Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Notes from Yellowstone and Wyoming -- Part 2

Second part of my trip to Yellowstone National Park and Wyoming in August 2012 (read Part 1). The focus here is on the drive through some lesser known towns and parts of Wyoming, in particular the Wind River Indian Reservation, home of the Northern Arapahoe and Shoshone. I’ve reproduced the Greater Yellowstone map again below.


Beyond Lamar Valley is the northeastern exit to Yellowstone. Here, the route south eventually becomes the Chief Joseph Scenic Highway. It runs through the pristine wilderness of Shoshone National Forest. Unlike Yellowstone, there were no cars and people around; it felt like we’d left the world behind. It was late in the afternoon; the desolate vistas that opened up along high mountain passes – over 8000 feet – were beautiful and striking in the fading light. It was a remarkably intimate experience of wilderness, exactly what I had been yearning for, but paradoxically I had found it outside national park borders. 

The presence of a few cattle grazing on steep slopes suggested that people did live around here. But the ranches that they presumably owned were nowhere to be seen.

The highway is named after Chief Joseph, the leader of a group of 800 Nez Perce Indians who were escaping from the US army in 1877. By this time, America's westward expansion and its capture of land that belonged to Indians had reached its peak. The Nez Perce band had refused to live in lands that US government had designated for them. Their defiance made them outlaws in their own land. Around 2000 American troops followed the escaping Nez Perce to arrest them and forcibly bring them back within the confines of a reservation -- the term refers to a territory designated by the US government for Indian tribes. It’s a strange term, but now accepted and commonplace; I’d encountered it first in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, which I’d read as a college student. The Phoenix metropolitan area, where I spent six years, and the state of Arizona more generally, has a number of reservations, including the largest, the Navajo Nation. In all, there are 550 recognized tribes and around 300 reservations.

Beginning in Oregon and passing through Idaho, Wyoming and Montana, the chase of the Nez Perce lasted for an astonishing 1,170 miles. This included a section through Yellowstone, and the Wyoming wilderness we were now driving through. The Nez Perce deftly avoided the US army at many points in the chase. But just 40 miles south of the Canadian Border and their destination painfully close, Chief Joseph and his group, exhausted and having suffered many casualties, surrendered.

Everywhere I’ve traveled to the US, there is such a story of forced dispossession and ethnic cleansing. In Massachusetts, where I now live, I learned about the Wampanoag, who helped the Pilgrims (this alliance may have resulted in the very first Thanksgiving), but eventually lost their own lands and people to wars and diseases. During a trip to Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota, I learned of the infamous Wounded Knee Massacre. For the Cherokees, there is the Trail of Tears; for the Navajos in the Southwest, there is the forced Long Walk to eastern New Mexico. For the Arapahoes  who now have a home in the Wyoming – the Wind River Indian Reservation, which I’ll come to in a bit – there is the Sand Creek Massacre. If you collect these individual tragedies together – there is such a Wikipedia page that does exactly this – you realize the scale of the tragedy, the silent evidence that lies beneath the much touted notion of American greatness.


After the beautiful mountain scenery, the landscape turned flatter and more arid, as we approached the western edge of the Great Plains in Wyoming. The Great Plains were the stage of the many of the Indian Wars of the 19th century, and refer to the vast swathe of land east of the Rocky Mountains: the United States' sparsely populated middle. We stayed in the town of Cody for a night. There were irrigated farms at the outskirts of Cody, and among the long shoots of corn, gazing at us as we drove past, were small groups of deer.

Cody fit the template I had in mind of remote and small Western town: a single row of shops and hotels, a few side streets, and not much else; a rodeo every evening of the summer; the historic, Wild West themed Irma Hotel; no fancy organic stores as in Bozeman, Montana (see Part 1); and unlike Bozeman, no major university to influence the demographics and outlook; mostly steak restaurants, which, given the free ranging cattle, are likely to be good (though preferring vegetarian food, I wouldn’t know anything about quality); and the occasional Mexican or Chinese restaurant providing the only variety.


