Diversity in Wyoming: Then and Now

This episode is bringing a topical discussion on empowering people by respecting and appreciating what makes them different. In a nutshell, diversity! We have native Wyomingite historian Jeremy Johnston kicking it off with our wonderful co-hosts Lucas and Olivia who will then be followed by the intrepid Christie Wildcat. Who hails from the Wind River Reservation in Central Wyoming and is now studying anthropology in Laramie. Her all-encompassing goal is to preserve culture, due to the culture dying out. Dont miss out on a cool introduction by Christie in her native Northern Arapaho language!

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Emy diGrappa (00:01):

Welcome to Winds of Change. I am your host, Emy diGrappa. Winds of Change is centered on the people, places, history, and stories of Wyoming. We talk about identity, community, land, and the winds of change and what it means to thrive in our state. How does someone identify with wide open spaces and big personalities in small towns? Listen to folks from across our state share their connection to Wyoming and home. Brought to you by Wyoming Humanities. Okay. Welcome everybody.

Lucas Fralick (00:54):

Hello. Hello. Hey, how's it going today, Emy?

Emy diGrappa (00:57):

Good. It's going well. Thank you. Hi, Olivia.

Jeremy Johnston (01:00):

Hello. Hello.

Emy diGrappa (01:01):

And that is Jeremy Johnston. When I get started here in this episode, we're going to be talking about diversity. I want to welcome Lucas and Olivia and they are a co-host for this episode. And our guest today is author and historian and writer, who is at the Buffalo Bill Center of the West in Cody, Wyoming. I want to welcome everybody to this podcast. As I said before, today our theme is diversity, and I just wanted to start out by saying that Wyoming is considered majority white, but the state is more diverse than people think. And we'll talk about that. And I looked up some definitions of diversity. In a nutshell, it's about empowering people by respecting and appreciating what makes them different in terms of age, gender, ethnicity, religion, disability, sexual orientation, education, and national origin.

Emy diGrappa (01:56):

That is a mouthful. I also found other definitions that diversity is a group of people who are different in the same place, and it encompasses the range of similarities and differences each individual brings to their community or workplace. I grew up in diversity because I grew up in a Hispanic or Mexican American or Latino cultural background, depending on which term you use to describe people of Spanish and Mexican heritage. And I speak really good Spanglish. A combination of Spanish and English was always spoken in our home. And my mom's first language was Spanish, but when I was growing up, because my dad was head of the migrant program in Fort Collins, Colorado for over 33 years, we always had a lot of brown faces around our dinner table. And so that was my experience. When I think about the definition of diversity, I usually think about ethnicity and cultural background. And so I wanted to open that up for discussion with Lucas and Olivia, what do you guys think?

Lucas Fralick (03:04):

Yeah, my experience has been different. Growing up in Gillette, Wyoming, it's a pretty white place, but I like how you mentioned the definition of diversity is very broad. I think there's more than just racial diversity to consider here. I think cultural diversity is a big thing, especially in my part of the state. And then we have the Basque people from the region in France who did a lot of sheep herding. That's a whole different cultural branch. And you have some native culture up here. Not as much as you'd think, but it's around. I think cultural diversity is what I've noticed the most in terms of diversity, if that makes sense.

Olivia Dorrell (03:51):

Yeah. I'd have to agree with you both. Growing up in Laramie, I would say that going through school, went to school with a lot of white people. And by going to school and having the university here has brought, I think, a lot of diversity to the town and I like the broad definition of diversity.

Emy diGrappa (04:08):

Now we're going to hear from our historian, who's going to contribute what diversity means in Wyoming.

