Fort Washakie — Thanks to tribal casino profits, the example of a compassionate Riverton woman, and a chlorophyll dog treat, the Wind River Indian Reservation has a sparkling new $3.5 million Boys & Girls Club that many here see as a hopeful development for Wyoming’s Native American community.
As an Eastern Shoshone drum group performed an honor chant, the 24,000-square-foot Marilyn Roberts Youth Facility — named for a beloved community volunteer who died in 2000 — was dedicated Saturday while tribal leaders, Wyoming Community Foundation officials and a handful of Native American families looked on.
At a time when endemic crime and drug abuse threaten reservation youth, and political tensions with surrounding white communities simmer over a federal voting rights lawsuit, the new center is a remarkable example of compassion, hope and inter-community cooperation.
For Eastern Shoshone Business Council chief Ivan Posey, the new facility is the realization of a decade-old dream of replacing and upgrading the old Boys & Girls Club that had been condemned by building inspectors after years of disrepair and neglect. The boarded-up old club building sits abandoned five miles north on the road to Ethete, its grounds overgrown with Russian thistle and its walls covered with obscene graffiti.
The old club building had gone unused for several years, and membership had fallen to about 40 kids, Posey said, and the new building has been a big part of revitalizing the club, which now has more than 300 members.
Posey, a gregarious tribal leader who was accompanied at the dedication by his seven-year-old son Seth, orchestrated the purchase of the massive steel building from a Colorado company and arranged for the tribe’s casino, Shoshone Rose, on the outskirts of Lander, to make the payments on the note for the building.
“In 1998,we did a survey of our youth and determined the number-one priority was the construction of a youth center,” Posey said. “Now those kids have grown up, but the next generation will have the benefit of this wonderful facility.”
Posey said plans for the center include the addition of lighted playing fields next to the main building, which currently houses a recreation auditorium-basketball court, kitchen and multiple meeting rooms.
Smiling quietly at a front table at the youth center dedication were Lon Lewis, 70, and his wife Nancy, 67, who gave a $1 million endowment to the new center through the agency of the Wyoming Community Foundation.
“It is the largest private gift ever made to a nonprofit on the Wind River Indian Reservation,” said foundation development director Press Stephens of Cody. “ It’s fabulous story in so many ways.”
Although they now live in Topeka, Kan., where Lon Lewis made a fortune developing a popular dog treat called Greenies, both Lewises have close Wyoming connections.
Lon Lewis went to high school in Lusk and graduated from the University of Wyoming in 1961 with a degree in chemical engineering. After getting his veterinary medicine degree from Colorado State University, he came back to practice in Lusk, where his family once lived in a home they bought from the family of former U.S. Interior Secretary James Watt.
Nancy Lewis grew up on a ranch near Thermopolis and attended Casper College.
As undergraduates, both Lon and Nancy were on their respective school’s rodeo team. Lon rode saddle broncs, bareback and bulls. Nancy, named the outstanding athlete on her team, did barrel racing, pole bending and goat tying.
They met at the 1963 Cheyenne Frontier Days and married a year later.
Their first extensive adult experience with American Indians was in Martin, South Dakota, between the Pine Ridge and Rosebud Indian Reservations, where Lon set up a large-animal practice. Many of his clients were Oglala Sioux, whom he came to admire.
But the main connection with Native Americans — and the inspiration for the $1 million Lewis endowment to the Fort Washakie Boys & Girls Club —was through Lon Lewis’ mother, Ione Lewis Hruza, who lived in Riverton from 1969 to 1998 and, briefly, in Lander. The endowment is named after Hruza, who died in 2002 in her native Nebraska.
Hruza, then Ione Lewis, overcame early hardships and extreme poverty. Her first husband, Everett Corwin Lewis, was a thoroughbred horse trainer who died in a motorcycle accident in 1942, leaving her with three children under the age of four.
