Blog: The Lessons of Talking Animals

The ideas shared here are meant to provoke thought and conversation; they do not represent any official policy or position of Wyoming Humanities. If you’d like to share your thoughts, we welcome you contact us at ask@thinkwy.org.

On two occasions this week, I was invited to learn lessons from talking animals: first, the prince of the forest, a deer named Bambi, and second, the Western Meadowlark.

Through the generous support of our donors, Wyoming Humanities has partnered with Central Wyoming College and Wyoming Public Television to host a series called Tribal Talks. This program provides an opportunity to learn about Indigenous wisdom with topics such as language, ecology, arts and culture, and the opportunities and challenges of Tribal sovereignty. While the talks are hosted in Jackson, they are being turned into to educational modules for students across the state.

The most recent Tribal Talks focused on the importance of language preservation, especially for the Shoshone and Arapaho. To start the discussion, we played a portion of the Arapaho version of the Disney classic, Bambi.

The champion to make the Arapaho version of Bambi was a Southern Arapaho linguist and educator, Dr. Stephen Greymorning. At the time, Dr. Greymorning was in charge of language and cultural programs at Wyoming Indian School and was concerned about losing the Arapaho language. In the 1990s, the youngest fluent speaker of Arapaho was 43 years old. Translating Bambi would allow new generations to appreciate and learn the unique Arapaho tongue.

Dr. Greymorning was dogged in his pursuit to get Disney to allow the project to happen. Ultimately, it was Roy Disney, brother of the late Walt Disney, who gave the green light. Never before had a Disney film been translated into an Indigenous language. Thirty Tribal members, eighteen of whom were kids, traveled to Jackson for the voice recordings. The cast included members of familiar families such as Spoonhunter, Wallowingbull, Goggles, Oldman, Redman, Tropser, Ferris and others. The Arapaho Bambi premiered in Lander in November 1994.

Bambi was a fitting story to be carried by the Arapaho language. Animals play an important role in Native storytelling. In Arapaho Stories Songs and Prayers: A Bilingual Anthology (2005), authors Andrew Cowell, Alonzo Moss, Sr., and William J. C’Hair write “[animal stories] are myths (heetée-toono), which recount origins and creations as well as the working out of proper relationships among animals, humans, and other powerful creatures of the world as well the natural environment. In these stories, we see things becoming what they later will be in the human world.” Through animals, Arapaho stories “focus on mystery, surprise, unexpected encounters…confusion…and shifting perspectives.”

The Tribal Talks panel included Lynette St. Clair, an Eastern Shoshone semi-retired educator who talked about multigenerational projects to document tens of thousands of Shoshone words in a dictionary app. Raphael Young-Chief, a budding entrepreneur, talked about his experiences and challenges in teaching Arapaho at Wyoming Indian High School. Most interesting to me, however, were the words of Marlin Spoonhunter.

Marlin explained that the youngest fluent speakers of Arapaho are now in their sixties, and several of the few fluent speakers have recently passed away. Fading languages should be of great concern to all of us— Native speakers or not. To lose a language is to lose the ideas and stories that shape us.

But there was something else Marlin taught me,something beautiful and hopeful. The Western Meadowlark, Wyoming’s state bird since 1927, speaks fluent Arapaho. He told me about conversations between Arapahos and Meadowlarks and the wisdom imparted by the birds.

It makes sense that Meadowlarks speak Arapaho. The bird is a symbol of adaptability, resilience, and resourcefulness. Their songs are beautiful and communicate a territory, an awareness of surroundings, and an appreciation for the natural world.

There is a lot to learn from talking animals and I’ve been blessed with the lessons I’ve recently learned.

Wyoming Humanities invites Wyoming to explore the ideas and stories that shape us. If you are interested in supporting language preservation and learning the ideas and stories from unlikely sources, please support Wyoming Humanities.

Blog: A Uniquely Wyoming Commemoration

Planning is underway for Wyoming’s celebration of America’s 250th birthday. While the birthday isn’t until July 4, 2026, planning takes years, and events and projects will happen well before the milestone. I serve on Governor Gordon’s Semiquincentennial Task Force; the Task Force and various committees have been meeting since last December. For inspiration, we looked at how Wyoming celebrated America’s Bicentennial.

In 1976, the Wyoming Bicentennial Commission, organized by Governor Ed Herschler, provided a $1,200 grant to a 12-year-old-boy named Manus Hand of Laramie. With the grant, young Manus visited every place named Wyoming in the United States and Canada, presenting each with a certificate of honorary citizenship. Young Hand went to Connecticut, Delaware, New Jersey, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Indiana, Massachusetts, Michigan, and a dozen other states and Canadian provinces. He was featured on the Today Show, and Walter Cronkite mispronounced his name on the CBS Evening News. Our friends at the University of Wyoming American Heritage Center hold 10 boxes on Manus’ notes, maps, essays, interviews, and keys to cities named Wyoming. This collection is on my archiving bucket list.

