Wind River Legacy

by Janet Thomas

Associate Editor

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    A young Shoshone girl shows she has some of the same leadership qualities her ancestors had.

    A little red truck slowed to make the turn into the school yard of the Wyoming Indian High School on the Wind River Reservation. It kicked up a trail of dust as it crossed the parking lot. A young girl was driving.

    Could she be the one I was waiting to meet?

    All I knew was her name—Ann Abeita.

    Ann’s brother James had called to tell me what great things she was doing her last year in high school—elected president of the student council; chosen by her teachers as Student of the Year; selected as Eastern Shoshone Powwow Queen and Ethete Powwow Queen; invited to testify before Congress; named by the other contestants as Miss Congeniality in the Miss Indian World competition; plus the usuals like playing varsity basketball and volleyball, attending seminary, and participating in most of the clubs at school.

    The little truck pulled up beside me and the girl glanced over. She was very pretty with black hair cut in a style that enhanced the wave in her hair. Then came a smile. It was a smile fit for a Miss Congeniality. It was Ann.

    Ann Abeita and her brother George are the two youngest in their family and live with their mother and stepfather in Fort Washakie on the Wind River Reservation in central Wyoming. Their brother James is serving a mission in the California Ventura Mission, and their sister Cornessa is attending Ricks College. Other older brothers and sister are married and living nearby.

    Ann and her brothers and sisters are descendants of Chief Washakie, a great Shoshone chief who knew Brigham Young, joined the Church, and introduced the gospel to his people. Ann says, “A lot of our people still talk about him and how he led the Shoshone people, especially in the Church, because a lot of people were baptized.”

    After we talked for a moment, Ann suggested that I follow her home, where we could talk. She jumped into the little red truck and drove out onto the long, straight road that traverses the valley. The Wind River Reservation is in a beautiful location. It is a valley ringed by purple mountains with a fringe of snow. There are fields of hay and horse pastures. Among the neat ranch houses, I saw one lodge, or teepee, set up in someone’s backyard. I had to smile. There was a satellite dish right next to it.

    The little red truck slowed down and turned through the gates of a small cemetery. Ann pointed to a large headstone with the name Chief Washakie carved prominently in the granite. An additional phrase simply said, “Chief of the Shoshone.” This was Ann’s great-great-grandfather.

    In addition to Chief Washakie, Ann’s family is also related to one of the most famous Indian women in history, Sacajawea, who helped guide Lewis and Clark in their explorations of the American Northwest.

    Even with such illustrious ancestors, Ann and George are much like teenagers anywhere in the Church. They are concerned about doing well in school, staying close to Church teachings, and being with their friends.

    But Ann, because of her school leadership responsibilities, has had to juggle her schedule to accommodate the demands on her time. She even has to find a way to turn down a date to go to the movies without hurting any feelings because she’s got a previous commitment to talk to a reporter—me. Whenever the phone rings, she races to answer it, and it is usually for her.

    When George walked in with earphones on, I asked what he was listening to. He said, “Michael Jackson.” He has a set of barbells that he uses to try to build his muscles, and early in the morning the rhythmic thump, thump of the basketball on the driveway announces that George is taking a few shots before catching the bus for school.

    Ann has learned the value of education from her older brother James and from her mother, Zedora. She maintains high grades and has been awarded a leadership scholarship to Brigham Young University, where she plans to major in business management. Great-great-grandfather Washakie would have been pleased.

    In many ways, Ann and George are like most teenagers, but when they get dressed in their native costumes and participate in Indian dancing contests at local powwows, it’s like going back in time. Both Ann and George are skilled and often win or place in the dancing competitions. They move to the rhythm of the drums just as their ancestors did. They respect the old ways and are sensitive to the beauty of the land and the feeling of their people.

    Ann loves her home valley. “I can’t imagine living anywhere else.” The valley is a legacy given to the Shoshones by Chief Washakie. He has the distinction of being one of the few Indian chiefs that were allowed to choose the location of the reservation set aside for his tribe. He would like the fact that his great-great-granddaughter feels the same love for the valley as he did.

    Even though the Wind River Reservation is beautiful, there are problems. One of the big problems facing Indian youth is a lack of summer jobs, but Ann has found a solution for herself. She gets involved and stays busy with worthwhile activities. “I really like summers. They are fun for me. I like going to the rodeos and the powwows where there is Indian dancing. But for those that don’t have an outfit or who aren’t interested in Indian dancing, there isn’t very much to do.”

