Recently, in a photo essay entitled, “Here's what life is like on the notorious Wind River Indian Reservation,” the online Business Insider gave a tour of the sprawling central Wyoming home of the Northern Arapaho and Eastern Shoshone tribes.
The essay delivered what it promised: a portrait of a place riddled with violence and addiction. A photograph of a trailer where a young girl was murdered was captioned: “The pictures are blurry, because when I raised the camera to take them, the school teacher who was showing me the reservation screamed that I was going to get us killed. She did not view this as an exaggeration. She seemed genuinely terrified.” Underneath the last photo — a gray raincloud descending on a sweeping plain — reporter-photographer Robert Johnson wrote an ominous caption: “Before I leave, I am told not to come back alone.”
Despite Johnson's previous job as a soldier, Indian country apparently shook him up a lot more than it did my 77-year-old Swedish mother, who not too long ago drove her navy-blue Volvo smack into the middle of the Wind River Indian Reservation, stopped at a gas station, and asked the first people she saw if they knew how to get to the home of an Arapaho man she wanted to find. Two Native women finished gassing up their car and led my mom the six miles to his house.
I'm not disputing the statistics on crime and addiction on the Wind River. They are undeniably bleak. What I am disputing is the tendency of the non-Native media to refuse to write about, or perhaps even look for, anything but the unbearable.
It might be news to many reporters (and their readers) but thousands of reservation residents spend their days neither drinking, nor drugging, nor murdering each other. I went up to the Wind River Indian Reservation on assignment for Smithsonian 11 years ago, and fell so deeply in love with the place and its people that I became a frequent visitor for the next 10 years. Mostly, I drove up alone. It wasn't a cakewalk being there. I saw some really scary things. A 17-year-old boy I knew was murdered; another was jailed after he beat up a police officer. But there was also my good friend Stanford Addison, a Northern Arapaho horse gentler so widely respected that a white sheriff's deputy from nearby Lander would bring his horse to the reservation to get his help. This deputy was so impressed by Stanford he wrote cowboy poetry about him. I often hung out at that corral and in the adjacent sweat lodge, and my primary feeling was one of delight.
Still, the media come to the reservation, eager for lurid stories but incurious about the people they see. A February 2012 front page New York Times story entitled “Brutal Crimes Grip an Indian Reservation,” reported: “The difficulties among Wind River's population of about 14,000 have become so daunting that many believe that the reservation … is haunted by the ghosts of the innocent killed in an 1864 massacre.”
The article spurred 277 letters in two days. Some expressed historical outrage, while others blamed Native Americans for not lifting themselves out of their own mess. Some criticized the one-sidedness of the writing. Reservation teenager Willow Pingree, for example, wrote, “Not everything about this reservation is bad. … What many people who are not from this reservation … don't understand is that there is a strong spiritual bond that we have with our culture and our homeland.” To its credit, the Times invited Pingree to write a longer letter in response to Williams's article.
But would it have been so hard to write a more textured, less biased story in the first place — one that tried to humanize the writer's sources? In 2010, I spoke to Wyoming Indian High School history teacher and cross-country coach Chico Her Many Horses, an Oglala Sioux who moved to the Wind River Reservation in 1990. He had seven sons, one of whom was in graduate school at Dartmouth, and his wife is also a teacher in the high school. “If we didn't think this place was good, I wouldn't be here, and my sons wouldn't be here.”
Non-Native reporters might think they're helping Native America by exposing the difficulties of Native life. But because so many people form an impression of reservation life from the media, it only makes the problems worse if reporters go to the reservation just to reinforce whatever ideas they arrived with. When reporters don't get curious, and fail to leaven their portrayal of reservation difficulties with a broader, more human picture, Native people end up being filed away in a special place in readers' brains — the file in which we put THINGS WE'D RATHER NOT THINK ABOUT. Which is where we've been putting Native Americans for five centuries.
Lisa Jones is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News. She teaches memoir in Boulder and Denver (LisaJonesTeaches.com) and is the author of Broken: A Love Story, a memoir about her friendship with Northern Arapaho horse gentler Stanford Addison.