On my drive to work, I focus to keep my eyes on the road. I turn away from the rolling fields of sagebrush and grazing cows that end in an eruption of the snow-capped Wind River mountains in western Wyoming. One can feel the raw power of the land reverberating for miles, only a few homes dotting the landscape.
I roll down the window to breathe in the fresh mountain air, a chilly tempest that the eagles and crows use to sail lazily across the expansive sky. A contrast to the jostle and bustle of a subway commute back home, I substitute people-watching for tracing the sloping foothills. The undulating earth is humbling and leaves one open to contemplation, wondering about the ways to strike a better balance between our modern lifestyles and protection of the source from which all life springs.
The American narrative of “taming” the West, pushing forward on a mission ordained by God, obscures the subjugation and attempted genocide of the people who had been living here for thousands of years. I tell people that I’m from New York, but when asked the question of “where do your people come from?” it gives me pause.
My immediate family is from the East Coast, but when probing further backward, I know that I come from Europe — countries like England and Germany, places of hazy association that lack concrete meaning. As part of the colonial project, there is an attempt to reframe our connection to this land as deep and innate. But to quote from “Braiding Sweetgrass,” “immigrants cannot, by definition, be indigenous. Indigenous is a birthright word. No amount of time or caring changes history or substitutes for soul-deep fusion with the land.”
Our country has perpetuated deep and lasting crimes against the original inhabitants of this land, and we must begin to reckon with them if we are to forge a more just and accountable world. Traditions and cultures were disturbed and uprooted, but they are not lost.
A food sovereignty project on Wind River seeks to reclaim indigenous food and health traditions. Restoring these ways of collecting food offers a contrast to unsustainable practices by agro-business and hyper-processed food linked to skyrocketing rates of diabetes and obesity. The relearning process uplifts values and wisdom that were once nearly erased by the legacy of boarding school establishments, whose goal was to “kill the Indian, save the man.”
The attempted erasure failed, and these projects offer a glimpse of what a more reciprocal relationship with the land could look like.
To address interpersonal violence, there is a practice using principles of transformative justice, focused on reconciliation and healing rather than punishment and exclusion. The circle process focuses on historical trauma and uplifting indigenous values, which promoted consensus and equality as governing principles long before being subjugated to make way for representative democracy.
Members of the Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapaho nations, who share the Wind River Indian Reservation after a legacy of broken treaties and promises, partake in these processes. For too long, the United States has been active in committing cultural genocide against the varied nations and communities that inhabited this land, claiming ownership and dominance in the name of individual liberty.
And what of the other communities in Wyoming, so-called blood-red conservatives who tote guns and run cattle across the plains? Difficult to paint with broad strokes, the varied communities defy preconceived East Coast stereotypes. There are more cowboy hats and pickup trucks than in the Bronx, but the tenacity and determination it takes to survive in this sparsely populated landscape is on full display.
A general sentiment of relaxed libertarianism is omnipresent, an attitude of “live and let live,” perhaps enabled by the availability of space and fresh mountain air.
Wyomingites are keenly aware of the inherent value of the sprawling landscapes and natural resources, and a recent forum on climate action attracted a large gathering. Clearly, I’m not the only one to be deeply appreciative of my commutes, along with some of the best hiking trails I’ve set my boots on.
However, there are state issues that I am beginning to wrap my head around. Wyoming is the largest state producer of coal, its historically extractive industries providing ample booms in economic development, while also disrupting habitats and belching copious amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.
Moves to push to wind and other renewables exist, but there isn’t political gumption to make significant shifts away from fossil fuels in the near future.
Wyoming also has the most guns per capita of any state, ideally used for hunting and self-defense. Seeing them in public leaves me uneasy, and I disagree with arming teachers in local school districts.
But learning about their sustainable use for hunting game leaves me with mixed feelings on a topic I know little about. As I reflect and gaze up at the ancient mountaintops, I think about how such immediate access to the earth encourages reverence and respect.
Some stereotypes of the Cowboy State ring true, but the full picture is more multi-layered than one simplified description.
The author is an AmeriCorps VISTA serving on the Wind River Indian Reservation in central-western Wyoming. He was born and raised in the Bronx.