help, and they need it now.

We have a housing crisis on the reservation. Many families have no home or live in substandard housing or overcrowded. It is at epidemic levels now.

We sit on untold wealth in the form of natural resources that are not being developed. Our public education system on the reservation is in shambles.

We have a lot of problems, and we need help, but we also need to help ourselves solve them.

Valerie September 1, 2010 at 3:39 pm

Well written article. Makes you wonder if Senator Barrasso has this same mentality and is why he’s holding up the Cobell settlement. Why isn’t this even on the national news? This is just the west’s “south’s” mentality towards the blacks.

Baptiste Weed September 1, 2010 at 3:16 pm

Maybe it was good nobody hung a map up on the wall and asked those in attendance at these meetings to point out “where” on the map Riverton is located and it’s relevency to the Wind River Reservation! very tough to be in denial where Riverton is located, then apparently its not that tough in this case, something down the line of “repeat a lie long enough, and it will be believed”. This crowd and the attitude they represented would of self destructed, in more anger as they would of pushed the limits of their false belief to the breaking point, one thing is definetely for sure the crookedest finger would of prevailed with this bunch. Nothing in politics happens by chance, if it does not happen there was no plan to make it happen, if you exclude a section or group of people from an initial plan then whatever monster evolves and the different forms it takes, ignores that section or group of people and makes justice that more diffucult. The injustices uncovered on the history of the Wind River Reservation as this article demonstrates is only the tip of the iceberg, as long as justice can be denied, justice will not be served…

joe September 1, 2010 at 1:31 pm

I thought Farmington, NM was one of the worst. This county tops it all on race relations. so sad.

hamlaw September 1, 2010 at 10:54 am

John Vincent reminds one of the courage of some whites in the south during the Civil Rights Movement who were brave enough to walk with the blacks and take the same lumps that the black people did and sometime resulted in their wonding or death. There were other’s that “privately” supported the movement, but were afraid to “go public” because of feared repurcussions from their neighbors. The south would not have changed without the “silent majority” who did not believe that blacks should be maintained in a clandestine state of “subserviance” enforced by terror. I hope John Vincent rides it out and does not leave Riverton. Riverton needs people like him so that a generation or two down the road the dream he has will come to fruition. He has planted a seek for “freedom” and a seed for “understanding” that all people are of “equal worth” even if they are not the “same”. One should not equate “equality” to “sameness”, we are all different individuals and from diverse ethnic backgrounds. Indian people suffered and paid with their lives for what little they have left. John Vincent recongnizes that and will help others understand too, by his actions and his words. This same comment could also be written about Harvey Spoonhunter. Don’t give up on the dream and pass it on to the next generation. Maybe they will see the seed grow into a mighty Oak.

TiaS August 31, 2010 at 4:44 pm

There is another issue regarding Riverton, Wyoming — contamination from uranium mill tailings. Is anyone looking into the native americans who may have been exposed to that, as well as, what effect it may be having on their health and that of their unborn children?

TiaS August 31, 2010 at 4:40 pm

There is another issue regarding Riverton, Wyoming — contamination from uranium mill tailings. Is anyone looking into the native americans who may have been exposed to that and what effect it may have had on their health and their unborn children?

PAMELA RW KANDT August 31, 2010 at 2:52 pm

Thank you for this important, award-worthy reporting. Truly powerful. This is the kind of journalism we so desperately need in our country (and state!) today. I am deeply impressed and so grateful for the light you have shed on the ugly, lasting legacy of ignorance and racism in Wyoming. Thank you, WyoFile, for supporting this work.

Dean Wallowing Bull August 31, 2010 at 12:31 pm

No Arapaho’s or Shoshones were ever “happy to have it” we were ripped off of all that land, forced to accept nominal sums of money for land that was sold to those settlers. That irrigation project was supposed to pay for itself it never has paid back a cent to the government for the use of our water/land for free. Those settlers have become rich off our land and water, we were never compensated for either and they hold a guilt those non-indians. That guilt is what makes them hate us so much because they owe us more than we were ever given for that land/water. That water does not belong to irrigators out on the reclamation it belongs to the tribes of wind river and we should be charging them for the use of our most precious resource. We did not freely part with that land, land is sacred and if we gain the right we will tax those living and making money off our lands for free in the reclamation. Lois Herbst is a racist plain and simple her own guilt and fear that we are going to take her hard work away from her keeps her thinking in the wagon burning days. It’s ok we forgive her something she would never do for us. This new attitude of “take back” is shared by a majority of all tribal members, we want compensation or they can leave our land. The Arapaho tribe or the Shoshone tribe they do not have the infrastructure or means to regulate or tax riverton residents, they have their own problems with corruption. Things would not change if the tribes were to aquire Riverton back things would remain the same. As for John Vincent he is a man of great courage history will remember his name as a man of unity, one that saw beyond prejudice. He saw that the Native Americans in this community are people that deserve to be treated with equality, just as the state logo proclaims. The county they will continue with their crusade against both tribes, their whites only club (comission) is about to get an Arapaho or Shoshone tribal member for the first time. Things will change, this has been a long fight mostly in court, we will now use our rights won in court to gain meaningful representation on the commission. Let the celebrations begin Indians in this county will no longer be silent!

Geoff O'Gara August 31, 2010 at 11:36 am

This is not an easy story to tell, but I think Lancaster roots deep enough to find some of the history that creates insecurity on both sides. John Vincent’s effort to break down barriers may have failed this time around, but the courage to try deserves admiration (and takes courage). And while there must be legal and political steps to knock down inequities, anyone who wants to live here should take the trouble to know neighbors across the river (or next door) socially and culturally. There is no sign on the reservation pointing the way, but there will be welcoming smiles.

Terry Del Bene August 31, 2010 at 11:13 am

This is an excellent article. Thanks for keeping us informed on this important issue. I pray that the vision of the city and the tribes coming together as partners is realized some time soon. It is disturbing to see my friends in Ethete, Shoshone, and Riverton unable to come together and create the promise of “the Equality State” which Wyoming hopes to be but sadly is not.

Alyson Hagy August 31, 2010 at 11:01 am

Thanks to Wyofile, John Lancaster, and Robert Durell for such a well-reported and effective series of articles on the Wind River Reservation. A series such as this one–focused on events and issues that individuals in Wyoming can affect–reminds us of the important civic role of old-fashioned, thorough journalism.

Wyowild August 31, 2010 at 10:10 am

Wow, what a sad story about the folks in Fremont County. As a relatively newcomer to Wyoming, I’ve encountered some of the same “circle the wagons and keep out those not like us” behavior. I’ve seen it all over the state and think it’s a basic Wyoming mentality – - as well as prejudice against Native Americans. Wyoming has a lot of fearful people who think excluding others not like them is the way to protect themselves. The world is not here yet – some of our state’s appeal and source of pride in fact – and it’s arrival in the future will not be received warmly. The same whites who look down on Native Americans will be the first to withdraw the welcome map from other Americans moving in. They don’t realize it’s hard to have economic development when you don’t want new people moving to town. The native peoples, here for untold generations before the ranchers, are open to new businesses and change. Those who adapt, survive.

Mary Flitner August 31, 2010 at 9:05 am

A very comprehensive piece. Sad stories for all, regardless of race or color. History can’t be re-written. The best hope is that people of good faith on all sides can look ahead instead of behind, disregard divisive language and postures. If only.

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