It’s a cloudy afternoon in May, the fields are vibrant green and ringing with Meadowlark song, and in Fort Washakie, Ra’el Trosper is enjoying a rare Saturday off. No student ambassador field trips today, no robotics club competition, cross-country meets or wrestling tournaments. No speech-and-debate obligations, traditional club meetings, powwow dancing, no drumline practice. Not even a student-body-president task.
It’s an understatement to say the 18-year-old Wyoming Indian High School student has been busy these last four years. The following day, however, all the extracurricular activities and hard work will come to fruition when she dons her buckskin dress and beaded moccasins and walks across the stage to collect her diploma — and four scholarships to go with it.
Her’s could well have been a different story. Trosper’s short life has been touched by the kind of trauma and loss that would send others into a tailspin — she lost her brother and father in a single year. But instead of sinking, she soared. And she’s done so with quiet determination, a rare level-headedness and remarkable poise.
“She lives by example, in a humble, kind, quiet way,” said her uncle James Trosper, the director of the University of Wyoming’s High Plains American Indian Research Institute. To consider Trosper’s life, he said, is “to see that regardless of what obstacles you have, you can still accomplish great things.”
Trosper, who is spending her Saturday off tidying her room and playing music on her phone, is characteristically modest and matter of fact when asked what has driven her to succeed.
“I just tried to do my best,” she said.
A Quiet Child
Trosper, who is an enrolled member of the Northern Arapaho Tribe, was born into a large, well-known Fort Washakie family (her grandmother, Zedora Enos, is the great-granddaughter of the famed Eastern Shoshone Chief Washakie). The sixth of eight siblings, Trosper grew up surrounded by dozens of cousins and aunties, participating in traditional dances and ceremonies and playing along the banks of the Little Wind River, which wends through land that has been home to her family for generations.
At raucous family gatherings full of laughter and shouting, James Trosper says, Ra’el stood out as the quiet child.
Her grandmother says it was a defining characteristic.
“When she was a little girl just in Head Start, she’d come home from school and she’d just whisper … and I’d say, ‘honey, I can’t hear you.’ And she would repeat what she said, only loud. I’d say, ‘there you go honey, that is what I wanted to hear. Speak up and let people know what you are saying.’”
Enos recalls her learning numbers, Shoshone words and how to read at a very young age. “I said, ‘my granddaughter Ra’el is going to be an avid reader.’” It was a prescient prediction.
Ra’el’s family recalls her as a studious girl — always studying, engaged in learning and motivated to succeed. She would load up on library books after finishing her classwork, and particularly loved anything science-related.
“I’ve always joked with her that ever since I met her in sixth grade, I’ve always felt that she’s smarter than I was,” said Hope Christiansen, who’s been a teacher of Trosper’s since middle school.
“She’s always been mature for her age, tried to use large vocabulary … just was different, not in a bad way, in a unique way,” Christiansen said.
Trosper fell in with a group of middle school friends who were involved in student council and similar activities, sparking her interest in extracurriculars.
And her grandmother’s advice about speaking up? It must have rubbed off. Today, Trosper still speaks quietly, but with an articulateness, deliberateness and confidence that can’t help but be heard. Her hands flutter like birds when she’s explaining, and she appears to lack entirely the typical teenage hang-ups about conversing with adults.
She’s given talks to her entire student body. As a speech-and-debate competitor, she performs poetry before large crowds.
A Tragic Year
On July 18, 2015, Roy Clyde, a Riverton city parks employee, walked into The Center of Hope, a detoxification and transitional living center in the town, and shot two sleeping patients at close range, killing one of them — Stallone Trosper, Ra’el’s 29-year-old brother.
“For the whole family, it was just really, really, really tough,” James Trosper said. Stallone was a bright young man, he remembers. He had some issues with alcohol, but his family didn’t even know about them. He was trying to straighten himself out. Many believed he was the victim of a hate crime. (Clyde was white, both victims Native American. Clyde was later sentenced to life in prison.) By any account, it was a senseless act, another trauma layered on top of generations of suffering and violence, James Trosper said. It was devastating to see such a vibrant life snuffed out.
Ra’el was 14 when it happened.
“We weren’t very close, but he was really kind and he passed away in a violent way,” she said. “Everyone in my family was grieving for him.”
The loss rippled through the community. And when the one-year anniversary of his death came around, the family braced to honor Stallone’s life and remember the terrible day that ended it.
Unimaginably, tragedy struck again.
“I was feeling really strange on July 18 again,” James Trosper remembers. “I just kept thinking, ‘if we could make it through this day, everything would be all right. I had a really strong feeling that something was going to happen. Then one of my sisters called. She said, ‘James, there was an accident.’”
