I needed to run some errands “down county” in Riverton, about an hour away. It was almost balmy spring, and a different experience altogether from the wintry drive over the mountain pass to Jackson a few weeks ago.
I was driving alone. With no conversation to distract me, I had time to discover that this route has a serene beauty of its own.
Almost all of the drive is on the Wind River Indian Reservation, home of the Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapahoe people. This is not a desolate, barren desert of windblown sand, like the Hopi reservation we saw in Arizona last year. It’s as fertile as the rest of the valley. As you drive, you see cattle, horses, and lots of hay.
I’ve met a few of these distant neighbors, but I don’t have any friends among them. “The Rez” feels like foreign territory, which I suppose it actually is.
In Dubois, we maintain a cautiously respectful and distant regard for the people on the reservation. They do not hasten to engage us, for understandable reasons.
The Shoshone knew this temperate valley from ancient times. For many generations, they migrated through it and occupied seasonal villages around here, long before their descendants were forced to settle here permanently. Their revered leader Chief Washakie and his advisors astutely negotiated the Wind River Valley as a reservation for their people 1868.
The most prominent landmark on the drive is Crowheart Butte. You can see it in this picture, rising from the valley floor. I have no idea how the butte came to be on that flat plain, but nearly everyone here knows how it got its name.
The Shoshone and their enemies the Crow were in constant battle. Chief Washakie proposed ending the conflict with a man-to-man fight with the Crow leader on top of the butte. Legend says that Washakie won the fight, killed the foe, and ate his heart–hence “Crowheart.” I read somewhere that when someone asked old Chief Washakie if this was true, he chuckled and replied, “It sounds like something I might have done when I was young.”
There’s no cellphone signal on the drive across The Rez, and radio coverage is spotty. I kept pushing the scan button and finally came across a strong signal. The melody was repetitive, supported by a drum. The lyrics were at once strange and familiar: Hey-ya-ya-ya. Hey-ya-ya-ya. The music carried me along for a few miles.
I found myself imagining a woman standing in her kitchen, listening to the same music and looking at this austerely beautiful vista as she cooks. She is not a symbol or a character from geopolitical history. She is part of a real community that occupies this land as surely as I occupy our few acres, cooking her dinner as surely as I cook mine. Of course her tie to the valley that I have come to love would be vastly stronger than mine, who first saw it only a few decades ago.
Maybe she appreciates this gold and blue landscape on a far deeper level than the way I enjoy the view out my own window, I thought.
The DJ announced a new song, with a similar lilting melody and drum rhythm, but this one had words whose meaning I could understand.
Like I told you before
I don’t love you any more.
Stay away from me.
I don’t need you any more.
Her family isn’t locked up in the history I keep in my mind along with the images of petroglyphs and the sheep traps, I thought. Their culture evolves as ours does, but I will probably never know who they are. We slide past one another in Riverton or on the highway, aliens to each other for reasons still too deep to resolve.
My mother, who grew up in Scottsbluff, Nebraska, often lamented the travesty our ancestors had done to the Native Americans. But I was a child growing up in the Midwest when she raised me. I never saw a Native American (to my knowledge), or a reservation. Her words meant almost nothing to me then. I understood them, but I did not.
Gradually the road returning to Dubois begins to dip and rise, winding toward the striped and wrinkled backdrop of the badlands. It slides you gently around a huge curve, and then the other huge landmark suddenly rises in front of you: the red rocks.
On a midsummer day, backed by a jewel-bright blue sky, they are even more arresting than this.
They are the western end of this part of The Rez. Chief Washakie wisely insisted on holding onto these fabulous formations. On any of our long journeys back from somewhere farther to the east than Riverton, I see them as the finale.
Beyond the red rocks, I am at home.
© Lois Wingerson, 2016
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