I love archives, and I love historic government records. Recently, I’ve been completely immersed in the “1976 Wyoming Bicentennial Commission Final Report.” The Bicentennial Commission (1973-1976) promoted innovative projects and programs across the state to celebrate the nation’s milestone birthday and to reflect on democracy, history, and community. In all, the Commission supported—through federally funded grants—632 projects and 511 events across the state, whose population at the time was 390,000. Some of the projects in the Commission’s final report have been forgotten, some are recognizable, and all showed the spirit of Wyoming.

The smallest grant, $20, was given to the town of Dayton to purchase cassette tapes for oral histories. In all, 13 grants were given to Dayton. With the funding, Dayton purchased banners, catalogued tombstone inscriptions, cleaned up the cemetery, and commemorated the first woman mayor, Mrs. Susan Wissler. The Dayton library created a display of state history books. The Dayton Bicentennial Committee hosted essay contests and commemorative barbeques. Flag poles were installed, and bell towers were restored.

Though Dayton is small, even smaller was Lost Springs (1976 population of seven). Across Wyoming, 52 communities were designated as “Bicentennial Communities,” and Lost Springs was the smallest—in fact, the smallest Bicentennial Community in the nation. Lost Springs received a $250 grant to make improvements to its town hall. Lost Springs also hosted a Bicentennial celebration that drew 2,000 people. An hour-long BBC-TV documentary about the Lost Springs event aired across the United Kingdom. England’s defeat was Lost Springs’ festival. Besides celebrations, the Bicentennial did well in preserving Wyoming’s history and built environment. Projects included purchasing the Independence Rock site as well as South Pass. The Sheridan Bicentennial Commission was able to pay off the mortgage on the Trail End Mansion, the historic home of cattleman, governor, and U.S. Senator John B. Kendrick. One-room schoolhouses across the state were restored, along with cabooses, Jim Baker’s cabin at Savery, as well as the historic two-story outhouse at Encampment. Jerimiah Johnson was re-buried in Cody with Robert Redford serving as an honorary pallbearer. Train depots in places like Riverton and Torrington were rehabilitated. Across the state, Wyoming had a unique opportunity to invest in our rich history.

Besides history, the arts in Wyoming were beneficiaries of the Bicentennial Commission. An opera about the lynching of Cattle Kate was commissioned, as was a portrait of the first librarian in Laramie County. Lovell hosted a puppet theater and a senior citizens theater. Marbleton put on a production of the musical 1776. Art and photography exhibits were held in every corner of the state. Sculptor Russin was commissioned to sculpt a mountain man and a welcoming Native American, which are now installed near the State of Wyoming Visitor Center south of Cheyenne. There were celebrations of the richness of our communities. Laramie County School District #1 received a grant for El Ballet de los Barrios. The Eastern Shoshone hosted a rodeo and the Northern Arapaho a powwow. Oral histories were collected, historic documents published, trails marked, and lectures given. Parks were created and towns beautified. It’s hard to imagine a single person in Wyoming who wasn’t touched by a Wyoming Bicentennial program.

Although 12-year-old Manus Hand was a Wyoming ambassador to Wyoming’s across North America, there really is only one Wyoming. And its connection to the United States is a unique as the ways it celebrated the Bicentennial nearly fifty years ago.

Blog: The 40-Year Grant

Wyoming Humanities is perhaps best known for public programming grants, digital media projects, preservation activities and publications. All of the grants are important investments in Wyoming’s cultural heritage. Some just take longer to come to fruition than others.

Earlier this month I went to the post office to collect Wyoming Humanities mail. In the stack of generous donations (thanks to all who have donated so far this year!), Mrs. Lucille Clarke Dumbrill of Newcastle, Wyoming sent a copy of her newly published book, Grace McDonald Phillips: Legal Pioneer. We get a lot of interesting mail, but this book is the coolest thing we’ve received since I’ve been with the organization. Not only is the book compelling, but the story behind the book makes my heart smile.

The book is about Grace McDonald Phillips, the first woman to practice law in Wyoming and the first woman to argue a case in front of the U.S. Supreme Court. Dumbrill writes that Phillips was “something of a celebrity in her time. Her accomplishments and travels throughout the country were often front-page news, and her close association with the lucrative oil and gas industry earned her a special credibility and respect that few other lawyers (let alone women) could hope to attain in her generation.”

The story of Phillips is extremely interesting, as is Wyoming Humanities connection to the book. More than 40 years ago, Dumbrill had taken a history class from Mabel Brown at Eastern Wyoming College. Brown was a Wyoming historian, author, and storyteller; she gave an assignment to Dumbrill’s class to “find a subject that had not been included in the history books and write an essay on this new subject.” Dumbrill stumbled across articles about Phillips in old newspapers, and it became evident that she was a legal pioneer, politically connected, and nationally respected. Clearly, McDonald would be Dumbrill’s subject.

But how to write it?

That was in 1983. Dumbrill remembers, “My portable typewriter was difficult to use for compiling and writing about the different aspects of Grace’s story, and I had observed others at my husband’s office using a more modern form of typewriter, called a computer or word processor. I decided that I needed one of those, and I needed to learn to use it. I applied to Wyoming Humanities for a grant to continue my search for this elusive legal pioneer. The Council awarded a grant to purchase a computer and do some travel.”

