Geoffrey O’Gara: Modern Day Struggles of the American West

"One of the great things you learn very quickly in doing live television and interviews and politics and things is that people in Wyoming aren't trained to be on camera. That actually makes them really interesting to talk to on camera, because they're not careful and they're not calculating. They actually say things that are interesting and new."

Geoffrey O’Gara is an author, script writer, public affairs host, and documentary producer based in Lander, Wyoming. He is the author of What You See in Clear Water: Indians, Whites, and a BattleOver Water in the American West (Knopf) and A Long RoadHome, Journeys Through America’s Present in Search of America’s Past (Norton). Geoff is the former editor of High Country News and spent many years as public affairs host and award winning documentary film producer at Wyoming PBS.

In 2015 Geoff began Caldera Productions, an independent documentary film company focusing on stories in the American West. Caldera's2019 film The State of Equality (co-production with WyomingPBS) about the historic role Wyoming women played in women's suffrage, was nominated for a 2020 Heartland EMMY and NETA Public Media Award.

Geoff's latest Caldera project, Home From School:The Children of Carlisle (co-production with Vision Maker Media),documents the history of the Native American boarding schools in the U.S. and the historic journey of the Northern Arapaho in repatriating children from one of these schools. The feature film will be released in early 2021. 

Contact him at geoff@calderaproductions.com and for more information about Caldera Productions go to: www.calderaproductions.com.

Thanks to you and yours for speaking with us, Geoff!

Geoffrey O'Gara (00:00):

It isn't that they're better people than others. It's not that they're good for the environment. It was nothing like that. It was just these are human beings living in a very challenging way in the world, and in a very interesting world. In that sense, I would say the cowboy is still very much alive in Wyoming, and I wouldn't discount it at all.

Emy DiGrappa (00:20):

Hello. My name is Emy diGrappa. Each week we bring you stories, asking our guests the question why. We learn about passion, purpose and the human experience. Brought to you by Wyoming Humanities, with the generous support of the Wyoming Community Foundation, this is What's Your Why. Today we're talking to Geoff O'Gara. Geoff worked for public television as on-camera talent, writer and documentary producer. He has done that for over 20 years, and he is now currently the president of Caldera Productions, an independent documentary film company. Welcome, Geoff.

Geoffrey O'Gara (01:11):

Thank you, Emy. Good to be here, or there. We're virtual.

Emy DiGrappa (01:18):

Your name is so well known because you've done so many stories about the American West and Wyoming throughout the years. Now we get to know your story, your background, and where you grew up and how you got into writing and filmmaking. Let's just start there. Where did you grow up?

Geoffrey O'Gara (01:37):

I grew up in California, Northern California. Usually in Wyoming and many other places, you don't want to admit that. You don't want to say, "I'm from California," because that's not good. I grew up very happily in Monterey, born in San Francisco, and actually went to college in Southern California. Eventually, just migrating around after college, spent a little bit of time with a theater group in Oakland. Did some work there in journalism, even a little stint with the Oakland A's doing public relations, but I ended up in Washington, D.C., and it was there that I ... what's the right word?

Geoffrey O'Gara (02:16):

I was courting my wife, Bertina, eventual wife, and working for a small journalism group that had a lot of impact called Capitol Hill News Service. Really a good group, where you got to mix reporting for daily newspapers in the hinterlands with doing investigative work. Each one of us had investigative projects that we could work on. Anyway, I really enjoyed it.

Geoffrey O'Gara (02:40):

At some point, Bertina and I got married. We had a child on the way. We looked around Washington, D.C. and Capitol Hill where we were living and said, "I don't think we want to be here with a little kid." Then, because we were young, thought about let's go adventuring. Where are we going to go? There was an ad in Editor & Publisher for a little publication called High Country News way out there in Wyoming, which I'd been to maybe once in my life, driving through.

Geoffrey O'Gara (03:08):

As I recall ... Bertina would tell this story in a different way ... I left her in a hospital bed with our newborn child, and flew to Wyoming for an interview that was scheduled with High Country News. Before we knew it, within a month or two, we were in Wyoming.