The Wind River Indian Reservation is about three hours southeast of Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks. It is jointly shared by the Northern Arapahoe and Eastern Shoshone. Before European arrival, the Arapahoe had lived on the eastern plains of Colorado and Wyoming; American expansion drove them west. The Shoshones, in contrast, had lived in this region probably well before American settlement. Sacajawea, the famous Indian woman had helped Lewis and Clarke on their expedition to the Pacific, was Shoshone.  

A few weeks before the trip, I had read a New York Times article titled “Brutal Crimes Grip Wind River Indian Reservation”. It talked about arbitrary homicide, drugs, health problems and depression that plagued the Arapahoe and Shoshone. While all this may be true, the article itself was not convincing; it lacked depth and proper engagement, and was more intent on painting a certain surface portrait. But the disheartening facts in the article, which probably did have some basis in reality, made me think twice about whether I should visit.  

We stayed in Riverton, which I initially thought was in the reservation. At least that is what the map suggested. But land ownership in and around a reservation is often a complicated matter. Riverton turned out to be a majority white town. It sits on the outside edge of the reservation but is not in it. The town has benefited a recent oil boom; executives from big firms frequented the two or three high end hotel chains in town. I wondered if the oil boom also included the natural gas extracted by the controversial “fracking” technique, whose potential impacts on neighboring rivers, streams and house water supply are highlighted dramatically in the documentary Gasland. Indeed, recent sampling of wells in Pavillion, a small town in the reservation northeast or Riverton, seem to support these claims. Not surprisingly Encana, the Canadian corporation that is responsible for the drilling in the region has questioned these results. 


The reservation starts one mile south of Riverton, with the newly opened and Arapaho owned Wind River Casino. The casino building had minimal but attractive Arapaho motifs. In the open space of the casino parking lot, a roping championship was going on. Roping refers to the cowboy sport where a pair of riders on horses ensures that an escaping calf is lassoed around the neck in just the right way and at just the right time. It was less violent sport than I’d imagined, although it was clear – and painful to contemplate – that a slight mistake could easily break the calf’s neck. The parking lot had large trailers to accommodate horses. The participants had red, sunburned faces and wore cowboy hats; they all seemed solemn, keen to perform well in the event, but in good spirits.

The interior of the casino was like any in Las Vegas: dark as a cave, with the strong odor of smoke and alcohol; scores of pair of eyes patiently – or perhaps obsessively – glued to the screens of slot machines; and the cacophony of rings and bells that accompany a successful or failed slot trial.

The local Indians were among the staff, but the gamblers were mostly white. The casino was not full, but I nevertheless wondered where the gamblers had traveled from. This part of the country is sparsely populated: Jackson, Casper, Cheyenne and Fort Laramie, the moderate sized towns in the state, were more than 2 hours away; and Denver more than five hours away. But I guess distance is no match for addictions. Perhaps gambling would also attract those passing through Riverton, on their way to Yellowstone or Grand Teton.

In modern day America, Indian reservations are closely associated with casinos: the National Indian Gaming Commission states that there are 460 gambling operations run by 240 tribes. Because reservations have some degree of sovereignty, states have limited tax and regulation control over what happens in reservations. So in a strange, roundabout way, reservation land, which is where the US government wanted Indian tribes to be confined to, would attain a degree of independence, and pave the way of lucrative gaming operations in the late 20th century -- although it remains puzzling why it is only the casino business, and not others, that have boomed as a result of state tax exemptions. 

Casino revenues are sometimes used by tribes to open new healthcare facilities, elder care centers, and retention of indigenous languages. They have enabled a kind of cultural renaissance for American Indians. But Indian casinos are successful only when they are close to large metropolitan areas: 12% of the casinos make 65% of the total revenue. The small minority of reservations and Indians that have benefited have become tremendously rich; it does not seem that Wind River is among them. The Foxwoods Casino in Connecticut -- not far from where I now live – is one of the most successful reservation casinos in the country. Owned by Pequot Tribe, it is successful primarily because of population and travel density in the Boston-New York corridor. 


