Painted in 1980 by Mike Kopriva, the mural “Wyoming, the Land, the People” hangs in a committee room in the Wyoming State Capitol. It’s a large-scale depiction of Wyoming people and places, with one notable exception — there are no Native Americans and only a minor archaeological reference to their existence. (Rachel Girt/Capitol Square Project)

The Legislature voted Friday to halve funding for the governor’s tribal liaison program.

In its supplemental budget bill, the Joint Appropriations Committee recommended cutting $80,000 of the $160,000 the governor sought for the program. Lawmakers who support the program tried multiple amendments to put full funding back in the budget bill when the House and Senate considered the supplemental budget last week, but the amendments failed each time. The cuts were confirmed Friday.

Members of the House and Senate suggested Gov. Matt Mead could now choose between one full-time liaison to represent both Wyoming’s tribes, or have a liaison from each tribe who works only part time. In an interview, Mead questioned whether the program would remain viable with only half the funding.

Amendments to preserve the program were proposed by Sen. Cale Case (R, SD-25, Lander) in the Senate and Rep. Jim Allen (R, HD-33, Lander) in the House. Both men’s districts include portions of the Wind River Reservation, and both have advocated for tribal interests this session.

Along with trying to preserve the liaison program, the two men have proposed legislation that would make tribal history a more integral part of Wyoming school curriculum. Other bills would send a message to the federal government about upholding its health care trust obligations and raise Native American scholarship money by creating tribally themed license plates.

The tribal liaisons advise the governor on policy that affects the reservation and connect his office to tribal government and its agencies. Having only one tribal liaison would be a mistake, Case said, because Wyoming’s two tribes, the Northern Arapaho and the Eastern Shoshone, are separate sovereign nations whose interests do not always align.

“We wouldn’t ask Norway and Sweden to send the same ambassador,” he said.

Jason Baldes, executive director of the Wind River Native Advocacy Center, agreed. “The fact that we have two tribal governments that operate independently of each other even on one reservation, even today, is because of our cultural differences,” he said.

Baldes is an enrolled member of the Eastern Shoshone tribe. He does not attend Northern Arapaho tribal government meetings, he said.

The House and Senate opposition to the amendments centered around whether the tribes need two full-time liaisons.

“We cannot see the full-time nature of it,” Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Bruce Burns (R, SD-21, Sheridan) said in debate. He suggested the governor could move to one part-time liaison per tribe, or the tribes could match the state funding to keep the positions full time.

Case said a larger context should be considered. “This is the wrong time to strain the relationships between the tribes and the state … I think it’s a reasonable amount of money to keep those relationships as strong as it can be,” Case said.

Jason Baldes, director of the Wind River Native Advocacy Center, confers with Rep. Jim Allen in a Senate committee room on Feb. 9. (Andrew Graham/WyoFile)
Jason Baldes, director of the Wind River Native Advocacy Center, confers with Rep. Jim Allen in a Senate committee room on Feb. 9. (Andrew Graham/WyoFile)

In both houses of the Legislature, proponents of full funding pointed to tensions over a border dispute in Riverton and water development projects as evidence of the need for cooperation between the governments.

After the amendments failed, Case characterized the cut as “penny-wise and pound-foolish,” given the amount of money exchanged between the tribes and state via mineral revenues and government programming.

The state and Fremont County receive more than $10 million annually from severance and other taxes on production from the reservation, according to a report by the Wind River Native Advocacy Center, the Wyoming Department of Health and the Wyoming Association of Churches.

Baldes said he was disappointed, but hopes the cut doesn’t diminish the importance of the positions and the tribes’ government-to-government relationship with Wyoming. He said he could understand the Legislature’s stance after seeing all the budget cuts being made.

Funding shortage creates mixed message

Begun by the Legislature in 2003, the liaison program’s goal is to “aid, assist and advise the governor,” in tribal matters, according to the original statute. In 2015, the Legislature changed the statute to ensure the governor would select a liaison from each tribe, and appropriated $200,000 to pay for the program.

Program costs had been split by the tribe and the state. Splitting the cost proved to be problematic, Case said. “It becomes unclear who works for who,” he said.

Resolving that problem drove the 2015 legislation to put full funding for the program in the hands of the state, according to newspaper accounts from the time. But this year, several lawmakers argued tribes should help pay for the program.

Mead said Friday it was proper that Wyoming pay the salary, because the tribal liaisons are an asset to the state. Advising the state on how to approach tribal issues is “the reason the Legislature originally wanted to do it,” he said.