Stressing education and hard work, Ione Lewis worked several jobs to put her children through Lusk High School and, in Lon’s case, the University of Wyoming. With the children educated and on their own, she took a job on the Fort Collins campus of Colorado State, where she earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in business administration.
In 1969 she married Francis Hruza, a rancher from Peetz, Colorado. The couple bought a 30-unit apartment and cottage complex, Cottonwood Court, on the north side of Riverton. Most of the residents in the modest, low-income cottages were Arapaho and Shoshone tribe members.
The history of white-Indian relations in Fremont County has been troubled since the reservation was created by treaty in 1868.
On April 29, U.S. District Judge Alan B. Johnson in Cheyenne ruled in favor of tribal plaintiffs in a 2005 voting rights case against Fremont County that alleged persistent, endemic discrimination against Native Americans on the Wind River Reservation. The 102-page opinion cited dozens of examples of racism against Indians that Johnson said produced a county political system stacked against its Native American residents.
As John Lancaster wrote for WyoFile in his series On the Wind River Reservation, “Much of the trial transcript reads like a sadly familiar history lesson, with references to such infamous crimes as the Sand Creek massacre, in which scores of Arapaho and Cheyenne, mostly women and children, were slaughtered by a Colorado militia in 1864 (whites celebrated the killings with a parade in Denver).”
However, in the often sad 150-year history of white-Indian relations here, there are some notable exceptions to the legacy of prejudice.
Nineteenth-century Lander pioneer Edward J. Farlow was a lifelong advocate for the Wind River Reservation Indians, learning their languages and inviting them to camp on his property in town. He accompanied Indian groups on trips to Europe and Hollywood and, in his memoir, “Wind River Adventures: My Life in Frontier Wyoming” listed his proudest moment as the day he was adopted into the Arapaho tribe.
Another considerably less flamboyant exception was Ione Lewis Hruza and her husband, Francis Hruza. The couple took quickly to their Indian tenants, particularly the children.
“The little kids loved her,” said Nancy Lewis. “She always had something for them. She saw the hope in their eyes.”
When kids were having trouble at home, the Hruzas often took them in — in one case adopting and educating a young Arapaho girl, Rena Brown, whose mother could no longer care for her. Brown went on to get a college education, and now works for the Arapaho Housing Department.
Alvina May Aragon, 51, lived at Cottonwood Court on two occasions from 1971-73 and 1983-84. An Arapaho, Aragon remembers Saturday mornings when Francis Hruza would drive through the development in his white pickup, collecting kids and taking them to the park for a swim and an ice cream cone.
She recalled Ione Hruza, who in those years taught business courses at Central Wyoming College in Riverton, helping the kids with math problems.
“Me and my cousins were always going to her house for dinner,” Aragon said. “She would help us with our homework, and if we got an A or a B on our report card, she would give us 50 cents — a lot of money at that time.”
Aragon attended the youth center dedication, and after the ceremonies, went up to Lon Lewis and told him of her experiences with his mother. They hugged. Obviously touched, Lon Lewis jokingly recalled that his mother had never given him more than a quarter for an A.
After working as a large-animal vet in Wyoming and South Dakota, Lon Lewis returned to Colorado State University, where he earned a PhD and from 1974-82 served as Mark Morris Professor for Research and Development.
In 1996, he invented what are now called Greenies, a chlorophyll canine treat designed to reduce tartar, plaque and bad breath in pets. Although he could not initially find a major company willing to take on the product, in a few years, Greenies became the best-selling dog treat in the world.
When he and his partners sold Greenies to pet food makers Mars, Inc. in 2006 for an undisclosed sum, the brand already had annual sales of more than $350 million. When Lewis was searching for a way to use his fortune to honor his mother, he called Wyoming Community Foundation director Stephens, who connected him with the Shoshone Business Council.
“I wanted to do something in memory of my mother,” Lewis said. “Her work with Native Americans was really paramount in my mind. This project fit exactly what we knew Mom would have loved to have done.”
Contact Rone Tempest at 307-335-8637 or email@example.com.