Wyoming’s Wind River Indian Reservation is a place of both beauty and heartbreak. Endowed with grassy plains, sparkling rivers and proud Native American culture, the reservation also suffers from exceptionally high rates of poverty, unemployment and substance abuse. Over the next several weeks, WyoFile will feature a series of special reports, On The Wind River Reservation, by former Washington Post national and foreign correspondent John Lancaster examining some of the major issues confronting the reservation and the people who live there.
ARAPAHOE—The girls were familiar with loss. Like too many of their classmates on the Wind River Indian Reservation, they come from broken families and have witnessed first-hand the havoc that alcohol and drugs visit on their community. But there was something about the death of Marisa Spoonhunter that hit them particularly hard.
There was her age, just 13 when her semi-nude body was found under a tree on April 7, five days after she disappeared. Her older brother and his step-cousin have been charged in connection with her death.
There were the memories of other lives cut short– of the three teenage girls, the oldest just 15, the youngest 13, who died from drug overdoses on the same reservation in June 2008.
And there was the sense that, if not for a bit of luck, what happened to Marissa could have happened to any of them.
Above all, the girls were united by a feeling that, this time, it was not enough simply to grieve. They wanted to act–to draw a line in the prairie and say, in effect, enough. So when Linda Heron, a guidance counselor at the Arapahoe Charter High School here, proposed that they form a group to combat substance abuse, sexual violence and associated ills, the five of them readily agreed.
Thus was born the Young Ladies’ Society, and with it the hope that Marisa’s death will be remembered not as just another sad statistic, but as the start of something good. Among their activities– movie nights, camping trips, counseling on self-defense and avoiding date rape,—the girls plan to honor Marisa and other victims with a “remembrance walk” next month. Along the route, the girls will pick up trash, plant wildflowers, and carry signs that say, “Too Many. No More.”
“What we want to do is influence these girls that there’s more to life than getting crazy,” said Whitney Ghost Bear, 16, the president of the newly formed group, during an interview in Heron’s office Tuesday. “It happened too many times. We just don’t want it to keep going.”
“It really was about not wanting to be victims,” said Heron, who spent part of her childhood on a nearby ranch and has worked at the school since it opened in 2005. “They know the risks. They see it. They live it.”
Clearly, they do. A survey of the first 112 students who enrolled at the school in 2005 found that 70 percent had problems with alcohol or drugs, 25 percent had already been exposed to the criminal justice system, and 13 percent were homeless, according to Heron. Ninety percent tested below grade level in reading and math.
The school mostly serves the Northern Arapaho tribe, which is one of two —the other is the Shoshone—on the reservation, a breathtaking expanse of grasslands, creeks and escarpments at the foot of the Wind River Mountains in west-central Wyoming. Arapaho Charter is one of four high schools on the reservation that serve a total of about 370 students, according to Alfred Redman, Sr., the education director for the Northern Arapaho. Redman said the social problems reflected in the 2005 survey at Arapaho Charter are typical of the reservation’s high schools.
The founding members of the Young Ladies’ Society are among 46 students now enrolled at Arapaho Charter, and each has a story. Whitney, the president, was raised by her maternal grandmother but has recently moved in with her father’s parents. Trinity Shakespeare, 16, said she hasn’t seen her mother for seven years because her mother moved away shortly after Trinity’s baby sister was beaten to death by her mother’s boyfriend in 2002. Agnes Moss lost her father to alcohol-related illness when she was eight. Now 17, she is still a sophomore because, she said, “I had a problem getting to school. I was being crazy at the time.”
They are all familiar with the risks confronting young people on the reservation. Trinity was friends with two of the three girls who died in 2008 at the Beaver Creek housing complex after overdosing on methadone, which is typically used to treat heroin addicts. And several girls in the group were related to Marisa Spoonhunter, an eighth-grader at Wyoming Indian Middle School near her home in the reservation town of Ethete. Agnes, a cousin, said she was surprised when she heard that Marissa had been drinking with her 21-year-old brother and his 19-year-old step-cousin at the time of her death. “She was a good girl,” Agnes said. “She respected her mom and dad.”
The teenager died after her brother, Robert Spoonhunter, found her having sex with the step-cousin, Kyeren Tillman, in a bedroom of the trailer home where the trio had been drinking, according to federal court documents. Spoonhunter flew into a rage. He held his sister in a chokehold for 20 seconds until her body went limp, then threw her “away from him,” causing her to hit her head on a weight bench, according to the documents, which were based on statements the two men gave to the FBI. The men bound the girl’s legs with rope, carried her outside and left her behind a tree. Then they went to a neighbor’s house and continued drinking, the documents say.
After Marisa’s body was found on April 7, the principal at the Arapaho high school, Mel Miller, called a meeting to discuss the incident with students and to urge them to share their feelings with Heron, the guidance counselor. Five of them came to her office.
“They were scared,” she recalled. “I told them, ‘It could have happened to any one of you,’ and they knew it.”
Heron, 44, is not a member of the Arapaho tribe, but she is an empathetic mentor to the teenagers she calls “my girls,” having known her own share of pain. Her parents, neither of whom made it past middle school, separated when she was 11, and she was the only one of six children to attend college. Her work at the school is often fraught with heartache. Last fall, for example, she called in the FBI after a distraught student told her that she had been raped while intoxicated, but the bureau– which investigates serious crimes on the reservation– declined to prosecute the alleged rapist, citing lack of evidence.
Heron has not forgotten what one of the agents told her at the time: “Do you know how many calls like this we get a month? Fifteen.”
Yet, Heron thought some good might come from Marisa’s death. “I wanted a response that would empower,” she recalled. And so, apparently, did the girls who gathered that day in her office. When she broached the idea of the group, “they loved the idea,” Heron said.
The girls are full of plans. In Heron’s office on Tuesday, three of them described the tee-shirt logo they had designed– a crown above a pair of feathered wings– and the gold pinky ring that will be awarded to those who stay with the group for a year. Girls must take a vow of sobriety in order to join.
“We don’t want you to be there just to get free stuff,” Whitney explained.
For all the challenges they face, the charter members of the Young Ladies’ Society have not abandoned their dreams. Trinity hopes to move to Los Angeles after graduation, study cosmetology and start her own business. Agnes thinks she might join her in cosmetology school. And Whitney, the president, is a ballet-lover who wants to be choreographer.
Not long ago she captured her feelings in a poem:
Where I’m From
I am from a torn family and a broken dream and everything in between
But that won’t stop me from doing what I need to do
I’m only chasing a thought and making it a dream
A shattered life is where I’m from
I am from a twisted illusion and a nightmare
I will say from a dream turned wrong to a heart already gone
Like I always say every day has its dawn
I am from broken promises to depression and back
From hurt pain and tears
To putting myself together again
I am from keep looking forward there’s a better day
To keeping my head up
And dusting the hurt off
If you did family research and dug deep into my genes you’d find love secrets pain and pride
John Lancaster is a former Middle East and South Asia correspondent for the Washington Post. He currently lives in Washington, D.C., where he writes for magazines such as National Geographic and Smithsonian. For the next several weeks he will be reporting for WyoFile on the Wind River Indian Reservation.