The reservation reacts to new, troubling press coverageBy Ron Feemster February 19, 2013
Residents on the Wind River Indian Reservation know they have some big crime problems, but they don’t always like outsiders to write about them, especially when they seem to get everything else about the reservation wrong.
A New York Times article that appeared just over a year ago detailed a young man’s tragic, drunken murder of his teenage sister, and the heartbreak of parents who buried a daughter and lost a son to prison.
But before the Times writer got to that story, near the end of his 1,200-word piece, he had lost most of his Native readers. The article first delivered a litany of oppressive crime and poverty statistics punctuated with quotes from Tribal officials about “gloom” and “bad spirits.” To Native ears at least, these expressions capture tired stereotypes better than the views of educated, if occasionally overwhelmed, Indian leaders.
This week a new story made waves on the reservation when it appeared in Business Insider under the headline “Here’s what life is like on the notorious Wind River Indian Reservation.”
“It’s like the New York Times article, only worse,” said Layha Spoonhunter, 23, who recently returned with other reservation young people from a trip to Washington, D.C. to dance in President Obama’s Inaugural Parade. “At least the New York Times writer went around and talked to people.”
The Business Insider presented a slide show of more than 50 photographs, some of them taken off the reservation, with captions presenting the community’s problems and hard living conditions with no sources beyond his “guide,” a local teacher who remained nameless throughout the story.
“There was a lot of misinformation,” said Sara Robinson, the state tribal liaison for the Eastern Shoshone tribe. She was in Cheyenne lobbying the legislature and spoke briefly on the phone. “There were people in my family who were upset and angry. It was just not a good piece of work. Period.”
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.”
— Ron Feemster covers the Wind River Indian Reservation for WyoFile in addition to his duties as a general reporter. Feemster was a Visiting Professor of Journalism at the Indian Institute of Journalism and New Media in Bangalore, India, and previously taught journalism at Northwest College in Powell. He has reported for The New York Times, Associated Press, Newsday, NPR and others. Contact Ron at [email protected]
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