Geoffrey O'Gara (03:27):

Ended up we went there I think probably imagining, yeah, this is going to be fun for a few years. You know, we'll be in the mountains. We'll get up on the tops of a few peaks. We'll have some fun, I'll get some fun stories to write, and then we'll move on to the next adventure. Obviously, we didn't really move on. We'd loved Wyoming and stayed.

Emy DiGrappa (03:48):

Why? Why was that, because what did you find so intriguing about Wyoming that you wanted to stay?

Geoffrey O'Gara (03:53):

Well, it's almost a cliche because I've said it before, but when I was in Washington, D.C., which I loved, there were probably a hundred reporters for every story worth doing. Come to a place like Wyoming ... and there are other places like this ... but in Wyoming, there's a hundred stories for anybody who can write one. The options on the table, the number of stories that I could reach for that no one else was writing, was just enormous in Wyoming.

Geoffrey O'Gara (04:22):

That comes on top of being in this beautiful landscape with wildlife, with, in my case, interesting people around me. The gang at High Country News, these really creative writers and journalists. Lander, Wyoming, which turned out to be a wonderful town for us. There was just too much to walk away from it. It was just a great opportunity for a writer and for us as people.

Emy DiGrappa (04:48):

How did you make the change from working as a journalist to working as a documentary filmmaker?

Geoffrey O'Gara (04:54):

Slowly. I worked, obviously, for High Country News, worked for some newspapers, worked for some magazines, worked for National Geographic Traveler in the West, did a lot of different things like that. At one point owned a newspaper, the Dubois Frontier, with some friends, but I wanted to move into writing books and got some contracts to write some books. They didn't sell very well. I had, at that point, three little children, and Bertina was working as a lawyer, but we needed steady income and things like that, and looked around the room and took a job at one point with the Casper Star.

Geoffrey O'Gara (05:32):

While I was doing that, Ruby Calvert, who was running Public Television at the time, called me up and said, "Could you just come over now and then and do an interview for us in the studio with some news figure?" I thought, "Well, that's fun." I've always had stage fright. That's just the right kind of thing to do. If you've got stage fright, go get on camera. I did it, and absolutely loved it. It was just really fun.

Geoffrey O'Gara (05:57):

One of the great things you learn very quickly in doing live television and interviews and politics and things is that people in Wyoming aren't trained to be on camera. That actually makes them really interesting to talk to on camera, because they're not careful and they're not calculating. They actually say things that are interesting and new. I found I really enjoyed it.

Geoffrey O'Gara (06:20):

With a little bit of arm twisting and whatnot and some opportunities within the staff, I got dragged full-time into working at Wyoming PBS. Once I was there, it did turn out that doing public affairs, live television, on-camera television, was something that went pretty well for me, but it wasn't that satisfying. It really wasn't enough. I think my old book-writing needs and desires were bubbling under the surface.

Geoffrey O'Gara (06:49):

An obvious transition was to start doing documentary work, where you do the same kind of research you might do for a book or an article. You go deep, and you put things together in a more crafted way than you do with live television. It was a natural thing to do, once I had gotten involved in public television, to shift from doing just the live and interview work and public affairs work to doing documentary work. Once again, I come back to what I knew as a writer of books and articles, that there are so many stories in the West.

Emy DiGrappa (07:25):

I'm taking for granted that your degree is in journalism, correct?

Geoffrey O'Gara (07:29):

Nah. My degree is in English, a really valuable degree that leads to all kinds of jobs.

Emy DiGrappa (07:36):

Okay. I got that wrong, but I just assumed that.

Geoffrey O'Gara (07:40):

No, I turned my nose up at journalism. I thought I'm going to write novels and things. I didn't want to do that journalism stuff. That's just to make a living.

Emy DiGrappa (07:50):

Life told you something else. I think that what I find very intriguing about your story is making that jump, knowing that you wanted to write books and then going into filmmaking. It seems to me that in filmmaking, you're really scriptwriting. I mean, I feel like it's a different kind of writing.

Geoffrey O'Gara (08:12):

Very different. That's really perceptive. You really are not doing the same thing. In a way, that's good in life, to take on a challenge that isn't just a different version of what you've been doing before. It turned out to be very different.