Her research and writings were stored away in boxes under her sofa until recently. Inspired by a grandniece who had written a family history, Dumbrill pulled out the dusty boxes of research and essays and finally started her book in 2020.

Some 40 years after Wyoming Humanities’ grant money helped Dumbrill obtain a word processor, we now have an important contribution to the historical record of Wyoming’s women.

Her book ends with a chapter showing Phillips’ legacy in Wyoming. One of Phillips’ supporters was Judge E. C. Raymond of Newcastle, whose partner was Rodney Guthrie. Guthrie would later become a district court judge and then Chief Justice of the Wyoming Supreme Court. His daughters (both attorneys) are near-and-dear to Wyoming Humanities: sisters Mary and Nancy Guthrie. Both sisters served on the Wyoming Humanities’ Board of Directors until recently.

Dumbrill is a fascinating woman herself, fitting for a future biography. She was appointed by President Reagan to the National Advisory Council on Historic Preservation. She served as President of the Wyoming Historical Society and was on the Wyoming State Library, Archives and Historical Board. She has been active in Weston County’s history and historic preservation.

Congratulations to Lucille Clark Dumbrill for having the passion and fortitude to complete this book, celebrate this remarkable woman, and remind us that we are still connected to the past.

Blog: The Identity of Coach Lone Star Dietz

The mission of Wyoming Humanities is to strengthen Wyoming’s democracy by creating an environment of understanding, inspiration, creativity, wisdom, and idea-sharing.  The scholarly ideas shared here are meant to provoke thought and conversation; they do not represent any official policy or position of Wyoming Humanities. If you’d like to share your thoughts, we welcome you contact us at ask@thinkwy.org.

Identity, argues many scholars, is shaped by cultural, legal, and social influences. They argue we are not born with an identity; rather, it is a game that we play – a game of expectations and influences. It has an unwritten rulebook, and everyone plays differently.

The 1924-26 University of Wyoming Cowboy football coach Lone Star Dietz is a lesson in the complexities of Native American identity—or any identity, for that matter.

Henry “Lone Star” Dietz’ identity began with football. He first learned football at the Carlisle Indian Industrial School under Coach Pop Warner from 1909-1912. Carlisle was a federal Indian boarding school in Pennsylvania meant to assimilate Native Americans into white culture. One of the 20th century’s most celebrated athletes, Jim Thorpe (Sac and Fox Nation), was team captain. Dietz went on to coach at Washington State, Purdue, Louisiana Tech, Wyoming, and Haskell, as well as the Boston Redskins Football shaped the rest of Dietz’s life.

Despite (or perhaps because of) the horrors of Carlisle and the many other boarding schools, the Carlisle Indians football team created modern football. Coach Warner saw the running prowess of the young men and applied this to the game of football. He had the team take a crouching start—the first use of the three-point stance. The Carlisle team turned football into a running game. They invented other moves such as the body block, single and double wing-back formations, the hand-off fake, and spiral passing. The team pummeled the likes of Cornell, Penn, and Harvard. Carlisle emphasized the importance of team sports as a means to introduce discipline into the minds and bodies of the Native students.

Instead, the Native students found a vehicle to express resistance and their cultures within the confines of the game. They shaped the modern game of football, but their contributions are largely forgotten. While the Carlisle Indian football team were meant to assimilate through sport and discipline, they exercised agency to shape their own football identity. Dietz identified himself as a quarter Sioux. Julia One Star, his mother, was half Sioux and his father was German. He took the name “Lone Star” from an uncle of the same name who traveled as a performer in Wild West Shows. In 1919 Dietz, was put on trial for evading the WWI draft. Native Americans were not legally identified as United States citizens until 1924. Dietz registered as a “Non-Native Citizen” to avoid the draft. He was charged with faking his Indigenous heritage and spent a month in jail. Dietz’ identity (or according to some, his persona) was defined by laws of blood quantum and citizenship.

Dietz was a successful coach, but he had many other identities. His college teams won 105 games and lost 60. A 1924 Laramie Boomerang article said of the UW coach, Dietz is “enough a believer in psychology to assert that he will install in the minds of his players the theory that one can make a man believe anything of himself if he wants to.” Besides being a successful coach, he was also an accomplished commercial artist, Hollywood actor, fashionable dresser, and breeder of Russian wolfhounds. Although he often donned Native regalia and headdress, he identified as his own man.

Dietz was multifaceted, but he was reduced to caricature. He is said to be the “inspiration” for the Washington Redskins. In 1933, Dietz began coaching professional football for the Boston Braves, which later became the Boston Redskins and then the Washington Redskins. Public controversy about the pejorative name and image began as early as the 1990s with protest first from Native American, followed by Native American allies. In defending the racist mascot, the franchise justified itself as paying homage to its past Native coach. It was not until the George Floyd protests and riots that major sponsors like Nike, FedEx, and PepsiCo put pressure on the franchise. The death of a man lead to the death of a mascot. It is only recently that the team became the Washington Commanders.

