FEATURE: Dawn After the Storm
JACKSON HOLE, WY – Misty Dawn grew up on the Wind River Indian Reservation (WRIR) in Crowheart, Wyoming. On one side, her ancestors are healers, on the other, chiefs.
The reservation is the only in the country shared by two tribes, the Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapaho. Misty is a member of the former. “I feel very proud and lucky because my people fought so hard to be here,” she said. “They took baths in the river in the middle of winter—I come from a very strong background.”
Misty moved from WRIR to Jackson Hole in summer 2016 with two friends from the reservation, both have since died. First, Jeffrey overdosed. Then, Misty said, “Lyle committed suicide from a broken heart.” She thinks about them all the time, and the life they wanted to build together.
Now Misty is trying to heal in Jackson. But she’s emerging from a pain not just her own—the wounds are personal and ancestral. Sometimes it’s difficult to distinguish between the two. Misty is always thinking about how to help those on the reservation, how to re-incorporate indigenous culture, tradition, and resilience into the places where they’ve been forgotten.
For her, “Wyoming is home, no matter where I go, no matter what I do.” Yet sometimes she’s treated like a stranger on the land that is in her blood. At a recent party in Jackson Hole, people went around the room saying where they were from. When Misty declared the valley her homeland someone scoffed and demanded to know where she was really from. “I’m from here,” she insisted. “My ancestors are from here … our people use to come [to this valley] every year.”
Knowing the narratives of Native people like Misty contain immeasurable value, particularly after Standing Rock and the NoDAPL movement stirred the American consciousness to this country’s ongoing battle to strip away Native rights. That Misty is a native of Wyoming yet finds herself feeling like an outsider in places like Jackson Hole is an uncomfortable truth symptomatic of a larger American problem.
Being ‘too Indian-like’
When she describes her life, Misty is always telling two stories; her own, and that of her people. Every school she went to, every place she’s lived, exists in duality. Take, for example, Sherman Indian High School, the boarding school she attended in Riverside, California.
First, she tells its history: “It was established in 1902 to assimilate Native Americans into mainstream society, to teach them English, cut their hair. They took them away from their families and homelands at a young age. We got to go to the graveyard of the little kids who died of broken hearts. Their parents never got to see them again.”
Second, she describes her own experience: “I loved it. It’s different now. We go there to get away from the reservation.”
At Sherman Indian, she went to Disneyland, to live tapings of shows like Sister, Sister, and ran cross-country so she could travel through California. “It got me out of the reservation,” she said, “and I got to see a lot of different things.”
In contrast, at her middle school in Pavillion, WY, she was one of four Native American students. “We got treated a little differently,” she said.
But at Sherman Indian, Misty found solidarity and pride. “We became a family. I got to see the cultures of many different tribes, to see their ceremonies and hear their language and songs. I think that’s what makes me a strong person, hearing the history of each tribe … to hear their fight. Geronimo, Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse, I went to school with people who were from these warriors. I’m from Sacajawea.”
After graduating, Misty attended Fort Lewis College, which was also once an Indian boarding school. Now, Native students receive free tuition.
Sherman Indian and Fort Lewis were two of about 100 Indian boarding schools that sprang up across the country starting in 1870. The goal of these boarding schools was to colonize from the inside and out, to hollow out the lives and land of those whose existence was a threat to white settlers’ vision for the land. They attempted to shame people into silence. The impact of that silencing continues today.
A 2008 NPR report describes how the schools stripped students of their heritage; their names were changed, their religious practices condemned, and they were forbidden from speaking their native languages.
In 1887, the annual report of the Indian Affairs Commission stated: “It is believed that teaching an Indian youth his own barbarous dialect is a positive detriment to him.” Students were often beaten, denied food, and forced into heavy labor, all in the name of “civilization.”
An Army officer, Richard Pratt, founded the first boarding school. “A great general has said that the only good Indian is a dead one,” he said. “In a sense, I agree with the sentiment, but only in this: that all the Indian there is in the race should be dead. Kill the Indian in him, and save the man.”
These attitudes lasted long into the 20th century. Lucy Toledo, a Navajo tribe member, attended Misty’s high school, Sherman Indian, in 1950. She told NPR, “It wasn’t really about education.” She didn’t learn basic math or grammar. Instead, the curriculum focused on skills such as carpentry for the boys and housekeeping for the girls. The schools attempted to kill the Indian, but save the worker.