Geoffrey O'Gara (08:27):

I'd almost say I'm subliterate as a filmmaker. By that, I mean a younger person than me grows up with screens and keyboards, and just a knowledge of the digital world and the various applications that are used in it. Me, that's all still a little foreign to me. Other than knowing where the letters are on a keyboard, it doesn't come that naturally. I come into doing documentary work and even television work like learning a foreign language.

Geoffrey O'Gara (09:00):

A younger person today ... and I work with a lot of young people now in the documentary field ... they're much more natural to it. It may be that, for the remainder of my career in this thing, I will always maybe have to work a little harder, a little longer to produce what I hope are good documentaries than some of these younger, more fluent creators can do, but luckily I get to work with them. I've got some wonderful people on my team at Caldera, but also that I work with just in association.

Emy DiGrappa (09:33):

How does your mind have to bend in order to create a story from a third-person perspective and write down the words that are captured and understood on film, which I think is very hard to do? I think one of the things that you get to do when you're writing books is that you get to build the whole background. You get to describe this person. You have a lot more freedom, where in filmmaking, you have to encapsulate all that, right?

Geoffrey O'Gara (10:07):

Oh, yeah. Again you're onto a really good point, and it's been a weakness of mine in doing documentaries. The one that we are completing right now, which is called Home From School, it's about the children from the Wind River Reservation who were taken in the 19th century to the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania, with the idea of assimilating them by putting them in military uniforms, not letting them speak their native language, doing all those things to turn them into little clones of the white people that were running the school. Anyway, I'm working on that documentary.

Geoffrey O'Gara (10:41):

I have my old tendency as a writer ... and this is something you can do in books ... to follow the tangents to the interesting places they go. We went off at one point on a trip to the Sherman School, which is a contemporary Indian boarding school in Southern California. Took a film crew, spent several days there. Followed a young man from the Wind River Reservation who was boarding there around, to show here's what it's like today.

Geoffrey O'Gara (11:08):

This is a federally-funded boarding school, but it's not like Carlisle. It's not nearly as cruel, and in fact, these schools can be useful for some of the Native American youth that go there. Well, I thought it was a great little story. Jason Underwood, the wonderful young man that we followed around, was a great character.

Geoffrey O'Gara (11:27):

When you're putting it together as the documentary, I had various viewers who would look at the different drafts as we went through the edit say, "I don't get why you went off on that trip to Sherman. I want to know what happened to those kids who went to Carlisle and the attempt to bring their remains back to Wind River. I don't want to go off for five minutes about Sherman."

Geoffrey O'Gara (11:47):

I'm like, "Really?" I think through about four edits, I kept it in there. I just had to have it in there. Finally at the very end, Terry Dugas at Wyoming PBS and a couple of other viewers who I really trust came back and said the same thing. They just said, "Geoff, we really don't need to go to Sherman."

Geoffrey O'Gara (12:07):

There's a big difference. If I'm writing a book, I throw that in. I put that wonderful little story in there, because the reader can skim right through it and go on to the next thing. In a documentary, when people are sitting in front of a screen, they'll get antsy if you lose the story that they were most interested in following. Again, you're right. It's a different style of narrative, really, a different way of writing, a different way of telling a story.

Emy DiGrappa (12:31):

What are some of the other films that you've done? Tell me one of your favorite ones and how this has become a passion for you, I'd say, in discovering the American West and these untold stories.

Geoffrey O'Gara (12:45):

I suppose that's true. I mean, again, it's so interesting that out here in Wyoming and the West, every story that you embark on leads you to another one, and then another and another, and those are stories that haven't really been told. A good example, and one that is one of my favorites, is I did a documentary for Wyoming PBS about migrations. It was about wildlife migrations particularly on the western side of the state, and the bottlenecks that human habitation ... building subdivisions, et cetera ... have created in the way of wildlife.

Geoffrey O'Gara (13:19):

I was working on that and looking particularly at Trappers Point over near Pinedale, because that's an area where mule deer and antelope and various species have to funnel through a very narrow passageway to get from their summer to their winter grounds. As I was doing it, we noticed. Of course there were ranches around us.

Geoffrey O'Gara (13:38):

We at one point saw kind of a cattle drive going by, very loose and seemingly disorganized. I met a couple of the people who were moving the cattle, and they turned out to be just a really interesting bunch of families that have been doing it for generations. They actually had a name, called the Green River Drift. I just thought, "Well, this is really interesting."

