Bar T 5: No More Native American Portrayals

By on June 1, 2018

(Melanie Schuerch)

Owners don’t want their business wrapped in ‘politics’

JACKSON HOLE, WY – Bar T 5 Covered Chuckwagon Cookout’s performances in Cache Creek and at Jackson parades will no longer include the portrayal of Native Americans.

The decision came after a Native American resident, Melanie Schuerch, posted photos and videos to Facebook from Jackson’s Old West Days parade where Bar T 5 employees were donned in redface—red face paint, long black wigs and feathers.

Redface is a practice that, like blackface (when white people paint their faces black for comedy or entertainment), demeans people of color and reinforces white power structures. Those who study race and culture say it robs Native Americans of the control of their cultural identity and positions them further outside of mainstream society.

In other words, they become “the other.”

Bar T 5 co-owner Jeff Warburton is “horrified” he offended people. He and his brother Chris have been at the helm of such performances for 12 years and worked for the company long before they took the reins. 

For more than four decades, Bar T 5’s nightly performances have featured actors who ride horses dressed as “Indians” and cowboys. The shows, Warburton said, celebrate the history and friendship of Chief Washakie and Elijah Nicholas Wilson, founder of Wilson, Wyoming, who lived among the Shoshone.

“The purpose was to build up the fact that there were great relationships between Nick and the Shoshone and other white people in the West,” he said. “It was never meant to be offensive to anyone.” 

Since Monday, Schuerch’s post had garnered thousands of views and shares, which led to angry phone calls, Warburton said. Many calls, though, were “from people who want us to continue this, but we don’t want a political firestorm.”

The performances helped people “understand there were Native Americans in the West,” he said. They are not meant to be accurate historical representations or to represent any one group of Native Americans.

The face paint did not mean anything. We were very careful to make sure we did not use specific tribal face paint, just paint on the face, like the mountain men did.”

Schuerch hopes the company can see this decision on a deeper level. She pointed to the societal and psychological effects of such portrayals—those that lack accuracy, harden stereotypes and tokenize Native Americans.

“I am glad that they won’t be portraying Native Americans in such an ignorant fashion and I hope they recognize how this damages Native Americans as people,” she said. “Native Americans have very high suicide rates, high rates of alcoholism and it damages their images of themselves and where they stand in our community.”

On May 31, Mayor Pete Muldoon and Anna Olson, Jackson Hole Chamber of Commerce CEO and president, met with representatives from the Wind River Reservation to, as Olson wrote in an email to Muldoon, “start dialogue on what positive action … can come out of this incident.”

The chamber was enmeshed in the debate as it heads and regulates the Old West Days parade.

Olson did not return Planet Jackson Hole’s emails and a phone call request for comment.

For his part, Muldoon came away from the meeting with strong convictions. He is no stranger to the discussions about the marginalization of Native Americans. The Mayor attended #NoDAPL protests at Standing Rock and stirred national controversy when he replaced the Town Hall portrait of President Donald Trump with an image of Chief Washakie.

“I am not going to attempt to explain the ways in which these depictions and manufactured histories are hurtful and harmful to those survivors—people who struggle daily not only with the aftermath of genocide, but with the realities of being marginalized, ignored, and treated as caricatures rather than human beings,” he said during a Jackson Town Council meeting on June 4.

“That is a story they should tell, and one which we should listen to. In fact, it has been told countless times and ignored just as many. It’s a story we can choose to listen to the moment we are ready—and yet often, we do not.”

[This story has been updated with information on Muldoon and Olson. – Ed]

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About Robyn Vincent

Robyn is the editor of Planet Jackson Hole and Jackson Hole Snowboarder Magazine. When she's not sweating deadlines, she likes to travel the world with her notebook and camera in hand. Follow her on Twitter @TheNomadicHeart

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