Simpson Forum Short
Editor’s note:
 WyoFile is pleased to present the fourth installment in our special project: “The Pete Simpson Forum,” a conversation about how our state can best deal with a host of challenges and opportunities. People with different backgrounds are invited to write about a particular topic. WyoFile publishes a pair of columns each month. 

A note from Pete:
Phil Roberts serves both as myth buster and provocateur in his latest essay on the “cowboy myth.” What do you think? Has the historical cowboy become suspect as a symbol of Wyoming’s political identity today? After all, the “knight of the prairie” is not the miner whose work undergirds Wyoming’s economy, not the fast-food worker who is attached “hip and thigh” to the tourist industry. And, as the post-industrial American economy, the service economy, more and more replaces what remains of Wyoming’s agricultural economy, will there be room for the cowboy symbol at all, or will advocating for it become nothing short of delusional, or worse, just hypocritical?

Perhaps Nina McConigley’s essay answers that for all of us cowboy devotees, and I’m one. She talks eloquently of deep values that transcend both class and race – matters of character, of neighborliness, of measuring a person’s worth without regard to color or creed. Don’t those attributes hearken to Roberts’ description of the cowboy? And wouldn’t those attributes continue to describe Wyoming today? 

I’ll look forward to a discussion. 

Nina McConigley — Why I live in Wyoming

Author Nina McConigley describes why she chooses to live in Wyoming.
Essay by Nina McConigley
— November 26, 2013
Nina McConigley
Nina McConigley

My birthday is on November 8, and often falls on election day. And in fact, the first time I could vote, in 1994, I was able to vote for my mother, Nimi McConigley, for House District 59 in Casper. I was probably the only Indian in her district.

This past August, I moved back to Wyoming to teach at UW after being away for several years. My family moved to Casper in 1976, when I was 10 months old, in the middle of a boom. Due to a lack of rental properties, we lived in what is now the Parkway Plaza (a longtime hotel and convention center) for weeks. I always say I may not have been born in Wyoming, but I took my first steps on Wyoming soil, and that Wyoming is my home – emotionally and physically. So it surprised me when friends who knew how much I often went on about the mountains, the prairies, even the wind, looked at me with disbelief. “How can you move back there? It’s so not diverse,” one friend challenged. Another friend asked, “Doesn’t it upset you? You don’t ever see any people of color?” Seeing my face, she quickly changed the subject, “Okay, but what about the weather? It’s so cold.”

These questions don’t surprise me. When I meet people , I always get some astonishment when they ask me where I am from. “Wyoming,” I answer. And more often than not, the response is, “No, where are you from, really?” or “Hmm, you don’t look like a typical Wyoming person.” Over the years, I am not sure of the response I am supposed to give, and usually, I just reply with, “Well, there are some brown people there.”

But what is a typical Wyoming person? When I think of Wyoming’s political identity, I know it is easy to make some quick judgments about its identity in general. Wyoming is 90 percent white. Wyoming is 0.8 percent Asian American. Wyoming is largely Republican. And conservative. I think we’ve all heard the drill before. And yet, Wyoming was the first state to have a woman governor, and in the case of my mother, they were the first state to elect someone to serve in a state legislature who was born in India.

In 1994, when my mom was elected, again, she had no Indians in her district. When she first ran, even I was a little doubtful that she’d win. She wore saris often. She has an accent. But she went door to door and talked to almost every house in her district. She campaigned on issues that were important to Wyoming people – and to her. And she won. After that, my feelings about Wyoming changed – as before I thought of the state as a little backward when it came to matters of diversity. I was only 19, and had just left Wyoming to go to college. I realized then that while your physical identity is something that people can’t help but take in, Wyoming people vote for people that have something to offer. Wyoming acknowledges ability and competence.

Wyoming has always been a state that has drawn immigrants to its open spaces. From pioneers from back East to Europeans, Latin Americans, and Asians. And Wyoming has always had an Asian population. As my friend who is a Wyoming historian told me, there were Chinese rail and mine workers, Japanese rail workers and beet farmers, and of course Heart Mountain brought in an influx of Japanese people. Today, many motels across the state are run by Indians from India.

Here in Laramie, walking across the University of Wyoming campus, you can hear bits of other languages being spoken, the Indian students play cricket in Prexy’s pasture, and the students who I teach, while largely from Wyoming, have a curiosity about other cultures and peoples that is genuine and true.

Since that day in 1994, I have always voted in Wyoming, and feel strongly about positions from school board to our senators. But that said, when I look at the Wyoming legislature, it’s hard to see much diversity representing the state. Out of the 90 legislators in the Senate and House, only five are of color. I know that number probably makes sense in a state where again, the population is more that 90 percent white.

