A distinctly Wyoming scene. (Mike Vanata)

Rap impresario Kanye West and mega-celebrity Kim Kardasian West have moved themselves and their three children to Wyoming, drawing a good deal of press attention for their unexpected migration and causing a stir in the Cody area where they have purchased property.

I wonder how they’re faring with the unofficial “Real Wyomingite” citizenship tests coming their way.

This autumn, I finally had enough money and gumption to buy a residential fishing license for the year. When I sidled up to the counter, I asked for a license and the kindly clerk started the interrogation.

“Residential?” the clerk asked. 

“Yes,” I replied.

“Born and raised?”

I chuckled and gave my go-to answer to the big question: “No, I do not have the merit badge of having been born here.

We both gave easy smiles and I ended up with my fancy green permit.

It’s a litmus test that’s likely familiar to anyone who has ever called Wyoming home. And the “born and raised” line of differentiation in Wyoming can go to absurd depths. 

One of my closest friends, a guy from near Sheridan, or, as he says it, “Shurrdin,” used to ask strangers the first three digits of their Social Security Number, which reveal one’s state of birth. He needed proof.

U.S. Rep. Liz Cheney had her own fishing license imbroglio when, recently relocated from Virginia, and running for the U.S. Senate, she purchased a residential fishing license without having lived here long enough to quality.  Her husband, Phil Perry, got crosswise with voting authorities around the same time for being registered to vote in both Wyoming and Virginia. But that’s just voting, small potatoes compared to hunting and fishing privileges in these parts. 

A common critique Cheney’s performance in the U.S. House is that she’s foreign to Wyoming, a carpetbagger. So too, I believe, will the West’s face criticism for their past locales.  

A Northern Arapaho friend of mine recently shared her experience with the time-worn Wyoming question on social media. 

She’d been challenged with the classic,“My family has been here for five generations. How about yours?” It’s not genuine question so much as a way of rhetorically weaponizing residential status — a justification for  diminishing someone else’s opinions. Lineage and location of birth — characteristics for which the speaker can claim no credit — are not just mentioned with pride, but employed to allege that familial longevity confers a more important, more sanctified view about what Wyoming is or should be. 

My friend didn’t share her response, but I wonder if the words “since time immemorial?” might be appropriate. Her initial reaction, though, is one worth contemplating. She noted that query of origins as a contest, not as a celebration, is fundamentally weird to ask of one another.

I don’t know what to do with these questions exactly, but they are tossed at every newcomer who overstays their tourist visa. 

Maybe not everyone in the same way, though. 

Harrison Ford famously lives (and flies) around the Jackson area. Several years ago a distressed climber was scooped up by Ford in his own helicopter, and the climber said “I can’t believe I barfed in Harrison Ford’s helicopter,” which, to me, indicates the collective reverence we have for him here.

But, of course, Ford is an exception. Han Solo and Indiana Jones gets a pass. Another indicator of how widespread this exclusionary thinking is can be seen in the state’s collective response to the annual launching of the tourists by Yellowstone bison: Nearly everyone laughs.

There is no coherency this cliquishness, these demands to conform or get out of town. Identity, though, need not be coherent to be real.

A disc jockey I know pondered how much of the kerfuffle around Kanye’s move was owed to his celebrity, and how much to the fact that he is an African-American man, a successful person and one seemingly unbeholden to any force besides his own impressive personality. It’s a fair question, given the unique hostility that has greeted the African diaspora in most corners of the United States.

So how will Kanye fare? I hope well.

His migration might prompt us to ask ourselves this: Which one of us can say why we deserve to occupy this beautiful land? 

Our obsession with who belongs, who can claim to be the “Real Wyoming,” may grow from nostalgia for our forebears’ conceptions of this fought over and excavated crossroads.

We host the past and use it to define — to our own advantage — who should be included in the present

Perhaps a more anodyne or even productive approach is to sort ourselves not by our differences, but by looking to how we can unify. 

The American South may be more talkative, more gregarious in its hospitality, than we are in the Mountain West, but that doesn’t mean we are unwelcoming.

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In Wyoming, we tend to be taciturn. Perhaps the vastness lends itself to our not needing to talk too much.

We can apply our reverence of silence to our consideration of the new denizens of Wyoming and our lesser instincts to measure them against our personal yardsticks of what Wyoming is or always has been.

This is the heart of of neighborliness, I believe: That we strive to tolerate, like, even adore others simply for the fact of their proximity. Their closeness. 

Ultimately, being neighborly doesn’t mean we have to like the jobs our neighbors have, nor do we need to agree with their politics or opinions, generally. It simply means caring about, and caring for, those who share our common place.

I came to Wyoming because my late father grew up here and told me it was the most beautiful place on Earth. He was right. It would be unethical and just plain gross to shut the metaphorical door that brought me here behind me. 

So welcome, Kanye, and welcome, too, Kim. Wyoming’s a very placid place to raise kids. 

My biggest advice of welcome is this: If people ask, say that you believe the jackalope is real, no matter what. It is the way of the Wyomingite.

Jason Clark

Jason Stenar Clark is a poet whose work has appeared in Brickplight, OFF BY EIGHTY, News From Nowhere, The Zine, Section 8 Magazine, Slink Chunk Press, The Best American Poetry blog and The Rawlins-Times....

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  1. This Cody Country observer would say that the big majority of local feelings and opinions about Kanye West tipped over from “cautiously optimistic” to “widely popular” after his Sunday Service performance here in September. Most locals today are viewing him as a good neighbor and positive influence.

  2. Thank you for being brave enough to begin the conversation. I was born in Powell. Left for the east coast for my 3rd year of college. My Wyoming-taught distrust of anyone/thing different from Wyoming approved provided several years of misery until I relaxed and discovered the joy and liberation of embracing difference. Now when I visit Wyoming, I search for the excitement that comes with welcoming everyone as they are, not as the WY tourist brochure would want them to be.

  3. Come on, Jason, be kind. ALL of us got here from somewhere or other, no matter how many generations ago, and you can either focus on pettiness and casual clumsiness or just smile and keep on smiling. Let’s wish a good year to all, no matter where or who, or how long we’ve been anywhere. Its how one behaves that counts, not their longevity of address.

    1. Amen. We were all outsiders once and continue to be so the moment we step outside our neighborhood, which we do not own, by the way.

      From what I hear, Kanye has been kind and generous to the people of Cody. And many are excited to have him there.

      Let’s treat others the way we want to be treated. Isn’t that the reputation Wyoming people embody? Open-minded and fair?

      Time to walk the walk.