John Washakie, the great grandson of Chief Washakie, the iconic Eastern Shoshone leader, is now a member of the Shoshone Business Council. In a 2014 interview with Wyoming Public Media he said that the attempts to degrade and shame Native cultural heritage had long lasting impacts. “For at least the first half of this century, Indian parents shied away from teaching their children any of our cultural traditions to protect them from abuse by their white teachers. The government-run reservation schools tended to punish anyone who was too ‘Indian-like.’”
Misty’s mother, Gloria St.Clair, also grew up on WRIR and knows the consequences of being “too Indian.” She is one of the few remaining people who still speak her native language. Only about 60 or 70 people speak it fluently, and the language is dying with them, Gloria said. “Because I was an orphan, I was raised by my grandparents, and they taught me to speak it.”
However, her school attempted to reverse what her grandparents had taught her. “When I went to school in first grade I got in trouble because I could only speak my native language. They made me feel bad. It made me feel like I was unworthy to the white man, like I wasn’t worthy of education, like I wasn’t going to get anywhere … I was always singled out, had to sit alone.”
Gloria’s voice breaks when she describes her first day of first grade: “My sister walked me in the school, she was holding my hand. And then my teacher took my hand.” The hand off symbolized a huge shift in her life, the day that she felt emotions she didn’t even have words for as a young child. “She made me feel ashamed of who I was. I didn’t even know that, I was just five years old. But it’s something I still carry. I don’t feel good enough. I feel good around my people, but not with people from the outside. I think that’s what a lot of Indians feel. Like I’m not supposed to be here, I’m not supposed to be Indian, wipe off the brown.”
Counteracting that feeling of shame takes resilience, Gloria said. “You have to be real strong—emotionally, physically, spiritually.” Even though everything she learned taught Gloria she should not be proud of who she is, it is her culture and traditions that helped her survive—traditions that live on despite mainstream rejection. “Our ceremonies, the sundance, the sweat, it makes us proud of who we are. These give us purpose and identity as a people.”
There’s something missing from this town
Much of the West rings with the absence of those who once lived, hunted, and tended its land. In Jackson Hole, Native culture is virtually invisible, save for shops filled with traditional jewelry and art. While boarding schools were founded to eradicate Native culture, white settlers in the Jackson Hole area were finding ways to push indigenous people from the land.
The valley served as seasonal camping, hunting, and sacred ceremonial grounds for the Shoshone, Crow, Blackfoot, Bannock, and Gros Ventre tribes for millennia. Over time these tribes were splintered, moving onto reservations across the Rocky Mountain West.
By 1868, the Eastern Shoshone had moved to the Wind River Reservation, but its treaty with the American government promised the tribe the right to hunt in the valley “so long as peace subsists.”
According to the Sublette County Journal, Native peoples’ survival depended on being able to hunt in Jackson. As Shoshone Indian agent Captain Ray wrote, “Ration for Indians on this reservation … is not sufficient to ward off pangs of hunger … they will resort to desperate measures before they go hungry.” However, white settlers were not welcoming to Indian families that passed through, according to a WyoHistory article.
In 1890, there was a small confrontation between white settlers and a Bannock band. Two Bannock children disappeared and one man was killed. However, word spread that Indians had killed white settlers in Jackson Hole and papers as far as New York published the story. According to the Sublette County Journal, one sensational headline in a New York newspaper read: “All Residents of Jackson Hole, Wyoming Massacred.”
The story added to the demonization of Native Americans, and set the groundwork for a 1896 Supreme Court ruling that forbade Native Americans from hunting in the valley as well as Yellowstone National Park.
‘Prisoners in our own country’
Today Misty laments the evidence of Native Americans that has been wiped away from Jackson Hole. “Native Americans are missing from this town,” she said. “This was our ancestral land and now there’s nothing that shows that. People don’t know what Native Americans are or that we’re here. They don’t even know there’s a reservation in Wyoming. They don’t know there’s something missing.”
For her, this absence registers as pain. “A lot of things still hurt when I think about the past,” she said.
Indeed, pain weaves through Misty’s narrative, the pain of grappling with a home that is irrevocably hers, even as others refuse to acknowledge that belonging.