Jeremy Johnston (04:16):

Oh yeah. That is a good broad topic to consider here, Emy. Again, agreeing with Lucas and Olivia. Growing up in Powell, Wyoming, you didn't notice a lot of diversity. For us, there was a very large Latino population, much of which would come up during the summer, a lot of migrant workers. But for the most part, you just didn't see a lot of diversity or notice a lot of diversity. One thing that shocked me in my study of history is Wyoming in the past was very diverse, culturally and ethnically diverse as well as racially. For example, if we go back even to the indigenous cultures that resided throughout what is now Wyoming, there was a lot of diversity there. We tend to think of them as all being Plains Indians, but when you start to break down into the different cultural bands, tribal bands, you have Crow, Shoshone. At one time, the Kiowa and the Comanche were actually here in Wyoming as well.

Jeremy Johnston (05:21):

When the fur trade gets going in Wyoming, the fur traders that came out here came from very different backgrounds, from Spain, Mexico, France, throughout the United States as well. All of these different racial groups were coming together here and interacting with this diverse indigenous population out here in Wyoming. If you went to a rendezvous back in the 1820s, 1830s, you would have heard a lot of different languages being spoken. You would've observed a lot of different races, people of color attending these rendezvous. It was a very diverse place. And that continued through Wyoming's history. When the railroad was being established in the Southern part of the state, railroad workers were coming from very diverse backgrounds. Many of them were from the south that had just been defeated during the Civil War, so you had former Confederates coming alongside freed slaves that were working on the railroad.

Jeremy Johnston (06:25):

And then from the Pacific coast, you had a very large Chinese population working its way into Wyoming. And of course, it shocks a lot of people that Rock Springs, Wyoming, there was a race riot, the Chinese massacre that broke out in the Union Pacific coal mines there. Wyoming was a very diverse place in the past. And I think what had happened is a lot of that fades away. A lot of the minority groups left the area. We don't see a large Asian population anymore in Wyoming, largely because of the race riot in Rock Springs. Others left the state as well. But even if you look at the people who stayed here, I think you still see a lot of diversity. The homesteaders, for example, many of them came from very different backgrounds, different European origins.

Jeremy Johnston (07:17):

I look at my own family tree. And when you go back just a few generations, many of these individuals probably would've never sat down next to one another on a table and they're probably shaking their heads. My Scottish ancestors are probably really upset that I have some English blood in me as well, aw well as some Prussian and other Scandinavian countries and other different ethnic backgrounds as well. If you scratch the surface, Wyoming is a diverse place. We may not see it today in our present population, but in the past, it certainly was.

Emy diGrappa (07:52):

I like that you pointed out that you have a number of Latinos living in your community because I think in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, the Latino population is at over 30% of the population and they work very much in the service industry. And so a lot of times you might not see those people because they're a hidden population, so to speak, because they are house cleaning in the hotels, chefs and people working behind the scenes. They're not necessarily the people at the table in the restaurant, but they are there. And they are really a big foundation of our tourism industry in Jackson.

Jeremy Johnston (08:36):

Yeah. And I would say here in Powell, our Latino population, it's quite a range. When I was growing up with the migrant workers, there was quite an influx that would come in to hoe the sugar beet fields to thin out the beets. Some of our more successful farmers here in the Bighorn Basin have a Hispanic background. Basically they came in with the sugar beet industry and managed to secure their own farms and have become quite successful. I had a lot of good friends in Latino backgrounds. And I guess at that time, I never really thought of them as being diverse from me. We were all from the same town. Their parents worked in various professional careers. I just consider them to be friends. Of course, I realized there was a difference there. Never really thought about that as being an element of diversity within my life.

Lucas Fralick (09:33):

Yeah. Have you noticed having traveled around the state, like I have too, have you noticed anything a new, I seem to see a new wave of understanding of that diverse past that Wyoming had, especially with the local Rockpile Museum where I'm at. There's a whole exhibit dedicated to Black ranchers and homeowners and Cowboys and that nature. And there's a whole thing on Empire, Wyoming. We're talking about more and more all the time. I don't know if you've noticed this in other places as well, this trying to grapple a new understanding of our past.