We had dinner that evening at a restaurant owned by a Mexican family, back in Riverton, about two miles north of the Wind River Casino. A stocky, young man, about eighteen years old, the son of the immigrant couple who had started the restaurant, came to talk with us. He was cheerful and curious. Noticing that I did not want meat, he asked – with a sincerity that I found endearing – how it was possible to have such meals. His sister, he said, had recently turned vegetarian, but he could not understand it; he laughed heartily about it. He’d grown up in the US, but his parents were from the city of Guadalajara  Their family also owned a restaurant in Jackson, the affluent town near Grand Teton National Park.

The presence of this Mexican family, so far from home, and in such a remote part of Wyoming, is not surprising. There is a lot of that sort of immigration everywhere in the world. But then I remembered the Arapahoe and Shoshone Indians who had lived in this region well before American settlement. It struck me that Mexicans might not be that far apart from them genetically, despite the significant cultural differences. Here in Riverton, more than a thousand miles north of the US-Mexico border, the young Mexican-origin teenager at the restaurant could easily walk through the reservation and be considered native. 


The next day, we drove through the Wind River Reservation. The place was quiet, as most reservations are; you wouldn't even know you were driving through one but for the signs. We passed by single story homes with old, disassembled cars rusting in the backyards; the odd high school, church or tribal administrative unit. But, strikingly, no businesses, no sellers of arts of crafts in old pick-up trucks or stalls (common in the Southwest), no small stores or restaurants let alone malls. Even gas stations were few and far between. Except for the newly opened casino, which may or may not do well, there was nothing that could contribute to the economy. This was made more puzzling by the fact that in Riverton, which is also geographically remote, there are plenty of businesses. What are the dynamics between reservations and states that keeps reservations so poor when the majority white communities in surrounding cities are able to do so much better?

Near the town of Fort Washakie, at the eastern end of the reservation – this was the Shoshone side – we found a small market. We went in to ask about lunch. They did have a kitchen of sorts, but only pizza and deep fried food. I asked a man in charge of the kitchen if he knew of any nearby restaurants in Fort Washakie.

Without a hint of irony, he said: “This is the best restaurant in town.”

He and the other staff who worked in the kitchen were genuinely friendly and wanted to help as much as they could. Their skin shone with sweat from the heat of the all oven cooking and deep frying. Their features and complexion reminded me of the Mexican immigrants I’d met in kitchens of restaurants in southwestern towns. When I asked for vegetarian options, they all looked sincerely around to see if they could get me a cheese pizza, which they’d run out of. In the end, I found some jalapeno poppers and some meat lasagna without pieces of meat. It was good comfort food, something I’d not had in a while.   

Three hours northeast of Fort Washakie, at the base of the dramatic Teton Range of the Rocky Mountains – jagged peaks that rise suddenly for thousands of feet from the valley, creating a view that is scarcely believable and extensively photographed – is one of the more affluent towns in the country: Jackson. The contrast from Wind River could not have been sharper. In Jackson, I would get the fancy vegetarian food I was looking for. At the restaurant, the waiters and waitresses were all well dressed formally; there was emphasis on etiquette that had no intrinsic meaning or essence except to signal social status and refinement; there was a separate and extensive menu for all kinds of drinks; the diners held wine glasses the right way; the smart phones were out for pictures and the instant Facebook uploads; the expensive bills were conveniently paid by gleaming credit cards. The main plaza of Jackson is full of boutique shops and store of brands such as Eddy Bauer and Gap. One bookshop I went into prominently featured a biography of former vice president Dick Cheney, who is from Wyoming. 

Such different socioeconomic realities, in the space of a few hours!