Despite his achievements, Dietz died a poor and forgotten man. A 2013 a Washington Post article, “The Legend of Lone Star Dietz: Redskins namesake, coach—and possible imposter?” opened dramatically at Dietz’s final resting place. “Here lies the celebrated Lone Star Dietz — in a donated cemetery plot, aside a back road, under a drooping evergreen. A simple marker, paid for by friends, bears only one word that hints at his legend: ‘Coach’.” It is striking that of all of the things that could have been put on his epitaph, only one word was used to identify him.

Lone Star Dietz still coaches us in understanding one’s complicated relationship with society.

Blog: Humanities and the Superstructure of Higher Life

The mission of Wyoming Humanities is to strengthen Wyoming’s democracy by creating an environment of understanding, inspiration, creativity, wisdom, and idea-sharing.  The scholarly ideas shared here are meant to provoke thought and conversation; they do not represent any official policy or position of Wyoming Humanities. If you’d like to share your thoughts, we welcome you contact us at ask@thinkwy.org.

October is Arts and Humanities Month. Governor Gordon recently proclaimed: “The state of Wyoming recognizes the significant contributions of arts and humanities in enriching our lives, fostering creativity, promoting cultural understanding and strengthening our democracy.”

Expression through the arts and understanding through the humanities benefit our people, our communities, and the state we love. Another statesman, one hundred and twenty years before, understood this, too. President Theodore Roosevelt congratulated Wyoming “for the building of that higher life.”

In 1903, President Roosevelt toured Wyoming for weeks. Besides the legendary ride from Laramie to Cheyenne on a gift horse from Douglas (Roosevelt renamed the horse “Wyoming”), he gave scores of speeches in places like Gillette, Moorcroft, Newcastle, Evanston, Laramie, and Cheyenne.

Our 13-year-old state had a population of a mere 108,000 people in 1903. Yellowstone had already been designated as a national park, but it would be a few years before Devils Tower would become the first National Monument. The Reclamation Act, championed by Roosevelt, had recently passed, “reclaiming” the arid western lands for “homemaking” pioneers, ranchers, and farmers. All these themes were mentioned in his Wyoming speeches, where he was also proud to observe the natural, intellectual, civic, and cultural wealth of the state.

At Evanston, Roosevelt proclaimed “…my belief in the future of the state is based in no small degree upon the way in which you are taking care that the next generation, like the present, shall be trained in mind as well as in body, and in what counts for more than mind or body—in character.” Wyoming must build “the superstructure of the higher life—moral, intellectual, spiritual—or the mere material advancement will go for little.”

The humanities are the scaffolding of the superstructure of higher life. Literature, philosophy, history, ethics, religions studies and the arts provide the ideas, values, and narratives that shape our understanding of the world and ourselves.

Our lives, our communities and our state are wealthier because of arts and humanities. Artistic expression and understanding through the humanities are important personally and civically. They create meaningful relationships, collaborations, and connections. They cultivate innovation, creative thinking and problem solving. They foster a marketplace of ideas and inspiration. Arts and humanities are not just the superstructure of higher life, they are the superstructure of our democracy.

In 1965 a bipartisan Congress would pass the National Foundation on the Arts and Humanities Act creating the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Endowment for the Arts. “Democracy demands wisdom and vision in its citizens” read the Act. “The practice of art and the study of the humanities require constant dedication and devotion.”

From the Act sprung the National Endowment of the Humanities and the National Endowment for the Arts. A few years later, state arts councils found homes in state governments and state humanities councils became independent non-profit organizations with close ties to their states.

Wyoming Humanities Council was a national model for this non-profit structure more than fifty years ago. Historian T.A. Larson, one of Wyoming Humanities Council’s founders, wrote in the second edition of History of Wyoming, “Humanists…have brought their cultural traditions to bear on foreign policy questions, problems of the environment, the implications of technology, women’s rights issues, pop culture, and social problems.”

The policy issues Larson outlined are still prevalent, albeit with different flavors. Foreign policy questions still abound with current wars in Ukraine and Israel. The environment and our connection to it is passionately debated with the BLM Rock Springs Draft Resource Management Plan. Artificial intelligence is threatening a world in which technology becomes the master. That status of women in the Equality State (and who can be counted as one) continue to be an important topic, especially considering that women make up less than sixteen percent of the Legislature. We either cringe or smile at the popular online theory “Wyoming doesn’t exist.” Social problems, opportunities, and sources of inspiration are found within many communities across the state—from Native Americans to veterans.

In 2026, the United States will honor the 250th Anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. States, including Wyoming, are gearing up for a multi-year celebration of this grand experiment in democracy. The commemorations allow for a reflection on the past and a look toward the future.

That document was written for the future, justified by the grievances of the present, and inspired by the histories and thoughts of the ancient Greeks. The Declaration was a product of the humanities: philosophy, religion, art, poetry, history, language, civic discourse. It imagined and ultimately changed the course of human events.

The first few lines of the Declaration, “when in the course of human events,” is a poetic allusion to a river. Roosevelt, speaking to a group of several thousand in 1903 at Laramie also used a river as a metaphor. “The stream will not rise higher than the source” he said. “The government cannot in the long run, in a government of the people, be better than the average of the people.”