Geoffrey O'Gara (14:01):

I met Jonita Sommers, who's a historian and one of the ranch families and a rancher, and she very hesitantly, is a nice way to put it, allowed me inside the family to see some of the history and some of the things they've done, because they were all very wary of someone from the television world, because everybody knows ranches are evil. Of course, I'd edited High Country News, an environmental publication, and they had all the more reason to distrust me. It literally took years to get to know them.

Geoffrey O'Gara (14:33):

I realized that, from the original story that we did on migrations, I had come to maybe a more interesting story about these families and this group that had been ... for, again, generations ... driving cattle in their own form of migration from the low country to the high country, and there, of course, creating problems for bears and bears creating problems for them, leading to another issue that I might want to look at some time in the future. For the moment, I thought the great story is how are they going to keep doing this.

Geoffrey O'Gara (15:05):

It's such hard work. It's so not like the way people live in modern times to get on a horse and drive cattle, I mean, dozens of miles. In the old days, they used to go a hundred miles on horseback. It's a little less now, but it's still extraordinary. It's up into this high country where there's marauding bears, and people have to stay up there in cabins year round and go out and watch the cattle. I just thought it was a fascinating story.

Emy DiGrappa (15:31):

The other thing I find interesting about that is that sometimes I hear that ranching and that way of life is dead and it's not really Wyoming anymore, but our iconic figure in Wyoming is the cowboy, right? Are we that, still, or can we still relate to the rancher and the cowboy?

Geoffrey O'Gara (15:55):

Yeah. I mean, there's a lot of contradictions built into this Wyoming myth. What is Wyoming? Well, do you measure that economically? Do you measure it by activities? Do you measure it by cultural presence in the form of what's in the museums or what people do for entertainment? How do you define what Wyoming is? If you do it by the ideas and things that are very alive in our minds, in our heads, the cowboy is very much alive.

Geoffrey O'Gara (16:23):

If you measured it economically, what is it, 2% of the economy has to do with agriculture, even though we've got these expanses of ranches? We're a hydrocarbon state. I mean, that's what Wyoming really is if you measure it by dollars, but we don't. I mean, we're talking about the humanities. We're in our heads here. We're talking about what is it that's human about the way we experience this world.

Geoffrey O'Gara (16:49):

If you look at that, you find that a lot of people, even people who don't really have much association with ranches at all, like nothing more than to be invited to participate in wrestling a calf or for a branding or something of this sort, just to get closer to a life like that, that is tied to this beautiful land and landscape, but also to its harshness, also to the kind of extremities of weather and environment that ranchers experience in ways that we don't.

Geoffrey O'Gara (17:18):

Honestly, that is part of what made that such a great story for me. It isn't that they're better people than others. It's not that they're good for the environment. It was nothing like that. It was just these are human beings living in a very challenging way in the world, and in a very interesting world. In that sense, I would say the cowboy is still very much alive in Wyoming, and I wouldn't discount it at all.

Emy DiGrappa (17:42):

Well, there is a conversation that I've heard that ranchers do consider themselves conservationists and protectors of wild places and wild things because they live the closest to the earth, in that sense of having to deal with that on a daily basis.

Geoffrey O'Gara (18:02):

It's an argument made. If Albert Sommers was with us in the room, he would be making it right now. I would be smiling at him and he would be snarling at me and we would be going back and forth, because I just don't assign virtue in that way. In other words, I'm interested in telling a story about the ranchers of the Green River Drift in the most sympathetic way possible so that we will know them as deeply as we can, but I'm not really interested in judging whether they are better for the environment than some conservationist who's fighting to save the grizzly from the ranchers.

Geoffrey O'Gara (18:40):

I mean, those battles are going to go on forever, and there will always be an argument about virtue, who is the more virtuous here. I don't think I'm going to take a side in that, but I love goading Albert and other rancher friends whenever I can. I don't want them to sit too easily, even though I may make a documentary about them that they may enjoy.

Emy DiGrappa (19:04):

Well, I think it is really interesting. It's just like we have different perspectives, just like you were mentioning about the perception of Wyoming being the cowboy state. There are those of us who live here and would say, "No, it's not, it's not that anymore," many others that would say, "Yes, it is," because that's how we identify ourselves and that's the way the world still looks at us.