Also, he asked, “has anybody talked to the tribes,” about paying for the program?

Baldes was doubtful that the tribes would fund half the positions. “I don’t think it’s necessarily a priority for either council,” he said. Like the state, the reservation’s economy is 70 percent dependent on the mineral industry and has been feeling the bust just as strongly.

“Just someone being at the Legislature is important enough,” he said, but neither tribe has had a lobbyist there. While Baldes lobbies for the Wind River Native Advocacy Center, he does not represent either tribal government. He said neither council had wanted to pay for a lobbyist.

During the debate, Rep. Bob Nicholas (R, HD-8, Cheyenne), chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, made another argument against funding the program. Given an ongoing dispute over reservation borders that has pitted the state against the tribes, some Wyoming citizens may be displeased with Wyoming paying for tribal representatives in the governor’s office, he said. The dispute arose during the course of an EPA study to grant the tribes monitoring authority over their air quality. The EPA ruled that Riverton lies within the reservation, a decision endorsed by the tribes which the state has appealed.

“Why would we try to go one way when they’re pulling on the chain in the other direction?” Nicholas asked.

Rep. Bob Nicholas (R, HD-8, Cheyenne) works on his computer on the House floor on Jan. 18. Nicholas, the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, said some Wyoming residents may not want the state to fully fund the tribal liaison positions. (Andrew Graham/WyoFile)
Rep. Bob Nicholas (R, HD-8, Cheyenne) works on his computer on the House floor on Jan. 18. Nicholas, the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, said some Wyoming residents may not want the state to fully fund the tribal liaison positions. (Andrew Graham/WyoFile)

Mead said the EPA controversy was a perfect example of why liaisons are important.

“The tribes disagree with the state’s position, and I get that, and I disagree with their position,” he said. “But whatever the courts do, we want to recognize that it’s important to move forward in a positive way once we are through the court process.”

Sergio Maldonado has been the tribal liaison for the Northern Arapaho tribe since October 2015. He submitted his resignation to the governor Thursday, though he offered to stay on until June. He did not want to work for half his salary, he said, and would prefer to return to a career in academia.

At times the balance between advising the governor without advocating for the tribes was difficult, Maldonado said. “You do not advocate, you are neutral,” he said, “and yet … how does one not advocate for the people whose blood runs through my veins?”

He agreed with the idea of the tribes providing matching liaison funds.

The cut in funding was the latest struggle for a program that has had difficulties, Maldonado said. “Yes, the liaison position benefits the state and the tribes, but it’s political history has been up and down,” he said. Mead also recognized the program’s turbulent history, but said that recently the process had smoothed out. Case and Baldes both said that personality is an important factor for the liaison position. Maldonado, they said, may have been too fierce in his advocacy role at times.

“He’s more of a warrior type than a peacemaker type,” Case said. In the last election cycle, Maldonado ran against Allen for the House District 33 seat. He lost by 67 votes.

“I still fall back on the notion that the state of Wyoming, and our Legislature, still needs to learn more about our people,” Maldonado said. For that, Maldonado said he was hopeful for House Bill 76, American Indian education program, a measure co-sponsored by Allen, Case and six other lawmakers.

Leslie Shakespeare, a former liaison who now serves on the Eastern Shoshone Tribal Business Council, has agreed to serve as an informal liaison while the governor searches for replacements. Shakespeare said he does not believe the governor will find quality liaisons if the state pays a part-time salary.

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Without effective liaisons, he said, issues between the tribes and the state “fester and become a bigger problem.”

Because of the potential conflict of interest, he does not believe the Eastern Shoshone Tribal Business Council will provide funding for a position  responsible to the governor.

The dispute over the reservation boundary has produced tensions in the Riverton community, Shakespeare said. He is disappointed that the liaison program will be hamstrung before that dispute is settled.

“What strategies are going to be there to relieve social tensions?” he asked. “Liaisons would have been perfect.”

Indian education for all

On a wall in the Capitol Building is a mural called “Wyoming, the Land, the People.” Painted in 1980 by Mike Kopriva, it is 8 feet by 22 feet and depicts scenes and residents from around the state. It shows Devil’s Tower and the Tetons, farmers, fishermen, hikers, miners, archaeologists, ranchers, pronghorn, lab technicians, irrigators, the railroad, a sheep wagon, oil derricks, a refinery, a dragline mining coal and a moose, but no Indians.