There are a lot of ways to understand Misty’s home. WRIR was formed as a result of decades of conflict, massacre, negotiation, and broken promises. According to a 1992 article in National Wildlife, the creation of the Wind River Reservation was negotiated for years. Federal officials allowed the Eastern Shoshone to choose the land for the reservation as a “reward” for the aid that the tribe provided various white expeditions, including that of Lewis and Clark. The Eastern Shoshone chose 44 million acres of land to be its future home and the government guaranteed it would belong to the tribe. But just five years later, U.S. authorities seized the majority of the land, reducing the reservation to about 2.2 million acres.
Meanwhile, the Northern Arapaho had been placed on a 122,000-acre reservation spanning Colorado, Nebraska and Wyoming. Officials told the tribes it would belong to them “as long as the grass should grow.” Seven years later, the promise was rescinded as white settlers moved west and demanded land. The Northern Arapaho became nomads, frequently without food, often in conflict with white settlements.
As Gloria puts it, “They cheated us. When they signed those treaties, none of them spoke English.”
To understand the reservation, Misty also points to the Bear River and Sand Creek massacres, two violent events that pushed two tribes who still struggle to coexist onto the Wind River Indian Reservation. The Bear River massacre forced the Eastern Shoshone into Wyoming, and sped up the negotiation process for the reservation as it became evident to Native leaders that they desperately needed safe land to settle.
According to the Indian Country Media Network, the 1863 massacre resulted in the deaths of 450 Shoshone near present day Preston, Idaho. The massacre stemmed from decades of conflict. Northwestern Shoshone elder Mae Parry wrote that they “were starting to feel like prisoners in our own country. Many began to feel like trapped animals who would have to fight for their lives to the end.”
The day of the battle, Army Colonel Patrick Edward Conner descended with the intent of eliminating Shoshone from the area. As Parry noted: “It was their intention from the very beginning to kill every living person and destroy the Indian camp from the face of the earth.”
Bear River lives on in memory. Gloria has notes taken by a survivor of the attack, a little boy at the time. The boy told his story, he said the river ran red with blood. Gloria summarized it: “His grandmother covered him and said keep your eyes closed no matter what happens. No matter what you hear. Act dead. No matter what. But you know, kids are curious. So he opened his eyes, and a soldier walked up and pointed a gun at his head. He closed his eyes right again, and then he heard the soldier walk away. That’s how he survived.”
The survivors of the massacre would move to the Fort Hall Reservation in Idaho as well as the Wind River Reservation.
One year after the Bear River massacre, more than 600 men from the Colorado U.S. Volunteer Cavalry attacked a village of about 1,000 Cheyenne and Arapaho Indians in Sand Creek, Colorado, torturing and killing more than 100 people, mostly women and children. In an interview with the Smithsonian, Colorado state historian William Convery said, “For many years, the story of Sand Creek was told as a triumph of civilization and a founding victory of Colorado.”
Today, it is being acknowledged as one of the worst atrocities ever committed against Native Americans. There has been controversy in this reclamation. Convery says some veterans and donors complained when an exhibit on Colorado History included Sand Creek. “They worried we’d portray the state and the military in a bad light,” he said.
In the book Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, there is a description of the days leading up to the battle. Some white soldiers were reluctant to attack, but their commander, John M. Chivington, was outraged at their reticence, screaming, “Damn any man who sympathizes with Indians! … I have come to kill Indians, and believe it is right and honorable to use any means under God’s heaven to kill Indians. … Kill and scalp all, big and little.”
The massacre was one of many events that pushed the Northern Arapaho into northern Wyoming, where they eventually arrived at WRIR in 1878.
“They asked our chief if they could stay for one winter. They stayed forever,” Misty said. In 2016, there were about 11,000 Northern Arapaho and 5,000 Eastern Shoshone on the Wind River Indian Reservation.
Multiple layers of conflict continue to define the reservation, both between the two tribes and between the indigenous population and surrounding white areas. “The white people in the surrounding area, we don’t have a great relationship,” Misty said. “Some of them are intimidated by the reservation. They are scared to drive through it. They think someone is going to rob them or hurt them. But we are a very loving people.”
Gloria laments the isolation of the reservation, too. “Non-Indians don’t learn about the reservation. They say they’re scared. But they don’t have to be afraid—they can just come in here, be friends with us and learn about us, and be a community together.”
Although Gloria speaks to the desire to be respected and understood by non-Native people, in practice, it can be a challenge to bridge the gap.