Geoffrey O'Gara (19:29):

History is part of an identity too, in a big way. The fact that this state was populated initially by people wanting to ranch, wanting to do livestock, bringing livestock in, is of importance. It's worth noting. Another documentary that is a fairly recent favorite is one we did last year, finished last year, about women's suffrage in the West and in Wyoming called The State of Equality, which we did for and with Wyoming PBS.

Geoffrey O'Gara (19:57):

Again, it's sort of interesting when you talk about Wyoming's identity. You look at the legislature. You hardly think of Wyoming as a place where women in the political world have a lot of clout, because there aren't a whole lot of them getting elected to office, at least there. We're going to national office here shortly and talk it's a little different lately, but I think that's worth noting, that historically, Wyoming played a really interesting and major role in recognizing women's right to vote and be full participants in government and a democracy.

Geoffrey O'Gara (20:31):

Wyoming embodies a lot of almost contradictory elements, because you might not think it would be that sort of place. You certainly might not think it's that today. Yet at that time, back in the day, back in the 19th century, it was ahead of the federal government in granting women the right to vote, Wyoming was, which is just really interesting.

Emy DiGrappa (20:50):

It makes me think about the fact that we were the first state, and yes, we have lagged behind in other ways, but a lot of women across Wyoming are working really hard to change those things and still feel that they do have a voice, because we are a small population. You can still sit down and talk to your legislators about issues. There's very few states where you can call your Senators and have a conversation.

Geoffrey O'Gara (21:24):

Yeah. No, it's really true. It's one of the great virtues, I think, and one of the reasons that I think we ended up staying in Wyoming, is the notion that this is a level of accessible government that we would never have much of anywhere else. It's kind of extraordinary.

Emy DiGrappa (21:43):

Well, I want to ask you about your book, What You See in Clear Water, a life on the Wind River Reservation. Why did you write that book? Especially because water rights and water issues are still front and center with the Native Americans, what were you trying to uncover when you wrote that book, and what is still relevant right now?

Geoffrey O'Gara (22:03):

The thing that is still relevant and will be forever is I wanted to show what lives were like among families, among people on the reservation. It's interesting that I didn't approach it the way a lot of people do, like anthropologists, who are always looking for families to attach to, to inveigle their way into reservation and tribal life so they can get a dissertation written. I hate to say it, but in a way I was like that.

Geoffrey O'Gara (22:30):

I wanted to come in and learn the stories, but I was careful to do it as a journalist and not come onto the reservation saying, "I want to be your friend or I want to be like you." "I just want to get to know you, but I want to write a story. I don't want to pretend it's anything other than that." In the end, in a strange way that ended up creating many friendships for me among members of the Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapaho tribes.

Geoffrey O'Gara (22:58):

Why that story? I had written a book about travels with the old Federal Writers' Project Guides first. My agent back in New York was trying to figure out what should be my next book. I think she was more in charge of it than I was. Just to give you background you may not need, I was thinking of a book about the migration of auto workers from the South north when the automobile assembly line first took shape, and then back to the South in this period in the 1980s and '90s, when they began building plants like the Saturn plant in Tennessee. I thought, "There's a really interesting story about human migration and American society."

Geoffrey O'Gara (23:41):

Well, my agent was sort of fascinated, like everybody in New York is, with the fact that I lived in Wyoming, that I was in the West, and she kept pushing and pushing. I'd been covering the reservation to a degree in working for the Casper Star, and we finally agreed that's what I ought to write about. Of course, I felt all kinds of trepidation that I as a non-Indian would go out on the Wind River and write the story.

Geoffrey O'Gara (24:08):

I looked around at the things I'd been covering and some of the stuff that was going on out there, and there was this huge battle going on over water rights, tree-based water rights. I thought, "Well, that's interesting, because I'm interested in water and environmental issues. Maybe I could hang stories of the people, both Indian and non-Indian, in the Wind River country along the waterways." I could make a story about the environment, about the people who live there, and then about this big dramatic issue ... it doesn't sound dramatic, but it was ... about who controls the water.

