In the years after World War II, Sheridan, Wyoming went from being “an Indian-hating town” in the words of Crow elder Joseph Medicine Crow, to being “the Indian capital of the world.” At least for a while.
That story is the subject of a short documentary film produced by WyoFile reporter Gregory Nickerson that debuted on OCt. 16 on Wyoming PBS as part of a Wyoming Chronicles episode on the Sheridan WYO Rodeo.
The film is titled No Indians or Dogs Allowed: Sheridan, Wyoming and the Miss Indian America Pageant, and documents the rise of an effort to end public prejudice against American Indians in Sheridan in the 1950s.
At that time, as Medicine Crow describes in the film, some businesses on Main Street had no qualms about denying service to American Indians from the neighboring Crow and Cheyenne reservations. They used signs to deny public accommodations to Indians, both men and women, young and old. Even American Indian war heroes like Medicine Crow were excluded.
But the election of a Crow woman named Lucy Yellowmule as rodeo queen — the first American Indian to hold that title at a Sheridan rodeo — sparked a public relations effort to take down the signs.
It also led to an annual celebration of Indian cultures called All American Indian Days, and its keynote event, the Miss Indian America pageant, which ran in Sheridan from 1953-1984. At its peak, the event hosted thousands of Indians from dozens of tribes, with more than 100 contestants for Miss Indian America.
The event moved to Bismarck, North Dakota in 1985 and ended in 1991. Yet it’s legacy lives on in pageants like Miss Indian World, Miss Indian Nations, and others, according to Susan Arkeketa (Otoe-Missouria/Creek), Miss Indian America 1978-1979. It also returned to Sheridan in 2013 and 2015 with reunions of former Miss Indian America titleholders.
Nickerson produced the film as an independent project with an all-Wyoming film crew, funded in part by the Wyoming Humanities Council, with in-kind support from the Sheridan County YMCA and Wyoming PBS producer Craig Blumenshine. Footage came from a reunion of Miss Indian America winners in 2013 and 2015, along with archival collections from the Sheridan County Fulmer Public Library and the Sheridan County Museum.
“This is an important story about building bridges, and how American Indians and Wyoming people tried to live up to our nation’s values of freedom and equality,” Nickerson said. “The pageant touched a lot of lives. As Miss Indian America 1976 Deana Harragarra Waters says in the film, it has a message that is still relevant today.”
The film aired on Wyoming PBS at 7:30 p.m. Friday Oct. 16, with additional showings at 6:30 p.m. Oct. 17 and noon on Oct. 18. It is also available to stream online on the Wyoming PBS website (and on WyoFile, see below) and will screen at the annual meeting of the Western History Association in Portland, Ore. on Oct. 23.