Jeremy Johnston (10:11):

Oh, definitely. And I think it's part of the field in general, back in the 1980s, there was a lot of talk about this new Western history movement. And basically, they were zeroing in on the untold stories of the America's so-called frontier, the minority groups, the indigenous people, stories that were basically pushed aside or ignored completely by this narrative of white settlers coming out and conquering an uncivilized land. And these scholars have done a really good job of pointing out that there were people here who were quite civilized, had established cultures and doing quite well for themselves. And for them, the wild west really began when the Europeans started moving in and invading their territories. Definitely. Definitely, I see more of an effort to include this into our historical narrative. I also see this changing somewhat in popular culture. Now, you go back and you look at the early westerns novels, movies, television shows, they tend to portray the west as being very white Anglo-Saxon Protestant.

Jeremy Johnston (11:29):

The indigenous people are portrayed as the obstacles to progress, but that's now changing. We've gone from stories like the "Virginian" written by Owen Wister, to movies like "Dances with Wolves," other movies that look at the racial complexities of the American west. I do think things are changing, but again, there still needs to be a lot more research, a lot more interpretation provided. One thing I do notice, Lucas, when I travel through the state, speaking of African American populations, you'll notice a lot of creeks or hills that are named with the derogatory N word. And you look up in your Wyoming place names guide by [inaudible 00:12:21]. And usually the only explanation she gives is that, well, an African American family lived here, or this was named after an African American cowboy. And other than that derogatory name, we know nothing about these people, which is really quite unfortunate. There's still a lot of work to be done in telling the diverse history of Wyoming.

Lucas Fralick (12:42):

Yeah. That's a good point with those place names. Yeah. It's a very disturbing-

Jeremy Johnston (12:47):

Yeah, yeah.

Lucas Fralick (12:49):

... Remainder of their time in the state.

Jeremy Johnston (12:52):

And unfortunately you know that despite the derogatory name that is all that's left of these individuals that came through, I'm sure the stories that these people could tell if we could reach out to them are just as exciting and overcoming obstacles that were thrown in the way, the severe winners, hot summers, rattlesnakes, all of that stuff that we're familiar with, but from a very different racial perspective. I'm just sure those stories would be very rich indeed.

Emy diGrappa (13:27):

I think as time goes on, even though we don't like to think about it like this, history can be lost because generations go by and people don't remember their stories because they become old. They don't have anyone to tell that story or someone's not recording that story. I really feel like that's a sad way to think about it, but I do think that history can be lost if you can't capture what happened from a different perspective than just one man's perspective. You don't have a lot of different voices that were recording at that time. And I know there's reasons for that, but still it's hard to think about it.

Jeremy Johnston (14:11):

Yeah, it is. It is sad to think about how much history we have lost that will never be recovered. Going back to the indigenous cultures that were here, when you consider that European communal diseases wiped out about 90 to 95%, probably even more of those populations, and you just think of the stories that were lost when elders passed away or the younger generation wasn't there to hear those stories and carry them forward, there's a tremendous loss there. Even today in a lot of these communities, I think we always say, oh, wow, we really need to interview grandma or grandpa and get these stories down because they're not going to write a memoir that's going to be published. It's going to take somebody holding a microphone in front of their face, asking them about their experiences. And if we don't, that's lost forever when they pass on.

Emy diGrappa (15:06):

So true. So true. Well, the next part of this podcast is that we're going to hear from other people who are going to give us their Wyoming stories and stay tuned and keep listening and thank you for all participating.

Jeremy Johnston (15:22):

Thank you.

Lucas Fralick (15:22):


Olivia Dorrell (15:22):

Thank you.

Emy diGrappa (15:26):

As we end our conversation on diversity in Wyoming, here's a story of a young woman working to preserve her culture. Listen to Christie Wildcat's story. Christie Wildcat is an enrolled Northern Arapaho and Cherokee on her mother's side. She's Pawnee and Navajo on her father's side. She is from the Wind River Reservation, but she is currently in Laramie, Wyoming, where she is studying at the University of Wyoming as a second year graduate student. She's also a jingle dress dancer and on her way to be fluent in Northern Arapaho. Her story is inspiring.