As a non-Native person, Jeremy Pague has experienced some of the challenges that arise while advocating for Native issues. He is the director of The Coyotl Group, which provides opportunities for Native youth to connect with the land around them, whether through gardening their backyard or learning to ski. Solstice, for example, is a program the nonprofit designed to bring indigenous youth to Jackson for a week to learn to ski and snowboard. The program also includes conversations and activities around leadership, ceremony, and peacemaking. The group has worked with youth from the Pine Ridge, Cheyenne River and Wind River reservations.
Some people on the reservations are justifiably reserved about working with people from the outside. As Pague noted, “If you think about the history of Native Americans, they’ve been persecuted time and time again.” People come to the reservation with project ideas, and easily accessible grant money, but “there’s really no oversight, so people on the reservation are being asked to trust without really knowing who they are.”
In addition, outsiders may have access to more money than those from a reservation. Given the level of poverty many experience, this alone can lead to conflict. Pague acknowledges there is a history of non-Native people romanticizing Native culture. “It’s attractive to learn Indian ways, to participate in ceremonies.” But, it is most important, and more difficult, for outsiders to know their place, and know how they can contribute most effectively.
For outsiders, understanding the problems on the reservation is an important exercise. Addiction and suicide plague Wind River. “We have kids as young as 17 dying of cirrhosis,” Misty said. “It’s really terrible. It’s because there’s nothing to do there. It’s hard for someone to have the drive to get out, to have ambition.” There are not many jobs, she says, and even if there are, many people don’t have transportation.
As Arapaho Councilman Crawford White explained in an interview with National Wildlife, “A lot of white people think that we just don’t want to work. What they don’t realize is that this is our homeland we inherited from our fathers and which we will pass on to our sons and daughters. The white man placed us here and told us to survive, change our traditional lives as hunters and become farmers. But then he took away much of our water, so white settlers could feed their crops. Now there are not enough jobs for everyone. So we are to give up our land and leave the reservation? For people who have lived here all their lives, that is not an easy thing to do.”
For many on WRIR, it is a struggle to meet basic needs. According to a 2016 Wyoming Public Media report, the median household income on the reservation is $16,000, well below the state average of $54,000. It is sometimes difficult to define what a “household” means, though. A recent Guardian article reported that the 11,000 members of the Northern Arapaho tribe on WRIR share just 230 homes. More than 55 percent of those tribal members are considered homeless.
This collective struggle has led to periods of intense pain. In 1985, for example, there was a dramatic increase in suicide primarily among young men. In just two months that year, there were nine deaths by suicide and 88 attempts. The reservation’s suicide rate was about 28 times the national average, according to a study by UC Denver. In attempting to understand the epidemic, elders in the reservation noted “high unemployment, negative attitudes toward American Indian people in surrounding non-Indian communities, and loss of attention to tribal ceremonies and traditions … as having contributed to feelings of hopelessness and helplessness within the community at large.”
Suicide on the reservation has dramatically decreased since then. However, it’s still twice the national average. Elk Sage is the coordinator of the Meth/Suicide Prevention Initiative for the Arapaho tribe. In a 2014 WyoFile article, she pointed to long embedded pain that demands attention. The traumas are multigenerational, Sage said, some coming from the repression of native culture and connectivity during the period of Indian boarding schools: “If we don’t acknowledge them and try to heal from them, they develop a life of themselves. … we have kids on the reservation who are angry and they don’t even know why they are angry.”
Gloria is now a case manager for Eastern Shoshone Recovery. She sees people dependent on alcohol because they’re seeking escape from daily life. Part of her job, she says, is to “bring our culture back to ourselves,” to use tradition as a way to heal. She’s heard it said that alcoholism might be the result of carrying all the trauma of generations. Her hope is that people can let go of that hurt: “Let it out and let it go. Tell the creator, I want this to go.”
‘Stuff like that doesn’t happen for Indian kids’
Hopelessness on the reservation is something Misty has witnessed, and that has become all the more evident now that she lives in Jackson Hole. She can’t help but notice the contrast between the opportunities afforded children in the valley and those on Wind River. “As a little kid growing up there, you don’t get out of the house. People are living in poverty, they just need something to look forward to or something to do.” Though there’s plenty of snow and mountains, people aren’t taught to ski. “When I go to the resort and people ask if I ski or snowboard and I say ‘no,’ they ask why I’m working here,” Misty said.
