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Wind River

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The Wind River Reservation in Wyoming has received a lot of attention lately because of its endemic poverty and high crime rates. It started with this Times article last year about a murder. As things often go, the Times became the trendsetter for a myriad of stories on how the Wind River is America’s worst place. The people at Wind River (Shoshones and Arapahoes) are getting sick and tired of it, especially after this piece at Business Insider, which really seems like nothing more than poverty tourism.

Spoonhunter paged through the photographs online, pointing out the disparities between what they showed and the written commentary.

“Picture number 37 shows Blue Sky Hall,” he said. “The caption says ’everything is for sale on the Rez — sex, drugs, booze, houses, tires, trucks.’”

Blue Sky Hall is a gathering place for the Northern Arapahoes, where the tribe holds events from elections and public meetings to performances and Thanksgiving dinners. “The tribe’s substance abuse and diabetes awareness programs are in that building,” Spoonhunter said. “It’s nothing like a place where sex or drugs are for sale.”

Spoonhunter goes on to point out other photos that he finds misleading. Apparently drunken young people in a Riverton city park are labeled “park rangers.” Accompanying the shots of buildings housing the federal program Women, Infants, Children (WIC) and the community health center is a remark that “growing up here can foster a sense of entitlement.”

“There’s another story to tell here,” Spoonhunter says. “It’s not all doom and gloom.”

I have three general thoughts.

First, I’m extremely sympathetic with the Arapahoes and Shoshones getting sick of these portrayals. On the other hand, what is that other story to tell? There’s a historical story that continues to the present (more on this in a second), but I’m not clear what the bright and happy story is? The continuance of culture amid 150 years of active repression? Maybe, but that’s not so happy really, especially given the decline of language.

Second, that Business Insider piece is one of the most wretched things I’ve seen on a major publication’s website in a long time. There’s a supposed “guide” that is taking the photographer through the reservation. The guide is unnamed and may well be made up. The photographer did nothing more than cruise through the reservation, take pictures while driving because he was afraid to stop, and then did stop once in a park to take photos of some passed out drunk people. There’s no evidence of even the slightest sense of journalism here. Pure sensationalism that does nothing more than just perpetuate anti-Indian stereotypes. I mean, it’s really, really, really bad.

Third, the story of a place like Wind River or Pine Ridge or Jemez Pueblo or so many other reservations is one not only of historical racism but of present-day racism. The basic story of white America with Native Americans is this: “We’re sorry we stole your land. We feel super bad about it. Not enough to do anything to make your present lives better. But trust us, we feel bad.” The reservations remain the most impoverished places in the United States, even at a time when we look upon the genocidal project against Native Americans as a national sin on par with slavery. Those past actions remain almost totally disconnected from present suffering. The reservations today get the standard anti-poverty programs that poor people around the country receive–which is of course not much. There are no jobs, no meaningful economic development programs outside of reservations with lucky enough geographical locations to have successful casinos, and no government responsibility for the past and present. It’s easy to forget a few thousand Arapahoes in the middle of Wyoming, a state we don’t think much about anyway. But if we as a nation were serious about expunging the sins of our ancestors, maybe we’d give incentives to business to invest in the reservations, provide meaningful job training, language recovery, and other social programs; work with the reservations to increase wild bison populations and recapture traditional hunting skills, and/or, yes, provide reparations for the past.

But we’re not serious about dealing with our national original sins. And it’s a lot easier to fly through the Wind River Reservation, take a few pictures, and publish them on websites read by the nation’s elite.

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