Natives meet Riverton and Lander leaders in bid for understanding
By Ron Feemster
— March 26, 2014
The seating in a Wind River Hotel and Casino dining room Monday night mirrored the conflicts that some 70 guests had come to address: Even when Natives and non-Natives in Fremont County come together, they remain in social networks that do not overlap and often fail to communicate.
With a sprinkling of exceptions, most people attending the inaugural event sponsored by the Wind River Citizens Equality Commission chose to eat with familiar groups. Riverton City Council members dined with Mayor Ron Warpness. The police chiefs of Lander and Riverton sat side by side. The business council and other leaders of the Northern Arapaho tribe filled another table. Two tables were empty, perhaps because invitations to the event went out on short notice.
But when the meeting ended, a funny thing happened. People walked across the room, shook hands and fell into deep conversations. The short talks by a succession of speakers, both Native and non-Native, lowered some barriers and gave everyone something to talk about.
“We invited everyone here to relieve the racial tensions between Riverton and the tribes of the Wind River Indian Reservation,” said Jermaine Bell, 33, one of the founders of the new commission. “We are here to find more cooperation within Fremont County.”
Bell gave the floor to Sergio Maldonado, a professor at Central Wyoming College who lives on the reservation and describes himself as part Mexican and part Arapaho. Maldonado spoke about the necessity to find a more inclusive sense of community in the county, and suggested that audience members come forward to share their thoughts and feelings on the subject.
“I’m an old classroom teacher,” Maldonado warned his audience. “If no one volunteers, I’ll start calling on people.” Even in a room full of people who have campaigned for office and argued their positions in public meetings, Maldonado did not see a show of hands. He called on Jim Carey, the Lander police chief.
Carey was the only speaker to mention the dispute between Wyoming and the EPA, which ruled in a Clean Air Act decision that Riverton was within the bounds of the Wind River reservation. “That decision just exploded in the county,” Carey said. He went on to say that the tensions and uncertainty made communication more necessary than ever. “I’m excited to be here,” Carey said. “I want to work with everyone. I look forward to being part of the solution.”
As Maldonado called on people, one member of the community after another echoed Carey’s basic hope for cooperation and communication. “I appreciate that the community brought these people together and called this meeting,” said Ron Oldman, co-chairman of the Northern Arapaho Business Council. Oldman went on to speak about homelessness, a tense and touchy issue in Riverton, where Native men live on the street and are regularly arrested near City Park for public intoxication. “I don’t want to make any excuses for tribal members who choose that lifestyle,” he said. “But there is a need for housing on the reservation. We have a waiting list. We have a need for 600 homes. We have multiple families living under one roof.”
One key to helping Natives and non-Natives understand each other better, according to Stephen Fasthorse, another organizer of the event, is to help the communities see common issues. Both communities are frustrated by the federal government’s restrictions, for instance.
“Everybody in Riverton is afraid of what the federal government might do,” Fasthorse said in an interview after the meeting. “We have the federal government on our back, too. Non-Native people are always asking, ‘how come they don’t just build houses in their own town and bring in their own businesses?’ The federal government makes it almost impossible to get through the red tape.”
Keja Whiteman, the only Native on the Fremont County Commission, pointed out that helping Native people, especially young people, benefits everyone. “Only 37 percent of Native Americans in Wyoming graduate high school,” she said. “Native Americans make up 65 percent of people in the detention center,” even though they make up only about 20 percent of the population. They are overrepresented in unemployment lines, in hospitals, in the criminal justice system and in the juvenile justice system. “When Native American kids and families do better, everyone does better. You all benefit.”
Whiteman called on the group to work together to find ways to benefit the county as a whole by strengthening the Native community within the county. “Education is the way to start,” she said.
Riverton Mayor Ron Warpness and County Commissioner Doug Thompson each gave brief speeches thanking the commission for hosting the event and the speakers for their heartfelt comments. “I’m sure we will understand each other’s views better,” said Thompson. “I’m grateful for the opportunity to hear everyone this evening.”
By the end of the evening, Riverton Police Chief Mike Broadhead was shaking hands with Jermaine Bell and County Commissioner Steff Kessler was huddled with Gary Collins.
“We need a project we can work together on,” Kessler said. “We’re all connected. We need to find ways to come together. Health care might be the project. Fremont County has the highest health care costs in Wyoming.”
Kessler said she was more than satisfied with the tone of the evening. None of the contentious issues received a lot of time. Instead, speaker after speaker made an effort to present topics where everyone could find common ground.
“That’s how you get things done,” she said. You look to resolve issues. You don’t come looking for a fight.”
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