Christie Wildcat (16:07):

Thank you. [foreign language 00:16:10] Christie Wildcat. [foreign language 00:16:11]. Thank you for having me. I just said in my native language Northern Arapaho, hello everyone. My name is Christie Wildcat and I'm Northern Arapaho. And thank you. I started out taking dual credit classes at the Riverton High School, which they have an awesome program with Central Wyoming College to offer the concurrent enrollment for students and we can earn college credits through high school. And so that's where I started. And I was a few credits shy from an associate's degree when I graduated, but luckily a lot of those general credits transferred to the University of Wyoming. And I was able to get a head start in my studies. And when I came here, I was actually undeclared. Didn't know what I wanted to do or wanted to go into. And I just happened to take an anthropology class in Northern Arapaho.

Christie Wildcat (17:12):

And with that, I was like, well, I really like anthropology. I declared my major anthropology with a minor in Native American indigenous studies. But from there, they were like, Hey, we have a major. And a lot of the credits are dual listed, so you can take one class and knock out a requirement for another degree. And it wasn't until my junior year, my mom was like, Hey, turns out you can major in political science as well. And so at that point, I said, why not? I declared myself a triple major. And I was able to get the three bachelor's degrees in the four years. And then in my senior year, my second to last semester of college, my bachelor's, Central Wyoming College reached out and said, Hey, we have this program we'd like you to be a part of. And it was a reverse degree on where they would take my Wyoming College credits and put it towards a degree. And so with that, I had to take a random art class my senior year here. And sure enough, I was awarded in an associates that following December, which was pretty cool.

Christie Wildcat (18:30):

There was the four degrees in the four years and with my master's I just finished and currently finishing up my final version of my thesis in the moment. And so within the six years, yep, five degrees. My masters is in anthropology. That's a major. And my minor is Native American and Indigenous Studies. At first, my goal was to be a curator for a museum. Anything that has to do with revitalization or preservation, especially when it comes to cultural artifacts since that is my concentration is cultural anthropology. Anything to work with tribes or even on a global aspect of indigenous communities. And I think with that, I wanted to go the PhD route, but thinking more about it, a path opened up differently for law school, where I can work on legislations and write up different policies and just different laws and policy work, where I can work from the inside out when it comes to revitalization or preservation or coming up with a program or a grant that tribes can use to help bridge a connection in between museums, whether it be a loan program of some sort.

Christie Wildcat (19:57):

That's an overall career goal for that. I think I can definitely utilize anthropology with understanding, working with these different communities other than your own and help back that with the understanding of policies and legislations through the law side and the political science with that. And since I tend to work with indigenous communities, that's where that third bachelors will come in. And we were all on the Wind River. And so it was amazing to grow up with my family. Sure, they're my cousins, but they're my brothers and sisters. And so it was really interesting to grow up around them or just being around them all the time, whether it be, Hey, let's go fishing this weekend just randomly, or, Hey, there's a powwow in the summer. Let's head over to the powwow and just spend a whole week in there, or whether it just be coming together for a Sundance, our big ceremony, and really coming together as a family to help support anyone who goes into Sundance.

Christie Wildcat (21:02):

And so not only was I able to grow up with my family, I was able to grow up in our traditions and learn of stories and just really take pride in my indigenous identity. I will tell you, it was definitely a shock. Growing up, I've always been traveling, whether it be to Seattle or DC. I was always on the move. And so to me, this was just another on the go thing, but I finally realized, Hey, I'm away from my family and for this long periods of time, but luckily coming here, I was so lost. I didn't know where I was going, but I actually found community more specifically in my sophomore year with the Keepers of Fire here at the University of Wyoming. Sure enough, I've been able to call Laramie my home for the past six years and hopefully for a couple more years.

