The reservation reacts to new, troubling press coverage

Children play on a fence outside Blue Sky Hall in Ethete. Residents say the Wind River Indian Reservation is often a more hopeful place than is portrayed in press reports. (Lindsay D’Addato/WyoFile — click to enlarge)
By Ron Feemster
February 19, 2013

Residents on the Wind River Indian Reservation know they have some big crime problems, but they don’t always like outsiders to write about them, especially when they seem to get everything else about the reservation wrong.

A New York Times article that appeared just over a year ago detailed a young man’s tragic, drunken murder of his teenage sister, and the heartbreak of parents who buried a daughter and lost a son to prison.

But before the Times writer got to that story, near the end of his 1,200-word piece, he had lost most of his Native readers. The article first delivered a litany of oppressive crime and poverty statistics punctuated with quotes from Tribal officials about “gloom” and “bad spirits.” To Native ears at least, these expressions capture tired stereotypes better than the views of educated, if occasionally overwhelmed, Indian leaders.

Layha Spoonhunter works with young people on the reservation. He recently returned from a trip to Washington, D.C., where he joined the Wind River Dancers to perform in President Obama’s Inaugural Parade. (Ron Feemster/WyoFile — click to enlarge)
Layha Spoonhunter works with young people on the reservation. He recently returned from a trip to Washington, D.C., where he joined the Wind River Dancers to perform in President Obama’s Inaugural Parade. (Ron Feemster/WyoFile — click to enlarge)

This week a new story made waves on the reservation when it appeared in Business Insider under the headline “Here’s what life is like on the notorious Wind River Indian Reservation.”

“It’s like the New York Times article, only worse,” said Layha Spoonhunter, 23, who recently returned with other reservation young people from a trip to Washington, D.C. to dance in President Obama’s Inaugural Parade. “At least the New York Times writer went around and talked to people.”

The Business Insider presented a slide show of more than 50 photographs, some of them taken off the reservation, with captions presenting the community’s problems and hard living conditions with no sources beyond his “guide,” a local teacher who remained nameless throughout the story.

“There was a lot of misinformation,” said Sara Robinson, the state tribal liaison for the Eastern Shoshone tribe. She was in Cheyenne lobbying the legislature and spoke briefly on the phone. “There were people in my family who were upset and angry. It was just not a good piece of work. Period.”

Spoonhunter paged through the photographs online, pointing out the disparities between what they showed and the written commentary.

“Picture number 37 shows Blue Sky Hall,” he said. “The caption says ’everything is for sale on the Rez — sex, drugs, booze, houses, tires, trucks.’”

Blue Sky Hall is a gathering place for the Northern Arapahoes, where the tribe holds events from elections and public meetings to performances and Thanksgiving dinners. “The tribe’s substance abuse and diabetes awareness programs are in that building,” Spoonhunter said. “It’s nothing like a place where sex or drugs are for sale.”

Spoonhunter goes on to point out other photos that he finds misleading. Apparently drunken young people in a Riverton city park are labeled “park rangers.” Accompanying the shots of buildings housing the federal program Women, Infants, Children (WIC) and the community health center is a remark that “growing up here can foster a sense of entitlement.”

“There’s another story to tell here,” Spoonhunter says. “It’s not all doom and gloom.”

— Ron Feemster covers the Wind River Indian Reservation for WyoFile in addition to his duties as a general reporter. Feemster was a Visiting Professor of Journalism at the Indian Institute of Journalism and New Media in Bangalore, India, and previously taught journalism at Northwest College in Powell. He has reported for The New York Times, Associated Press, Newsday, NPR and others. Contact Ron at ron@wyofile.com.

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8 Comments

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  1. Many will never understand because they just don’t know. Life on the Rez has it’s history beginning with a heavy white man hand of deciept, lies, and disrespect. Yes it is usually beautiful country but it is still just a fraction of our homelands and usually never the high peaks and mountain valleys where Europeans now live and play. So, to start understanding just a little, try coming from the mindset of the early beginnings. Genocide, assimilation that tried to steal our birthright, identity, and soul. I think Crazy Horse said something like this, when you forced us into square buildings you stoled our soul. Start there, and maybe u can understand the people a little better. Alot of the crap on the Rez came from outside sources like smallpox did back in the day which is just killing us.

  2. It’s really hard to believe a semi-professional journalist working for a semi-professional publication would produce something that shoddy. The photos are pedestrian at best and the captions just awful. He appears to have done zero research beyond talking to his unnamed guide, and to have accepted as gospel truth anything he heard. Just incredible.

  3. As a freelance journalist, I’ve covered the Wind River Reservation. It is challenging to get under the surface appearance of things, to earn trust and gain access. Parachute journalism never gets it right. The Rez has problems, but there are good people working to make things better. It is a much more complex place than the NYT or Business Insider reveal.

  4. If there’s one stereotype here, it’s that of the bumbling national reporter who parachutes into a reservation community for a week, makes very little effort to get a local perspective, views everything through his own cultural lens, and then paints a skewed, grim picture of modern Indian life.

    Crossing over cultural boundaries seemed to be far too challenging for this photojournalist. Reading the captions, it seems like the photographer had a real fear of the unknown. You’d think in his profession he’d know how to get past that, but Wind River proved him lacking. He failed the test. On top of that, from a visual perspective the snapshots in this essay are mediocre.

    After all that’s been taken from Indians, it is terrible they now have to fight for control of their public image with organizations like Business Insider. But it happens all the time. Kudos to Layha Spoonhunter for speaking up and providing some much needed perspective.

  5. I believe any reporter would do well to immerse themselves in the culture and discover the amazing good things that happen within the Arapahoe and Shoshone culture that are not readily apparent from statistics.

  6. Thanks to Ron Feemster for pointing out that there are many stories out on the Wind River Reservation — young people with hope and dreams, not just the dire story that outsiders seem to focus on.

  7. Indeed the situation is not correctilbe. But, when we have leadership such as the current SBC and the former ABC what do we do? Its all the sneaky underhanded under the tabel things that are hurtin our people. Using your position in the Council and appointed positions only to help your own.