Ra’el’s father, Allison “Ty” Trosper, was riding in a pickup truck near Ethete that evening, when the driver — 29-year-old Rita Willow — drifted off the road, overcorrected and crashed. Trosper, 50, was ejected, and did not survive his injuries. (Willow, who was intoxicated, was later charged with involuntary manslaughter.)
“It was just like, one more blow, not even a year later. Especially for Ra’el,” James Trosper said.
He noted that these kinds of stories are too common for Native American families, whose histories are tinged by too much violence, too many alcohol-related deaths, by addiction, loss, and the forced removal of children. As these factors layer on, he said, they “only breed more trauma.” It’s a vicious cycle.
The family gathered to grieve. They worried about all of Ty’s children, and eyed Ra’el carefully. She started missing school. She began to withdraw, and sank into a depression, her uncle said. She sat on the brink, the fate of her future in the balance. The family sent her to Casper for treatment.
But then, she told her family she wanted to take the traditional path toward healing. She asked them to hold a sweat and ceremony for her. They did, and after that, James Trosper said, things began to turn around.
Trosper says she had to pull herself together — for her younger brother Dustin’s sake.
“He didn’t really show it, that he was hurting, but you could tell by his grades,” she said. “I felt like I had to be the example — hey, don’t lose what you love because you lost someone you loved.”
She had always been active, but after her dad passed, she threw herself into extracurriculars with new energy. She wrestled (on the boy’s team), earned academic all-state honors in cross-country and threw the shot put in track. She performed works of poetry at competition (the speech-and-debate team won more trophies in the past four years than the past 10 combined); founded and became president of her school’s first-ever robotics club; hosted Halloween masquerades and handball tournaments with the traditional club; learned about French culture through a student ambassador program; visited historic sites; competed in an all-Native American track meet in South Dakota, and became president of the music club (she was on the drumline). The students of Wyoming Indian High School elected her to be their student body president — as a sophomore and again her senior year.
“My sophomore year after dad passed away, I did everything I could to keep myself busy, making sure I wasn’t just sitting home crying,” she said. “I think the whole time I was just saying ‘take a deep breath. It’s going to be OK.’”
Being active was, in part, simply what her group of friends did, she said.
“We kind of built each other up, and challenged each other, and we celebrated our successes together,” she said.
There was a therapeutic element to her frenetic pace as well. It definitely kept her out of trouble.
But mostly, pursuing so many disparate interests enriched her life.
“If I didn’t have all these extracurriculars I don’t think I would have many friends,” she said. “I probably wouldn’t have as good a relationship with my teachers as I do now. I wouldn’t be able to see what’s outside of this bubble here in Fremont County.”
Trosper’s notables have not gone unnoticed. When she was 16, she won the Associated Students of the University of Wyoming’s Honorary Cowboy Award, given to a K-12 student in the state who exemplifies the “cowboy up” spirit.
And her little brother Dustin?
He’s doing well — driving, excelling in cross-country, with a summer job in Idaho that keeps him busy.
A Bright Future
The day after that rare commitment-free Saturday in May, Trosper and her classmates, dressed in their finest traditional regalia, gathered at Wyoming Indian to receive their diplomas. Drummers offered a heartbeat rhythm; elders performed traditional ceremonies, teachers and administrators distributed accolades.
Trosper knew she had won the the Richard and Judith Agee Scholarship, but was surprised when her name was announced three more times as a scholarship recipient.
“It was pretty cool,” she said. “It gave me a peace of mind knowing that I won’t have to pay for so much.”
In the fall, she’ll head to the University of Wyoming. There, she’ll study architectural engineering. Her dream is to become a certified architect and return to the Wind River Indian Reservation.
“I want to bring my skills back here,” she said. “There are buildings that I’d like to see here and it would be really cool if I were the one to design them.”
On her list? “A large library. A community center. Places where kids can go hang out, places that will keep them busy.”
She looks forward to university life.
“Being around other students who have good study skills and big dreams, I hope that they can teach me how to make the most out of school and learning,” she said.
Those who know her expect her to thrive.
“I just get a lump in my throat when I think about her,” grandmother Enos said. “She’s a very good student, very smart. For a young girl, she knows what she wants to do with her future. That’s very rare.”
Enos remembers that when Trosper was little, her father always expected so much from her. Sometimes Enos thought he expected too much.
“He always said, you can do this,” Enos remembered. “I’m sure that if he was here, he’d be very proud of her.”
Christiansen said she’s still recovering from seeing Trosper walk across the graduation stage.
“Even now I’m tearing up,” she said. “It was such an experience for me … I always felt like she was waiting for her life to truly begin. It’s like the butterfly came out of the cocoon with her and now it’s like, I can’t wait to see what happens.”
And James Trosper said her quiet courage in the face of challenge sets an example.
“We are just so grateful that she didn’t let that knock her down,” he said. “She has so much to offer our people. I really believe that she can be a good leader for our people.”