Publisher’s note: A rapid trip, 400 miles each way plus “ion-and’around” an area of the West new to us, both delayed postings and triggers these thoughts.
The Wind River Basin of Central Wyoming is one of the great beautiful places in the State. It is a wonderful mixture of lush mountains, rivers and canyons, grazing and irrigated cropland, beautiful lakes, desert, and opportunity.
It is not nearly as well known as it should be, in a State full of natural and human-made wonders.
But it is also the home of a sad story of government stupidity. A story which should teach everyone important lessons about how governments conspire and just plain cooperate to make life miserable for thousands and millions of people. For generations.
Because it is also the location of the Wind River Indian Reservation.
There are many reservations with multiple tribal nations. Often those are kindred tribes, long-time allies, and voluntarily agreed between two or more nations/tribes.
That is not the case in Wind River.
Here there are two very different people. First are the Eastern Shoshone, a branch of a people that have lived in the Intermountain West’s deserts and high mountains for several thousand years. But here are also the Northern Arapaho nation, a Plains people and culture – as “guests” (or squatters) on the Rez.
As a result, living conditions are bad, even though there is a wealth of natural resources. Perhaps in some ways worse than any of the Lakota or Nakota, or the Navajo, face. Socially, politically, and economically.
Why? Because of stupid government actions and mistakes, which created a large number of problems. And which were then exploited by generations of politicians and bureaucrats.
The Eastern Shoshone are a generally peaceful people (by AmerInd standards) who were friendly from their initial contacts with French trappers, fur traders, and later the American (federal) government. One of their number was the lady Sacajawea, who befriended and guided the American’s Lewis and Clark Expedition (1804-1806), exploring the Missouri and Columbia regions of North America. She is probably more well-known than the wise and popular chief Washakie, who led his people until his death in 1900 at over 90 years of age.
In 1863 and 1868, the Eastern Shoshone negotiated and gave up the rest of their lands in return for a commitment to a permanent homeland (reservation) in the Wind River Basin, from the crest of the Wind River Mountains themselves across the broad fertile valleys of the basin to the Oak Creek and other mountain ranges diving the Basin from the Big Horn Basin of Northwestern Wyoming.
In another 1868 treaty, the Northern Arapaho also agreed to give up everything but a reservation and hunting rights in most of their lands in Eastern Wyoming, extending into Nebraska and Colorado. (Nebraska was already a State: it was 8 years before Colorado won Statehood. Twenty-two years before Wyoming did.) But the treaty did not specify just where the Northern Arapaho reservation was to be. A serious mistake.
So “temporarily” the Eastern Shoshone were forced by DC to play host to their very involuntary “guests.” A temporary refuge that so far has been imposed for more than 150 years. All courtesy of DC, and later Cheyenne (territorial and State capital of Wyoming, about 300 miles away from the Wind River).
The problem was complex. First, the Northern Arapaho (like their Southern Arapaho brothers and sisters now in Oklahoma) were a Plains warrior people and nation. They were not just enemies of the invading Americans, like their allied tribes the Cheyenne and the Lakota, they were long and bitter enemies of the Shoshone, and had tried for centuries to drive the Shoshone to west of the Continental Divide. Further, their customs, mores, and beliefs were (and still are) very different from their unwilling hosts. As different as their languages. Indeed, the last war between the two nations was in 1874-1878. Nevertheless, Congress told the Army to force them to “settle down” on Wind River.
So those first decades were bad enough. And then the scumbags in Congress and the Legislature got into the act. Or further meddled. Originally 3.3 million acres, it lost nearly a half-million in 1874 through a forced cession. Then the idiots in Cheyenne and DC decided that the Arapaho could not have a reservation on the Tongue River east of the Big Horn Mountains (near their allies the Crow and the Northern Cheyenne). So the “brilliant idea” was hatched of making the Shoshone share.
So the troubles have continued since then. And in the early 1900s, Congress got another series of brilliant ideas. They had already forced the Shoshone to give up the spectacular hot springs at what is today Thermopolis (tourist development!). Now, Congress decided to steal (yes, they paid the tribes a pittance) over half of the remaining lands from the Shoshone and their unwelcome guests the Arapaho to give to the Bureau of Reclamation to create a vast network of irrigated lands, and by 1905, through an “agreement,” had taken more than half the reservation: another million acres. Leaving them with less than 2 million – and legal battles for years.
Some tribal members were “persuaded” to sell their individual land to the government and more settlers: the modern city of Riverton (largest in the area) is at least technically still part of the reservation. (Lander is located in the area taken in 1974.) Most of the 40,000 people in modern Fremont County are not enrolled Shoshone or Arapaho. However, the promises of irrigation water and arable land to Anglos or Amerind were very long in being kept – if indeed they were!
The story is a bitter one of how the FedGov exploits all kinds of people – it is not just a matter of “being racist.” All kinds of people are abused by government. When government makes a mistake, someone pays for it. And it isn’t government officials or bureaucrats. It is regular people.