When people ask those questions, she wants to tell them that what they take for granted is incredibly difficult for others: “There isn’t opportunity. It takes longer for us to do the things we want,” she said. Misty, for example, has always wanted to be a musician. “Everyone is born with a heat in them and mine is music … I always wanted to play the piano and guitar but it never happened growing up. That stuff doesn’t happen for Indian kids. I’m doing everything late. I do feel a little sad. I know I’m capable of a lot more.”
Before moving to Jackson, Misty was the executive secretary to the Eastern Shoshone Business Council where she says she practically helped run the tribe. In 2009, members of the Eastern Shoshone, including Misty, traveled to Washington, D.C. to perform a traditional dance for former President Obama’s first inauguration. They were the only indigenous group to perform. Misty flew, but others drove across the country in a van full of eagle feathers for the performance, as the feathers are too sacred to fly on a plane. Misty also participated in negotiations regarding the oil and gas leases on the reservation, and met Senators John Barrasso and John McCain along with leaders from Wind River.
Still, even as an active participant on the reservation she didn’t see a future for herself there. Leaving the reservation, she said, felt a little like saving her own life.
Mountains as medicine
Misty moved to Jackson with best friends, Jeffrey Day and Lyle Ute. Misty, and the men, a couple, had dreams for a new future. Their move ended in tragedy.
Though Misty had housing through her job, her friends stayed at the Good Samaritan Mission while they attempted to find a place to live. One night, they missed curfew and were kicked out. With nowhere else to go, they slept in Misty’s car. In the mornings, they slept in and were often late to pick up Misty for work.
“It just wasn’t working out,” Misty said. “I ended up taking them home against their will. I didn’t want to, but I needed things to work out in Jackson.”
Both men died shortly after she dropped them off on the reservation. First, Jeffrey: “He was walking to work and had a seizure from overdosing on pills. He fell in the river and drowned,” Misty said. Lyle, broken-hearted, committed suicide not long after Jeffrey’s death.
“Our goal was to get a place together, to make a life, but the housing situation is terrible. So we went home, and they both died.”
The land in Jackson feels like a tonic to her grief. Most days, Misty wakes up early and takes the gondola to her job at Piste and Rendezvous restaurants at Jackson Hole Mountain Resort. She watches the clouds cloak the lower mountain, the sun spread through the valley. “I’m healing myself. … going up there and seeing that every day, it’s magical at the top of the mountain. I feel really bad about my friends. I’m starting to feel better finally … it’s beautiful and I feel like I’m living again.”
Although Jackson has been a place of healing for Misty, it’s not devoid of pain. She felt the familiar twinge when she watched a parade downtown. “They had fake Indians with fake leather doing fake war cries. I felt bad … I want to have my people here, on their horses, in fully beaded regalia, like my dad, he has long hair. If you saw a fully dressed male in a parade it would give you shivers down your spine, goosebumps.”
Next year, Misty wants to bring tribal members from the Wind River Indian Reservation to perform.
In the future, Misty says she wants to help her people and to bring Native culture back to Jackson, to reclaim the land that was once sacred to them. She’s inspired by the Doug Coombs foundation, which brings kids from the reservation one day out of the year to ski. “It should be more, though. One day is not enough.” She sees many opportunities to build a relationship between the reservation and Jackson, to honor the long legacy of the Eastern Shoshone in this region. For example, she points to the J-1 visa program that brings people from all over the world to Jackson to work. “There’s people on the reservation who need work. They don’t have to go so far,” she said.
Misty feels she’s going through a transformation, and she wants the same for others. She continues to hold the memory of her friends close. “I’m up here doing great and they’re both gone,” she said. “I want to show that it is possible for our people to get out and have a chance to have a life.”
She says she finds strength in the resilience and culture of the Eastern Shoshone, despite all efforts to diminish their power and presence. “We have always had our culture and our ceremonies to get us through the struggles, to keep us strong.”
Misty’s mother agrees. When Gloria remembers her painful experience as a young student, she thinks of those who were sent to boarding schools, all those who suffered before her. “Our traditions were all we had through all the things that happened, the boarding school, genocide, buffalo being killed. But we’re still here. My ancestors lived through all of that so we could walk on this earth.” PJH