"As a child in California, Helsha Acuña was so sensitive about her Native American heritage—her father was Apache, her mother Aleut—that she sometimes tried to pass herself off as Italian. But the racism she encountered was rarely personal. For that, she testified in federal court, she had to come to Riverton.
Fresh from graduate work at the University of California at Santa Barbara, Acuña moved to Riverton in the mid-1990s, her daughter and two horses in tow, to teach Native American Studies at Central Wyoming College. She was thrilled when the owners of a nearby ranch, where she had arranged to board her horses, invited her to live in a trailer home on the property in exchange for caretaking duties. But Acuña’s relationship with the couple quickly soured. She was still unpacking her things when the husband stopped by with the news.
“My wife, uh, um, she’s a little concerned,” Acuña quoted the rancher as saying. “And, well, you know, we’ve had Indians out here before who have worked for us, and it’s never worked out real well, and, um, well, we just don’t know that we’ll be able to sleep at night with you on the property.”
Acuña called the man’s wife, who first berated her for rescheduling a gas delivery to the trailer without telling her, then for who she was. “You know what, Helsha?” the woman said. “We’re not the niggers here.”
“What?” Acuña said.
“You heard me,” the woman replied, according to the college professor’s sworn testimony. “You know, you may not be from around here, you may be an Apache, but you’re no better than these fucking Arapahos or fucking Shoshones that are out here.”
The couple barred Acuña from returning to the property until she had paid the boarding bill for her horses, relenting only under pressure from her attorney. But when she showed up to collect her furniture and other household items, she found them heaped outside in the rain. “Everything was just soaked,” she testified. The rancher’s wife and several others, including a man with a shotgun, kept watch as she loaded her belongings onto a truck. “It was very demeaning.”
Racism usually takes subtler forms in this blue-collar town of about 9000 people, which was founded on land carved from the Wind River Indian Reservation in south-central Wyoming in 1906, when a portion of the reservation was opened up to white settlers. The reservation is the home of the Northern Arapaho and Eastern Shoshone tribes. As elsewhere in Fremont County, whites and tribal members mingle in schools, the checkout lines at Wal-Mart, and the restaurant at the Arapaho-owned Wind River Casino, which is said to serve the best steak and lobster in town. Not since the 1950s have local businesses displayed “No Dogs or Indians” signs in their windows.
But hard feelings remain. Over the last seven months, two separate but related developments have cast a harsh light on white attitudes towards the reservation and the 10,000 tribal members who live there. First was the collapse of a cooperative agreement between the city of Riverton and the Northern Arapaho, who withdrew from the deal in February in the face of bitter opposition stirred in part by supporters of the conservative Tea Party movement. The other came in late April, when a federal judge cited “ongoing” discrimination against Native Americans—including that experienced by Acuña —in ordering the Fremont County Commission to scrap its at-large electoral system in favor of one based on single-member voting districts. The judge found that the county’s system had diluted Indian voting strength. Until 2006, no Native American had ever served on the commission, though the ethnic group makes up 20 percent of the county’s population."
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