Christie Wildcat (22:01):

And I definitely call this my home. Sure, Wind River is my home too, but they're equally my home at this point. I like to think that Wyoming, since we do have a smaller population than a lot of states, it gets oh, wind or news gets to us slower. But at the same time, what makes this state wonderful is that we have access to our legislators. If we have an issue, we can go right next door to our legislators, say, Hey, I have a concern. This is my worry. And they'll listen to you. And I think that's really beautiful. And so for the change, I think just if we can educate more people in general about any issue or concern that scares you, for example, being the oldest of four girls in my immediate family, I'm really terrified of the missing and murdered indigenous relatives epidemic.

Christie Wildcat (23:02):

I've had my hand in legislation work here in Wyoming and all I'm doing is making sure I educate people. And so that change, that more awareness can be brought up not only by myself, but by others because others out there do care and it does affect communities widely. For another example, my family really helps out with Special Olympics. My little siblings in their schools back in Riverton really do spread the word to end the word and so we can have more inclusion of special needs people. And so it's just stuff like that where it's just more awareness can bring change and with change, who knows what that can lead to. I always think it's for the best of things. I really don't have any suggestions for change, just more education because when has education ever let us down? I'm always learning, loving to learn, obviously. With my education background. You have to be pretty brutally honest to really show them that there are real threats out there. And with that, a lot of my education to the young indigenous girls is how to protect yourself.

Christie Wildcat (24:22):

I've held a couple clinics or classes, I guess, on self defense, but other than self defense and physically, more mental knowledge is, Hey, the statistics are three to four are sexually assaulted in their lifetime. If you just put out there's numbers, especially just be aware of any type of risk, whether someone just touching you inappropriately and they say, it's a joke that's still inappropriate, or you may be assaulted by someone you know, so always be on the lookout of anyone or anything that may seem suspicious to you. It's just more of be more alert and get ready to assess the situation and be ready for any outcome that may... I know it's really scary to think about, but at the same time, it's reality, and especially with the high rates that indigenous women do suffer from, you got to be prepared at all times and just be alert.

Christie Wildcat (25:34):

My dad, he's actually Pawnee and Yuchi and Navajo, but the last name Wildcat is actually Pawnee and Yuchi from Oklahoma. And so if you hear the last name Wildcat, we're most likely related to them. We have ties to the Echo Hawks. The Echo Hawks are everywhere too, but we're all from that same family. And it's a really strong name and I definitely take pride for it, from it. Yeah. Yeah. I want to check back to the answer I said about how we can go to legislation. And since we have that small population, we're able to have that more one on one. And so even being here at the university, I've been able to see our tribal councils, both the Northern Arapaho and the Eastern Shoshone work with the president of the university or having the MOU signings that we had back when the center opened in 2018, and then the res resigning of the MOUs with our new president.

Christie Wildcat (26:42):

That's just super beautiful that the voices are being heard and the university itself really pays attention to that. With my master's thesis, I had to get permission from both tribes to do my research and the university made sure I got the permissions. And even at these events, when it's just the University of Wyoming and our tribes, I even see the governor there and representation of our legislation at these events. And so I think we're blessed here to have a voice and have that connection with our government. Definitely more blessed than a few other tribes. The Navajo nations, they're huge. They definitely have a say, but for example, other tribes and smaller tribes in the bigger states, it's tough to say for them if they have that connection like we do with our government. And so that's always something that I'm always going to be an advocate for is to always make sure you pay attention to the people who don't have a voice because they really can't get in what they need or what they need to say, what are their thoughts if they have any issues or concerns.

Christie Wildcat (27:51):

And so I think that's something that I really want to focus on, whether it be in my career. I know it's a focal point in my thesis. Pretty much what my thesis is for is just pay attention to the indigenous communities and really ask them because we have a lot of assets. We have a lot of knowledge that we can offer, not only to ourselves, but to outsiders, to the government, to corporations, whether it be natural resources or just dealing with just overall general life. That's one thing I really, really want to work on, especially in the future because I've seen it. I've seen it back home. I've seen it on different reservation and it's a big issue and that's what breaks my heart is something needs to be done. And yes, we do have these programs that are either housed back home or a federal program, but they can only do so much to help these people.