Geoffrey O'Gara (24:45):

I'll say, for purposes of truth in advertising, that my wife was on and off working for the Northern Arapaho tribe as an attorney. Again, not when I was writing the book but at other times, her law firm was involved in water rights issues out there, so I learned a lot from them as well, but that's what led me there.

Geoffrey O'Gara (25:05):

I found, again, a couple of people that did become really good friends. Dick Baldes worked for the Fish and Wildlife Service there. Was in a constant battle with non-Indians over uses of water that were detrimental to wildlife. Dick was combative. He was a great character, but he also became a great friend. People like him. He's an Eastern Shoshone. His son Jason is still very involved in a lot of issues like bison reintroduction on the reservation now, but that's really how the book came about.

Geoffrey O'Gara (25:34):

I did hang the story of the battle through the courts, that went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, over whether the tribes at Wind River were entitled to control of a major chunk of Wyoming water. In the end, they gave me a good plot for the book because they won. I'll say that in a qualified way, because winning in a legal sense doesn't mean you've necessarily won on the ground. The reservation and the people that live there still have many battles that they're fighting. They have water rights that in many ways they just don't have a way to use.

Geoffrey O'Gara (26:10):

It goes on, it never really ends, but that's how the book came about. It was for me, again, an opportunity to really get to know the lives and what drove some of the really younger people on the reservation, who were coming into positions of power and trying to assert themselves in some very tough situations.

Emy DiGrappa (26:32):

Well, that sounds very satisfying, actually. For my last question, I want to ask you. After you've finished Home From School, what do you see for the future of Geoff O'Gara?

Geoffrey O'Gara (26:46):

Well, I don't know. I mean, I'm old. I don't really feel old, but I'm getting there, so there's probably some questions. If I go to a book publisher, which I think I should do again soon, they may just say, "Well, you're not going to live long enough to write enough books for us. We don't want it." You know? That may be the case.

Geoffrey O'Gara (27:02):

One of the things that I think a lot of us do, and I've certainly done since sometime probably in my thirties, is I keep a list of projects that I think of, that I know I won't get to. I write them down, because otherwise they're going to go away. I'm going to forget them. I won't even tell you how many pages long that list is now, but it's long. It includes books. It includes the fiction that I always thought I'd write back in the day. It includes film that's both documentary and fictional.

Geoffrey O'Gara (27:33):

I mean, honestly, when I turn away from Home From School ... which I hope happens pretty soon, I hope it's done soon and out ... it's going to be a question of just picking. What do I want to do next? There's some projects that I talked to you folks in the humanities field about that I think really should be done. Whether I will be the leader on those projects, I mentioned earlier that I once did a book about traveling with the old Federal Writers' Project Guides, which were written back in the 1920s or '30s as the Depression was putting writers out of work.

Geoffrey O'Gara (28:07):

Maybe it's time to update the Wyoming guide, to do one a hundred years later, travel around and look at all those wonderful, obscure places that they looked at a hundred years ago and see what's changed. That's just one example of what's on that list.

Geoffrey O'Gara (28:22):

I was walking today with Virginia Moore, who I work with, and she and I were talking about, "Well, what's next? We're going to finish Home From School. What are we doing next?" Well, there's at least one project already underway. Jordan Dresser is leading it as producer, and Sophie Barksdale also with the company. It's about missing indigenous women, a huge issue. It's one that we get an opportunity, have an opportunity, to make a documentary about. That'll come, but I won't be the leader on that, which I think is a great change. I think having Jordan and Sophie running things puts me in a more interesting role as a backup, in a way.

Geoffrey O'Gara (29:01):

I will write some books. I hope I will do some more documentaries. Maybe I'll get a fiction film underway, but I will only be the writer. I wouldn't be the director or the producer of that. There's lots to do. We'll talk about it.

Emy DiGrappa (29:14):

I'm glad to hear you say that, lots to do. That's exciting, Geoff, and don't ever say you're old, okay? That's my rule. That's my own personal rule, because there's lots of life to live still. Thank you for talking to me.

Geoffrey O'Gara (29:40):

Thank you. I enjoyed it very much, Emy.

Emy DiGrappa (29:41):

Thank for joining us for this episode of What's Your Why, brought to you by Wyoming Humanities, with support from Wyoming Community Foundation and generous supporters like you. To learn more, go to thinkwy.org. Subscribe, and never miss a show.