“There’s not a single Native American element in this piece,” Case said. The exception he pointed to was some barely visible pictographs on rocks near the archaeologists. The state’s roughly 13,000 – 19,000 Native Americans have been left out of the mural, which today is protected by a plywood covering as the building is restored around it.

“This is the cultural bias that we have when we look at what Wyoming is,” Case said.

The senator reached out to Kopriva a few years ago, and the artist is willing to go back in and add Native American elements to the mural. He just needs some funding from the Legislature. The process has been on hold for the duration of the Capitol construction project.

In the meantime, Case and Allen have proposed legislation to fill the gap in Wyoming’s consciousness when it comes to the two sovereign nations in their mix. Their bill would require the state board of education to work with the Northern Arapaho and Eastern Shoshone tribes to develop curriculum for teaching the history and culture of American Indians, with an emphasis on the Wyoming tribes.

“It’s part of our history,” Allen said, “and why is it not being taught?”

As originally drafted, the bill gave the tribes final say over how that history would be taught. The House amended the bill, however, to give authority to the Department of Education. The measure requires the department to consult with the tribes as it develops the material.

Baldes, who has been working on the bill with lawmakers from the Select Committee on Tribal Relations, said the amendment was acceptable, and that he had been more worried the bill would die without the amendment. Rep. Tom Walters (R, HD-38, Casper) had proposed removing the consultation language from the bill, Baldes said, but “the Department of Education expressed their want to make sure the tribes were involved and had a say.”

The bill passed the House 49 to 11. On Monday, the bill passed the Senate Education Committee with a unanimous vote. Superintendents from school districts both on and off the reservation, along with Senate President Eli Bebout of Riverton, testified in favor. Allen said he’s confident it will pass the full Senate as well, and Bebout’s endorsement will help. The idea behind the bill has been gaining momentum for years, he said, and many school districts already teach some form of Native American history.

“It’s not taking over the curriculum,” Case said, “it’s just a tiny piece.”

Sen. Cale Case.
Sen. Cale Case.

Two other pieces of legislation that directly affect the tribes are also currently in the Senate. House Bill 128 would create license plates for both the Northern Arapaho and Eastern Shoshone tribes. Money raised from their sale would go to the Chief Washakie and Northern Arapaho endowment funds, which support students and teachers with Native American ties at the University of Wyoming.

House Joint Resoltuion 8 requests that Congress uphold the federal government’s trust responsibility, as laid out in treaties with the tribes, to provide for Native American health care. How well that obligation is met has varied, Baldes said, often depending on the sentiments of presidential administrations toward the tribes.

Historically, Indian Health Services, which provides care on the reservation, has been funded at about 45 percent of its need, according to to the report by the Wind River Native Advocacy Center, Wyoming Department of Health and the Wyoming Association of Churches.

Health problems abound on the reservation. The report said that the average age of death for the general population in Wyoming is 71 years old; for Native Americans, it’s 56, a difference of 15 years.

The shorter average life span on the reservation in large part is due to infant mortality, said Richard Brannan, the Northern Arapaho Health and Human Services director. “We have so many young people and babies dying,” he told the Senate Rules Committee when it considered HJ8 on Thursday.

Were the federal government to fail on it’s health-care funding obligations, Brannan said, his department would be forced to cut half of its staff and half its services.

Northern Arapaho Business Council member, Richard Brannon
Richard Brannan, director of health services for the Northern Arapaho tribe, testifying before the Joint Appropriations Committee in 2015. (Gregory Nickerson/WyoFile)

He would like to see more proactive health programs on the reservation, he said. Those include alcohol and substance abuse prevention programs, maternal health initiatives  and better education for expectant mothers.

His goal may be more difficult to achieve after cuts made by the Legislature this session. The budget bill removes around $400,000 from the Adolescent Health Program, which pays for public health nurses to visit low-income expectant mothers. Members of the tribe benefited from the program in Fremont County, Brannan said.

The House has passed an amendment to restore $335,000 to adolescent health, but the Senate rejected the amendment. The differences in House and Senate budgets will be resolved by a 10-member conference committee.

“If you don’t have money, you don’t have health care,” Brannan said.

Andrew Graham is reporting for WyoFile from Laramie. He covers state government, energy and the economy. Reach him at 443-848-8756 or at, follow him @AndrewGraham88

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  1. Excellent article and analysis. Thank you WyoFile for covering concerns of Wyoming’s Native Americans and the Wind River Reservation.