'We Have To Be The Peaceful Ones': Wind River Reservation's Tradition Of Activism Evolves
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When mass protests erupted across the country in late spring, the first Wyoming community to join that national movement was the city of Riverton. On June 1st, 150 or so people gathered in Riverton City Park to honor George Floyd's life and demand justice.
Riverton is conservative and rural, with a population of about 11,000 people. But it's also surrounded by the Wind River Reservation. The June demonstration was led by a young Arapaho person from Wind River, Micah Lott.
"Tonight is dedicated to all of our Black cousins and sisters and brothers who were murdered by police," Lott said, before turning the mic over to Black demonstrators.
Lott is one of a handful of people on Wind River who has experience as an activist, having protested at Standing Rock, probably the largest Indigenous-led protest movement in history.
But Lott's roots as an activist trace right back here to Riverton, Wyoming.
"It's kind of difficult to pinpoint when you come from a targeted community," they said. "I think that there's probably a lot of pivotal points in my life that pushed me to the forefront of organizing things."
One of those pivotal points came in 2002, when Lott was just nine years old. A white supremacist group announced that it would move its official headquarters to Riverton. People on the reservation were outraged and afraid.
"The majority of the response had come from Indigenous people, the tribal leaders and people like that," Lott said.
Stephanie C'Hair, who is a citizen of the Northern Arapaho Tribe, was a student at Wyoming Indian High School at the time. She and her classmates wanted to plan a protest. But there was no roadmap for them to follow.
"We didn't really see too many protests or marches or rallies before that," she said.
And a lot of people in the area wanted to keep it that way.
The idea of a white supremacist group setting up shop in Riverton wasn't popular. But she says neither was the idea of a bunch of Native kids marching through town in protest. So there was a lot of pressure to keep the event not just peaceful, but positive.
"We didn't want to divide people," C'Hair said. "We wanted everybody to come together, so we did the whole peaceful protest. We did the walk from Walmart to City Park."
Hundreds of people came out to support them. There was no violence, and no counter-protesters. That now-annual event, held on Martin Luther King Day, has become something of a blueprint for activism in the area.
Ron Howard, who's also Northern Arapaho, leaned on that blueprint in the summer of 2015, when Riverton was grappling with another act of hate.
In an unprovoked attack, a white local had shot two Northern Arapaho men in the head while they were asleep in a detox facility. Sunny Goggles survived the shooting, but was severely injured. Stallone Trosper died that day.
"It felt like a punch in the gut, that something so brazen and so bold could have happened," Howard said. "I was angry and I was confused and I didn't know what to do but I knew somebody had to do something."
Howard organized what would become another annual protest. Despite the violence that prompted it, Howard called it a peace march.
"A lot of people were so angry [in 2015] that they said, 'No, we don't want to do that. We need to do something more,'" Howard said. "But in the name of peace and tolerance, that was about the only thing I could think of."
Riverton's peaceful protest tradition has helped shape the identities of younger activists. But Lott, for one, says the focus on peace and unity lets racist people and systems off the hook. They're tired of being polite.
"Why do we have to be put in that situation where there's this continuance of violence put against us, and then we have to be the peaceful ones, and we have to be the polite ones ... and yet, nothing changes," Lott said.
Lott says Native people are only listened to when they're calm and cooperative. And as long as that's the case, nothing is going to change.
Wyoming's currently one of only three states that does not have a hate crime statute.
This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.