The response from whites in Wyoming has been one of alarm. Despite the headlines, an Indian reservation has not in fact taken over three nearby towns (just as Indians did not take over a town in Oklahoma a couple years ago, as reported in this blog), but the decision is still momentous. This week, the United States Environmental Protection Agency (E.P.A.), in its proper recognition of state-like powers for the Wind River Indian Reservation to conduct its own air-quality monitoring, clarified the boundaries of the reservation, thus overruling 1905 land grants that had allowed the creation of three non-reservation towns within the reservation in violation of the original treaty. So far there has been no talk of extending other aspects of Wind River jurisdiction to the towns, but that is what residents now fear.
The Northern Arapaho and Eastern Shoshone tribes, which govern the reservation, greeted the changes with approval. The towns of Riverton, Kinnear, and Pavillion were built on reservation land ceded under an act of Congress in 1905, and subsequent court rulings have upheld that these lands—which totally 1.5 million acres—are no longer reservation lands. But unashamed disregard for treaty rights is routine in American judicial history. The E.P.A., in its ruling, has taken the (in American jurisprudence) unusual step of taking Indian treaties at face value and not treating violations of them as faits accompli.
The town of Riverton, the largest of the three communities in question, had, in the 2010 census, 10,615 people, of whom 83.5% were white and 10.4% were Native American. Kinnear (population 599) is only 57.5% white and 36.6% Native American. Pavillion has 231 people, 93.1% white and 0.3% Native American. All are in Fremont County. The Wind River Indian Reservation is the seventh-largest reservation in the U.S. and is larger than the State of Delaware. It has a population of just over 23,000 people, plus Wyoming’s only four casinos. It also contains the burial place of Sacagawea, one of the most famous Native Americans in U.S. history, the Shoshone guide who accompanied Meriwether Lewis and William Clark on the Corps of Discovery expedition in 1804-06.
|The final resting place of Sacagawea, on the Wind River reservation|
|Wyoming’s Gov. Matt Mead (left)|
|Flag of the Eastern Shoshone Tribe, one of two nations that call Wind River home|
One of the saddest aspects of the whole business is how quickly the media resort to clichés and jokes about American Indians in discussing the matter, as though there were something inherently anachronistic and hilarious about the fact that Indians still exist. For example, widely read conservative Washington, D.C., newspaper the Washington Times, which was founded by the Rev. Sun Myung Moon’s right-wing Unification Church religious cult (the “Moonies”), ran an editorial critical of the E.P.A. decision, full of references to “palefaces,” bows and arrows, and John Wayne, adding, “Riverton residents didn’t even get any beads.” I don’t think one would ever, for example, see an editorial on some random issue involving African-Americans full of references to watermelons and minstrel shows. Actually, I take that back. I haven’t read any of the Washington Times’ editorials on Barack Obama, and I’m not sure I want to.
|The Northern Arapaho flag|