The humanities and arts raise us, our communities, and our democracy to new levels. As Governor Gordon states in his recent proclamation, “Let us embrace the power of the arts and humanities to inspire, educate, and unite us, –fostering civic participation, mutual understanding and a thriving cultural landscape that reflects the true spirit of Wyoming.

Blog: Kennedy and The Bridge Across Laramie’s West Side

The mission of Wyoming Humanities is to strengthen Wyoming’s democracy by creating an environment of understanding, inspiration, creativity, wisdom, and idea-sharing.  The scholarly ideas shared here are meant to provoke thought and conversation; they do not represent any official policy or position of Wyoming Humanities. If you’d like to share your thoughts, we welcome you contact us at ask@thinkwy.org.

Sixty years ago this week, on September 25, 1963, President John F. Kennedy rode in an open convertible motorcade from Brees Field at the Laramie airport to the University of Wyoming Field House. There he would provide an address on natural resources and conservation. “There is really not much use in having science and its knowledge confined to the laboratory unless it comes out into the mainstream of American and world life,” said Kennedy to nearly 13,000 students, faculty, residents, and dignitaries. Kennedy’s speech, optimistic in tone, was meant to bridge a divide between science and social problem solving.

“This trip that I have taken is now about 24 hours old, but it is a rewarding 24 hours because there is nothing more encouraging than for those of us to leave the rather artificial city of Washington and come and travel across the United States and realize what is here, the beauty, the diversity, the wealth, and the vigor of the people.”

En route from the airport to the Field House, Kennedy travelled through a neighborhood of diversity and vigor, through a neighborhood of unconventional beauty and wealth measured by not by financial wealth; rather, the wealth of its heritage and social belonging. Kennedy drove through the West Side neighborhood of Laramie.

To get from the airport to the Field House, Kennedy’s motorcade crossed the recently opened Clark Street Bridge which connected Laramie’s West Side neighborhood to downtown Laramie. Former West Side resident Velma Vialpando recalls holding her 18-month-old baby while waving at Kennedy as he crossed the West Side neighborhood to the University. He waved back to the West Siders lining the bridge.

Saul, another long-time resident of the West Side and a neighbor of mine, proudly recalled himself as a boy shaking Kennedy’s hand. Saul’s memory of the day included Kennedy dedicating the newly constructed Clark Street Bridge. Although I can find nothing online to show that happened, it is significant that Saul’s memory of Kennedy involved a bridge. Though perhaps not factual, it is a metaphor.

The Clark Street Bridge simultaneously connected and divided. West Side, largely a Hispanic neighborhood since the 1910s and always a working-class neighborhood, is separated from the rest of Laramie by the Union Pacific. Prior to the bridge’s existence, the neighborhood was connected by a pedestrian footbridge over the tracks and by an older bridge at University Street that intersected with Pine Street near the tracks. The new Clark Street Bridge connected a block further west at Cedar Street. Westbound traffic crossing the bridge bypassed neighborhood businesses on Pine Street and many of them disappeared. The new bridge’s design largely divided the West Side neighborhood into two separate neighborhoods. But the bridge also connected, and it allowed for a fleeting connection between West Siders and Kennedy.

Five days before Kennedy visited Laramie, he addressed the United Nations. “Peace,” he said “is a daily, a weekly, a monthly process, gradually changing opinions, slowly eroding old barriers, quietly building new structures. And however undramatic the pursuit of peace, that pursuit must go on.” Fifty-eight days after visiting Laramie, Kennedy was killed in another motorcade.

Kennedy’s short life has become an American allegory that is still present in our public psyche. The Clark Street Bridge is now largely forgotten. But for a few old-timers in the West Side, the two are connected. And in that connection, one can find meaning.

Blog: Tourists, Travelers, and Pilgrims

The mission of Wyoming Humanities is to strengthen Wyoming’s democracy by creating an environment of understanding, inspiration, creativity, wisdom, and idea-sharing.  The scholarly ideas shared here are meant to provoke thought and conversation; they do not represent any official policy or position of Wyoming Humanities. If you’d like to share your thoughts, we welcome you contact us at ask@thinkwy.org.

In 1942, over the course of about 60 days, Wyoming’s third largest city was constructed out of green wood and tar paper by 2,000 workers, many of whom were unskilled. At its peak, Heart Mountain Relocation Center’s population was 10,767. By comparison, neighboring Cody’s current population is 10,174 people.

Though 14,000 people lived at Heart Mountain over its three-year existence, at the end of 1945 the camp had no residents. Just a few years later, 465 barracks were removed from the site, leaving only two ramshackle barracks and a leaning brick chimney against the remnants of a large wooden building.

My first trip to the Heart Mountain National Landmark was several years ago, before the impressive Interpretive Center was built. I walked the self-guided pathways and read the interpretive signs. I considered the empty landscape and the presence of Heart Mountain. I took note of historical facts that I wasn’t familiar with. Twenty minutes later, I drove away satisfied that I could check off one more Wyoming historic site off my list.

I was a tourist.