People always talk about how so many young people leave the state once they graduate from high school. Many look to cities for more excitement, for a different experience. I think the same can be said of many minorities and people of color. Why live here when you can be somewhere with more diversity and with those cultural connections? I get that. But if Wyoming is going to be a more diverse place, people have to choose to live here. And I know I fall into that camp. I choose to live here because I can’t imagine anywhere else. I love the mountains. I love the posture of a lodgepole pine. I love the way the sun looks in the bright blue sky on a day that is minus 30 degrees. I love the quiet of the snow. I love the space.

Growing up, I have experienced a few moments of overt racism. I have been called names, and after 9/11, been told to go back to my own country. But, those incidents in the 30-plus years I have lived here, have been few. For the most part, if I am wearing a sari or a salwaar kameez, people will stop and ask questions with genuine interest about Indian culture. My mother has taught in schools all over Wyoming about India, and I teach an Indian Literature class here at UW. I think so much misunderstanding and racism starts as a fear of the unknown – and I will always do my best to talk about difference, to open the conversation about what race means here in Wyoming.

When people ask me why I live in Wyoming, again, I can give you the list of so many things I love about here. Many have to do with the land, with the geography. But although when I walk outside, I do not see a reflection of myself, I see people who hold the same internal compass as me. People who know how nice it is to know your neighbors, people who don’t mind driving for hours scarcely passing another car, people who don’t mind snow on a summer’s day in June, people who are characters, people who know why the West always draws you home.

— Nina McConigley is the author of the story collection Cowboys and East Indians. She was born in Singapore and grew up in Casper, Wyoming. She holds an MA from the University of Wyoming and an MFA from the University of Houston. She has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and for The Best New American Voices. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Virginia Quarterly Review, American Short Fiction, Slice, Asian American Literary Review, Puerto del Sol, and others. She has worked for the Casper Star Tribune, and now teaches at the University of Wyoming.
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  1. Nadia–
    Thanks for sharing that anecdote! A good reminder that speaking in generalities never beats individual experience and its beautiful complexity…and nice to know that for your former Dean, experiencing Heart Mountain (during the camp, I presume, and/or experiencing it afterwards, in reflection) could be nuanced enough to produce such an “enduring affection” for Wyoming.

  2. This paradox plays like a broken record in my mind ( I’m a lifelong Cody native).
    Those who are not of the Anglo-Saxon Caucasian persuasion quite often see Wyoming with more clarity than those who are…

    So long as we all have enough clarity.

  3. Toward the end of my time at Columbia University’s School of Journalism the dean of students sought me out. She had heard that I was going to work in Casper, Wyoming. Oh, how she loved Wyoming, she said. With a vividness I could not yet imagine, she described the wind, the sky, the importance of people to each other in Wyoming. She described, and I could see, the tremendous sense of space that inhabited her as she thought about Wyoming, even there, as she spoke, on the Upper Westside of Manhattan.

    I could not have been more surprised. Wyoming was a new idea to me. I’d just been hired at the Casper Star-Tribune over spring break. I was excited, but aware that I did not know this state she was describing. Certainly, this poised and cosmopolitan woman of Japanese descent did not fit my image of the people most likely to long for the wide-open windy spaces (in fact, I had lived and studied in Japan and knew the limited sight lines of that landscape far better than I knew Wyoming.)

    I stammered my thanks for her enthusiasm for my new job. But Dean, I asked, how is it that you know Wyoming so well? “I grew up there,” she said. “At Heart Mountain.” And I did know enough to see that it must be a special place that could catalyze forgiveness into such enduring affection. Since that conversation, her love for Wyoming has informed my own affection for the state.

  4. Nina,
    I appreciate your perspective and enjoyed this column. One note: I think the idea of immigrants being drawn to Wyoming needs some differentiation. While, thankfully, many people of diverse backgrounds come to Wyoming today for lifestyle amenities like open space, and some probably did so historically, the immigrant laborers on railroads, in mines, and in the fields came for economic “opportunity”–if opportunity can define low wages, squalid living conditions, and often racist environments. For these laborers, or the forced detainees of Heart Mountain, that open space provided little solace when it also brought biting winds, hot sun, blizzards–elements from which a low-slung tent or shabbily constructed internment camp offered little protection.
    Your point that Wyoming has always had more human diversity than we imagine is well taken, and your descriptions about why you have chosen to live here are wonderful. Thanks for writing this piece.

  5. Thank you for stating your views so eloquently. My husband and I moved here to be near family two years ago when we were 63 and 67. He was in the foreign service and we lived and visited many places (including India). It has been difficult adjusting because of our more liberal views but we do appreciate the physical beauty of Wyoming.