Imagine for a moment that the people of one of Wyoming’s 23 counties lived an average life of 20% fewer years than those living in any other county. Imagine that county had cancer rates 20% higher than any of the other counties, where chronic liver disease was diagnosed 90% more often.
What if mothers and fathers in that county suffered infant mortality at a rate of more than 100% higher than all the other Wyoming counties?
Imagine that in the middle of Wyoming there were hundreds of families without adequate heat during Wyoming’s winters. What would be the response of public officials if one county’s median household income was half of other counties and a quarter of the poorest households earned less than $9,000 a year, leaving nearly two-thirds of them below the poverty line?
Now imagine that one of the U.S. Senators representing the people of that county was once chairman of a Congressional committee with direct responsibility for that “county” and that the Supreme Court long ago ruled the government has a moral and legal obligation to care for the people of that county.
Imagine the expectation others would have that something be done to alleviate these 3rd World conditions. Imagine the outcry.
These grim statistics don’t apply to the lives of Non-Native Americans living in any state or Wyoming county. They describe life on the Wind River Reservation (WRR). Therefore, sadly, there is no outcry.
A 2016 report titled “In the Heart of Wyoming is Indian Country” describes contemporary life on the Wind River Reservation. Funded by the Wyoming Office of Multicultural Health, the report was sponsored by the Wind River Advocacy Center, Wyoming Department of Health, and Wyoming Association of Churches.
It is a valuable resource, long overdue. The Wind River Reservation is misunderstood by many when they bother to think of it at all. The document invites the people of Wyoming and its public officials to update their stereotypes about the Native Americans living among us.
Many of those stereotypes involve abuse of alcohol. Wyomingites may be surprised to learn that while the numbers of persons who drink excessively is higher, the overall rate of alcohol consumption is “significantly lower” on the Reservation than it is statewide.
Additionally, many people will be surprised to learn that the monthly “per capita” checks received by tribal members are not a handout paid by your tax dollars. Instead, the checks are earnings paid to the tribal members as compensation for the minerals extracted from Reservation lands. The Reservation is also a source of county and state revenue. The state and Fremont County collect “over $10 million annually from severance taxes, ad valorem, and sales taxes from the residents and entities on the WRR.”
When people of the Wind River Reservation weren’t being ignored by the government, they were being deceived. The report recounts a shameful history. WRR boundaries were originally established by the 1863 Fort Bridger Treaty to include 44 million acres across parts of Wyoming, Idaho, Utah, and Colorado. After decades of taking, the Reservation now covers less than 3 million acres with ongoing boundary disputes threatening them.
Too many elected officials are reluctant to champion the needs of Native Americans. A new year brings new hope. The 2017 legislature is considering HB76, establishing standards to teach students about Native Americans, their history and contributions to Wyoming. The bill has passed the House of Representatives and is headed for the Senate. Senator Cale Case (R-Lander) says the legislation is important because of the level of ignorance across the state about Native Americans. Jason Baldes of the Eastern Shoshone said the lack of knowledge about indigenous peoples is one cause of “racial tension.”
As a Republican President works with a Republican Congress, John Barrasso, former chair of the Indian Affairs Committee, is knowledgeable enough about these matters to be a national champion for the Wind River Reservation.
The Office of Multicultural Health report demonstrates Wyoming people need education and Native peoples need a champion.