Let’s go back--way back--to 1868. The Northern Arapaho tribe has survived not only the Sand Creek Massacre but decades of war with the US Army. They’re an exhausted people. In the middle of winter, the US Army decides to move them across Shoshone territory to Oklahoma.
“Well, you know Wyoming winters,” says John Washakie, great grandson of Chief Washakie and longtime Shoshone Councilman. He’s also a tribal storyteller. “They’re very cold. The horses were not in the best of shape. Some of the children and women were ill.”
Washakie says the Arapaho and Shoshone had always been traditional rivals. So the Shoshone didn’t exactly welcome the newcomers with open arms.
“It looked like there was going to be a battle between the two tribes,” Washakie says. “Chief Washakie, of course, intervened, and he told the Indian agent to take the Arapaho down where the little Wind walked into the Big Wind. And they could stay there until spring. Well, the military didn’t do that, and they stayed.
…And never left. The Arapaho settled onto the Shoshone Indian Reservation, as it was known then. And in 1938, the federal government gave the Arapaho 50-percent undivided interest in a reservation shared with the Shoshone people, and established the Joint Business Council to run it.
The job of the Shoshone and Arapaho Joint Business Council isn’t an easy one. It manages almost 3-million acres of shared land and dozens of social programs on the Wind River Indian Reservation. But last month, it got even more complicated. The Northern Arapaho released a statement resigning from the Council, effectively dissolving the Council altogether. And they didn’t tell the Eastern Shoshone tribe they were going to leave. Since then, the Eastern Shoshone has released a flurry of their own statements calling the move “risky” and “ill-conceived.”
Washakie explains the idea of “undivided interest.” He says it’s a fancy way of saying there’s no chopping the reservation down the middle and parting ways. “Let’s assume that this is a minute pebble from the Wind River Indian Reservation.” He picks up the small plastic cap of his water bottle. “You pick it up and you look at it. It is 50 percent undivided interest, meaning, you don’t know if the 50-percent is this side, this side. That’s the way the holdings are for the reservation.”
But over the years, things have become less equal. For one thing, the Shoshone have less than four-thousand members, but Northern Arapaho Councilman, Dean Goggles, says, “The Arapaho tribe is around 10-thousand members. We have like 130 programs. We have almost 1200 employees.”
And he says the Joint Business Council was the federal government’s big idea—not the tribes’.
“Both tribes were consolidated into one single body back in 1938,” he says. “But the members of each tribe elected their own business council. But the federal government continued to push the tribes to joint meetings. It was not created by the business council. It was for the U.S. convenience. “
Convenient for the feds when they needed to make a decision requiring the cooperation of both tribes. But not so convenient for two tribes whose priorities have been diverging for decades. Goggles says, recently the Arapaho have become more and more frustrated.
“We have a backlog of a lot of action items. Things weren’t getting done. We weren’t hiring directors that we should. We had stalemate on a lot of those issues. To get 12 people in a room to agree on anything is pretty difficult.”
“I kind of view it more as growing pains,” says Torivio Fodder with the American Indian Studies Program at the University of Wyoming. He says the Northern Arapaho’s decision is just an example of the messy process of gaining tribal sovereignty.
“What’s actually happening is amazing to watch because we’re seeing a tribal government that’s trying to grow and sort of come into its own. But it’s at the expense of a neighbor—a partner.”
But Fodder says if the gridlock goes on too long, there will be real economic ramifications for everyone involved.
“Any jointly held projects I think would be up for grabs,” Fodder says. “There’s a potential for job losses. So I think for the short term at least, we’re talking about potential spikes in unemployment.”
Shoshone storyteller John Washakie says, yes, this split will be painful.
“It’s like a divorce. Joint assets, and not knowing which half is yours.”
But he says, as usual, it’s the children that will keep the conversation civil and move it toward a workable solution.
“We have many inter-marriages,” Washakie says. “I can see it every day in the school systems. Children of both, of mixed heritage.”
But right now that solution is nowhere in sight. And it could take a while since Northern Arapaho and Eastern Shoshone officials are still not on speaking terms.