On my second trip, I went as a traveler.

I experienced the 2023 Heart Mountain Pilgrimage held at the end of July. The annual event includes workshops about the history of the site told by those who lived at Heart Mountain. Scholars shared their work on different angles of its history—the resistors, the allies, the complicitors, those who made the best out of a horrible situation. Exhibits showed how the internees exercised resilience living in the concentration camp.

My recent experience at Heart Mountain was deep and impactful. The event made me think about due process and constitutional rights, and the dangers of government in making hasty decisions within the context of a racist and discriminatory culture. I thought of innocence and punishment, taking and restitution, forgetting and remembering, trauma and strength. Unlike my first visit, I considered the layers of meaning of the place, from the towering mountain sacred to the Crow to the mountain as depicted in haiku.

The most rewarding thing about traveling to Heart Mountain was being amongst pilgrims.

Most attendees of the Heart Mountain Pilgrimage have a personal connection to the site. Some were interned there as youth. They are now as old as 96. The next generation, the offspring of the internees, attends to understand what their parents may not have shared. Now, the grandchildren of the internees are encouraged to keep the memory and lessons of Heart Mountain alive. It is a generational experience. Many of these people attend the pilgrimage every year. It is a reunion of sorts, filled with stories, laughs, and tears.

The pilgrims showed me the humanity of the place. They reminded me of the importance of humility and reverence. They demonstrated the value of respect for place, tradition, meaning, ancestors, family, and community. Unlike the tourist or the traveler, the pilgrims experience Heart Mountain as a spiritual place, a place where one seeks inner peace. Though the site is one of a painful and brief history, the pilgrims demonstrated no shortage of joy and endurance. Their journey inspired in me mindfulness and a deeper sense of purpose.

I have visited Heart Mountain as a tourist, experienced it as a traveler, and was inspired by it through its pilgrims.

Blog: Rhubarb Wine – Confessions and Lessons

The mission of Wyoming Humanities is to strengthen Wyoming’s democracy by creating an environment of understanding, inspiration, creativity, wisdom, and idea-sharing.  The scholarly ideas shared here are meant to provoke thought and conversation; they do not represent any official policy or position of Wyoming Humanities. If you’d like to share your thoughts, we welcome you contact us at ask@thinkwy.org.

Storytelling is a cornerstone of the humanities. Stories transmit knowledge and explain the world and our place in it; they mirror and reinforce culture. Stories communicate lessons and they entertain.

Stories make us human.

My favorite stories don’t come from literature or theater. The ones I like to tell and hear are ones shared around the holiday table, at the bar, around the campfire, or visiting with a neighbor across the fence. There are many categories of these types of conversational stories: the ghost story, the “how I met your mother/father” story, the coming out story, the “it’s a small world” story.

But one of my favorite genres of stories, a version of which I’ve heard often enough that it deserves its own sub-genre, is the “once I tried making homemade wine” story.

These stories go something like this: someone (often underage) intentionally ferments something (grape juice, cherries, even dandelions) to make alcohol (usually contraband). Often the vinification takes place in the back of a closet or under a bed. These stories typically involve an explosion or hallucinatory drunkenness.

Here is my contribution to the subgenre. When I was in college, I tried to make rhubarb wine. I don’t remember where I got the rhubarb, but I filled an Igloo cooler nearly to the top with chopped stems. I added a few pounds of sugar and a handful of brewer’s yeast tablets (which I learned later are just vitamins). I added boiling water, locked the lid with the cooler’s handle, and waited.

I imagine I’ve told this story about once a year for twenty-five years, usually when the topics of rhubarb or bootlegging come up. For a quarter of a century, my story concludes with the Igloo cooler exploding under the pressure of the vegetal hooch. The climax usually elicits laughter and back slapping.

But it’s not true.

My concoction didn’t blow up. It just turned into a frothy, tart Robitussin-like syrup too gross to consume. It didn’t detonate, I dumped it in the bushes.

I don’t know why I chose to embellish the story. And I don’t know why I failed to include the most interesting detail—the recipe.

The recipe I used was a poem.

Ted Kooser, the 13th U.S. Poet Laureate penned my recipe in the form of a poem called “How to Make Rhubarb Wine.” The poem offers little in terms of measurements except “you need ten pounds [of rhubarb]; a grocery bag packed full will do it.” I had to ad-lib the rest but followed closely the instructions of harvesting the stalks barefoot and “fuzzy with beer.” I’m sure I followed the advice to take a nap.

There are a few lessons here. First, it’s okay not to end a story with an eruption. Second, it’s okay to start a story with a poem, preferably a wine-soaked poem. And finally, it’s okay to change a story—after all, we change as people.

Poems don’t make good recipes, but they can ferment a good story.

Blog: Unreal Maps

The mission of Wyoming Humanities is to strengthen Wyoming’s democracy by creating an environment of understanding, inspiration, creativity, wisdom, and idea-sharing.  The scholarly ideas shared here are meant to provoke thought and conversation; they do not represent any official policy or position of Wyoming Humanities. If you’d like to share your thoughts, we welcome you contact us at ask@thinkwy.org.