Christie Wildcat (28:52):

And so with my law degree, I'm hoping I can actually bring forward... And that's the sticky situation is no one really will believe you unless you have those letters by your name. And so that's a tough issue is hopefully once I get those, they'll actually listen to my voice and listen to the concerns because I do worry about my people. Alcoholism is something that is running strong through our indigenous communities. And it's heartbreaking because everyone has either experienced it themselves or have a family member or loved one super close [inaudible 00:29:25] experience with it. And it's a pandemic. I'll call it that. It is a pandemic and it's something that we need to be dealt with, especially with drug usage and addiction as well. It's an overall problem. And so I'm hoping with that, I can actually write policy and legislations, especially to get them help because help is what they need.

Christie Wildcat (29:47):

And I'm learning from my sister. She's here at the university too. And she deals with psychology. She's a major in psychology and her focus is mental health. And so hopefully as we both get older, we can work together and not only help with alcoholism because a lot of it is stemmed from mental health. Mental health is another thing that we need to focus on because a lot more people, since it is still stigmatized, a lot more people struggle with it than they tend to lead on. And so hopefully we can work either together or I can have her teach me what she's learned and worked within mental health and actually do something about it, whether it's writing a legislation, writing a grant to have a facility where people who are struggling can get the help they need, whether it be psychologists or a rehabilitation center, either way.

Christie Wildcat (30:45):

When I was younger, I actually started a group called Wind River All Action Crew and our motto was action, no talk or a little talk because it seems like people just talk. Talk, talk, talk. They say, they'll do this, they'll do this, but will they actually ever do it? And so that always has pushed me always do action, do something about it. If it worries you, or if you have a problem with it, do something about it. Make the change that you want to see in the world. Make the world a better place than when you left it. You know the corny saying, but I strongly believe in that. And so I'm hoping this law degree can actually help me get a foot in the door to actually write legislation or grants to actually set up something for people that need help because it is a big issue and there is efforts, but I think the efforts can use that support in order to make that positive impact that we're looking for. Yeah. And that's everything that's pushed me probably since the beginning is once you get inside, you can definitely make that change.

Christie Wildcat (31:51):

A lot of the work is done in the background. And that's just something I've seen by my mom. She does a lot of wonderful work and she hates to be in the limelight. Everything she does she's doing in the background, making sure everything runs smoothly. And so that's just a behavior I've learned that I just want to be able to make that change. Hopefully one day I can even be president and still make that change because I know president is a public figure, but at the same time, a lot of people pay attention to the president and listen to what they have to say and actually take what they have to say into account. But until then, I'll be doing work from the inside out. Yeah. Actually we have this joke in my family that I was raised to go to college. My parents did have me at a young age, but that didn't stop them from going to college. And so when you hear this saying, it takes a village to raise a child.It really did with me.

Christie Wildcat (32:49):

I would go to college classes. Both my parents went to high school in Lawrence, Kansas. And I would either go to class with my mom in the morning and end up sitting in economics or some math class with my dad in the afternoon. But if they had a test or something, one of their college friends, a lot of them I call aunts and uncles now, would take me on a walk or take me to the cafeteria and we'd have lunch. And so it's crazy to think that I was raised by quite a handful of college students, but no matter what, I was always on campus reading my little Winnie the Pooh books when I was four. All in all, when it came to graduation day with my parents, the university made me a little graduation cap and I got to walk across the stage with my mom that day, or my mom and my dad. And they even gave me a little fake diploma for completing my first college degree. And so that has always stuck with me. And so, like I said, I was raised to go to college.

Emy diGrappa (34:07):

Thank you for listening. I'm executive producer, Emy diGrappa. Winds of Change is brought to you by Wyoming Humanities, our co-hosts, and all the people who generously share their stories and their time. For more information, go to thinkwy.org. Subscribe and never miss a show.