On a recent trip through the southwest corner of Wyoming, I experienced the most incredible map. I say I “experienced” the map because it is more than a map that you simply look at. This map is a biography, a history, a memory, a lesson, and a gift. It is a map of Wyoming and the west. It is a cartography of humanity.

Hanging slightly askew in a simple wooden frame on a rather nondescript sidewall at the museum of the Fort Bridger Historic Site is the “Map of Rocky Mountain West by Jim Bridger.” It takes me places.

Maps are not real. The Polish-American philosopher and scientist Alfred Korzybski said, “Maps are not the territory.” He meant that perceptions and descriptions (a map) of reality are not the same as reality (the territory) itself. Bridger’s map is not real. It doesn’t show the reality of the western terrain. Rather, Bridger’s map transcends reality.

Bridger’s map is unreal. And in its unrealness, I find reverence.

Jim Bridger (1804-1881) was “the Old Man of the Mountains.” He played a significant role in Wyoming’s history and the settlement of the west by Euro-Americans. He was a fur trader, a guide, an explorer, a trader, and a bard. Though illiterate, he used Shakespearian stories to entertain and communicate to both the indigenous and the emigrant.

Besides memorizing Shakespeare, he memorized the land—its ranges, ridges, and rivers, its plateaus and passes, its terrain and trails. Bridger mentally mapped the territory from South Park, Colorado, to the Yellowstone River of Montana, and from the head waters of the Green River east to Nebraska. It is unreal to think of his memory, let alone the extent of his explorations.

There is another reason the map is unreal. Bridger didn’t draw it. Not exactly. The map hanging unceremoniously at the eponymous fort is in fact a facsimile of a recreation of a rendering of a recollection of reality first drawn with a stick in dirt.

Bridger’s map is a lineage of copies. Although the framed map looks original in its creases and stained paper, there is at least one other version at the University of Wyoming’s American Heritage Center. You can find a digital version of the map at Wyohistory.org. The copies of the map at Fort Bridger and the AHC are from an 1862 recreation by Col. William Collins, father of Caspar Collins, of a map Bridger rendered on animal skin with charcoal. The animal skin map was based on Bridger’s extensive recollection of the landscape he first drew in the dirt with a stick, perhaps at South Pass.

Bridger’s map was from memory to dirt, dirt to skin, skin to paper, and paper to pixel. Its uses also have changed.

How Bridger’s map has been used over time gives it more layers of interpretation. Originally it was meant by Bridger to graphically translate his memory of the obstacles and opportunities of geography. Col. William Collin’s version of Bridger’s map was a gift to Casper Collins for the purposes of military expansion and maneuver. Collins in turn gifted the map to John Friend of Rawlins. Friend was a soldier, telegrapher, miner, journalist, legislator, sheriff, judge, and collector. Sometime before his death in 1922, Friend gifted the map to historian Dr. Grace Raymond Hebard under whose ownership it was archived. Bridger’s map is archived memory.

That map is now a part of my memory. In it I see the power of the mind, the power of human connection to the land, the power of lines, the power of colonial expansion, the power of collecting and preserving. Jim Bridger’s map is as much a map of the humanities as it is a map of the West.

In his short fiction Fragile Things, Neil Gaiman wrote:

“One describes a tale best by telling the tale. You see? The way one describes a story, to oneself or to the world, is by telling the story. It is a balancing act and it is a dream. The more accurate the map, the more it resembles the territory. The most accurate map possible would be the territory, and thus would be perfectly accurate and perfectly useless.”

Maps are not real, and Jim Bridger’s map is unreal. And it is a good story.

Blog: Drouths and Rising Cricks

There are several things I inherited from my dad, and a few things I did not.

I inherited his love of beer, obsession with reading the news, and fair skin. I did not inherit his red hair, love of football, or saying “drouth” instead of “drought.” He has a traditional Wyoming dialect and says “crick” instead of “creek.” I didn’t inherit this either. I’m a creek-sayer, but I know and respect many crick-sayers.

I’ve never heard anyone other than my dad call a prolonged period of dryness a “drouth” but I’m sure they’re out there. Because my dad was born and raised in Rock Springs and has lived in Wyoming most of his life, I’ve always associated “drouth” with Wyoming. Based on my sample size of one.

Contrary to the “Wyoming doesn’t exist” conspiracy movement, Wyoming does — and it even has its own language.

Linguistics is a fascinating humanities discipline. I’m not a linguist, nor do I play one on TV, but I often wonder about the language of Wyoming. How does one describe the Wyoming dialect? What are the words we value and the words we use? How does Wyoming identify itself through language? Wyoming has a unique identity, and I argue a unique language.

An organization called the International Dialects of English Archive (IDEA) has a library of recordings and scholarly analysis of English dialects. There are six Wyoming recordings in this archive from four women and two men, born between 1936 and 1981. The voicers (all white) have ties to Wamsutter, Lander, Laramie, Saratoga, Wright, Basin, and Lovell. The linguists describe the Lovell voice:

The speaker has a slight but noticeable drawl, elongating his vowels and demonstrating an overall folksy and unhurried speech patterns. The elongation can be heard in the short “e” sound in the word “stressed,” the “aw” sound in words like “dog,” “long,” and “strong.” He retains the diphthong for “I” as in “life” and “shy.”

The Wyoming way of talking (“overall folksy and unhurried speech patterns”) is also a laconic style. People in Wyoming generally talk less than city slickers (but say more, according to the Wyoming code of the West). With little interest in chit-chat, speech is leisurely and slow paced, with pauses before responses.

There are some uniquely Wyoming words—often related to our ag heritage. Riding for the “brand” in Wyoming means something different than the way a marketing firm would use “brand.” “Buckrail” and “Branding Iron” are both media outlets and allusions to ranching. In Wyoming “riding herd” applies equally to cattle and cajoling employees.

Although Wyoming values the words that tie us to a ranching heritage, the words Wyoming uses more often reflect its commodity economy. Wyoming sees many things as “resources,” or commodities. The environment is a “natural resource,” which must be managed. Wyoming’s heritage is a “cultural resource.” Wyoming’s “most valuable resource” is either its children or water. Land is “a working landscape.” Enjoying nature is “outdoor recreation,” which is also an economic development strategy.

Wyoming may be the only state that has a “Game and Fish” agency, rather than a “Fish and Game” agency in all other states. Hunting is more profitable than fishing in Wyoming. “Greenies” is a unique Wyoming term for Coloradans. It’s pejorative, but also reflects the economic contribution out-of-staters make in Wyoming (while encroaching on favorite local fishing-holes), as well as the color of that state’s former license plate.

Wyoming also uses language to create to classify “us” vs. “them.” Politicians and citizens wanting to establish street cred often preface statements with “My name is Shawn and I’m a third generation Wyomingite.” Discredited are those who pronounce the town of Opal like a gemstone.

Of course, there are many more languages spoken in Wyoming that drawled English. It’s great that a few Wyoming schools have dual-immersion language programs. How cool would it be if everyone in the state were more acquainted with the languages of Shoshone, Arapaho, and Spanish?

God willing and the cricks don’t rise, there will be no drouth of appreciation of Wyoming’s languages.

Blog: The Humanities and AI

THE HUMANITIES AND AI

Every Sunday morning at 9:05, I get a notice on my phone about how many hours I spent the previous week scrolling mindlessly through Instagram and the like. It’s an embarrassing and humiliating number, much more so than the number on the bathroom scale during my weekly weigh-in. As if I wasn’t struggling enough to keep down my screentime (and waistline), along comes ChatGPT.

ChatGPT is apparently a gateway drug into artificial intelligence – or AI – as I have found it quite addictive, momentarily exhilarating, and downright scary.

By now most people have probably heard of this intellectual interloper, but for those who have not tried it, it is surprisingly easy to use. And shockingly responsive.

I asked ChatGPT, How can the humanities be used to solve Wyoming’s challenges?, and it responded lickety-split with a 227-word mini-essay worthy of a Wyoming Humanities donation appeal letter. Its answer touched on economic development and strengthening communities. It addressed the role of the humanities is understanding and addressing social issues and promoting civic engagement. “By studying literature, history, and philosophy, we can gain insights into the ways in which (social) issues have developed over time and identify potential solutions that are grounded in a deeper understanding of their causes.”

There is an irony in ChatGPT doing such a good job describing the importance and use of the humanities.

In 1965, Congress passed the National Foundation on the Arts and the Humanities Act, which created the National Endowment for the Humanities and Arts. Congress declared in the Act: “Democracy demands wisdom and vision in its citizens. It must therefore foster and support a form of education, and access to the arts and the humanities, designed to make people of all backgrounds and wherever located masters of their technology and not its unthinking servants.”

A risk of ChatGPT is that in its instantaneous synthesis and mastery of masses of on-line content, it can make us unthinking servants reliant on its (insert air quotes) wisdom.

So why even study or appreciate the humanities when we have ChatGPT that can do it for us?

David Brooks opined about this in his February 2, 2023, New York Times opinion piece, “In the Age of AI, Major in Being Human.” Brooks described those things that only humans can do. AI cannot have a distinct personal voice. It cannot have a childlike talent for creativity or unusual world views. It cannot have empathy.

To summarize Brooks’ points, platforms like ChatGPT cannot tell a story, let alone a good one. The art, purpose and importance of storytelling remains solidly within the purview of humans.

I asked ChatGPT, Why should we care about the humanities?, and in a matter of seconds it kicked back a worthy response elaborating on cultural enrichment, preservation of language and history, critical thinking and problem-solving, and community building.

But what it couldn’t kick back (and I argue it never will be able to) is a single sentence story that answers the question much more meaningfully, surprisingly, and with voice.

In 2013, Pete Simpson addressed the Wyoming Humanities board. He answered the same question I asked ChatGPT. “The humanities are our intellectual broadswords to fight ignorance, cynicism, trivialization and complacency and the more and better ways we contrive to wield them, the more we meet our responsibility to our citizens.”

Who did it better?

To read Pete’s address, check out our Democracy Under Construction e-book.