    Dressed in her traditional beaded buckskin dress, with its knee-length necklace and colorful shawl, her hair braided with fur strips, Ann tries to maintain a dignified, perhaps even somber expression that seems in keeping with the way she is dressed, but her natural exuberance is more than she can control. She can’t help but smile.

    Yet there is nothing frivolous about Ann. She has faced some of the most powerful men in the country in a congressional hearing, has spoken freely about the problems youth on the reservations face, and has impressed many with her clear thinking and eloquent speech. Great-great-grandfather Washakie would have been proud.

    Ann was chosen to go to Washington, D.C. to testify in a congressional hearing on the merits of an Indian Alcohol and Drug Prevention Act. She and another boy from the Wind River Reservation were asked to speak to the senators and congressmen. Ann said about that experience, “When I was in Washington, I was sitting there listening to the other representatives, who were all my age. They were prepared, but they didn’t really speak up. It was hard to hear them. When I got up there, I made sure I spoke up. I was honest, and I spoke from my heart. When they asked me if I had any more to say, I had a lot more. I was really honest. It was on television and on the news. A lot of the people saw it, and they were upset by some of the things I said. I think the parents know how bad the problems with drinking in my high school are, but they don’t want to face the truth.”

    For Ann the problems faced by some of her fellow students are very real. “I bet if I wasn’t Mormon, it would be really hard. There is so much peer pressure. Sometimes they try to make the parties with drinking sound real fun, but to me it sounds childish. Being a member of the branch helps because we always have activities. With that and with student council and with other clubs, I really keep myself busy. I just wish other students would get involved because they always say it’s so boring, but they don’t get involved.”

    As I sat talking with Ann about the things that mean the most to her, I sensed her strength of conviction. This girl really means what she says and has her mind made up to live what she believes. Ann is becoming the kind of leader her great-great-grandfather was. She sees clearly what is good for herself, her family, and her people.

    Ann was a little worried about her graduation night. She and George and two of their friends were the only ones she knew of who were not going to a graduation party. They had chosen not to go because they were quite sure that there would be drinking at the parties. Even though Ann is president of the student body, she would not give up her principles for that night or any other.

    Ann tries to teach her friends more about the Church. “My friends admire me for not drinking and would like to do the same, but they are afraid of being different. I’m not afraid of being different. When I try to teach my friends about the Book of Mormon, they know that it’s true. But when I ask if they want to be baptized, they say they would if there wasn’t the Word of Wisdom. It makes me mad.”

    As I was leaving Fort Washakie, I stopped at the trading post to look at some of the beautiful beadwork that the Shoshones are known for. As I was trying to decide which of the colorful strings of beads I wanted to buy, the saleslady came over and asked if she could help me find something. I asked her if she knew Ann Abeita.

    Her face lit up when she said what everyone I talked to on my visit seemed to say, “Oh, yes, I know Ann. She’s a wonderful girl.”

    [Chief Washakie]

    Chief Washakie was born about 1805 in a Shoshone village in Idaho. It is believed that his mother was Shoshone and his father was a Flathead Indian. He was raised by a Shoshone tribal leader who chose Washakie to succeed him as chief over his own sons.

    An Indian agent who met Washakie before he had been selected as a Shoshone chief said of him.

    He’s quite tall for a Shoshone, easily six feet, and the most handsome Indian I have yet seen. He is very eloquent, avowing his friendship for the whites and declares that no man who ever follows him will be allowed to harm a white man or steal his property. Mr. James Bridger of this place informs me that this “Wa-sha-kee” as he pronounces it, is rapidly rising to power in his tribe (Sidney Reynolds, American Heritage Magazine, Feb. 1960).

    By the time Brigham Young brought the first settlers to the Salt Lake valley, Washakie was chief of the Shoshones. In treaties with the United States, he committed to protect pioneers from marauders. One of Washakie’s prize possessions was a testimonial of appreciation signed by 9,000 people whom he had protected on the Oregon Trail.

    Brigham Young sent several messengers to Washakie to assure him that the members of the Church were willing to assist the Shoshones in learning to raise crops. One of the messengers, James S. Brown, recorded the meeting with Chief Washakie. He said that they were taken to the chief’s lodge and invited to sit with a group of tribal leaders. Brother Brown read a letter from Brigham Young, proposing to furnish seed and tools and some men to demonstrate how to plant and cultivate. He also presented the group with a copy of the Book of Mormon. The leaders passed the book around the circle and declared that it was of no use to them. Washakie let the council members speak and waited until they were finished talking. Then he reached for the book, leafed through it, and spoke to his group.

    You are all fools; you are blind and cannot see; you have no ears, for you do not hear; … These men are our friends. The great Mormon captain [Brigham Young] has talked with our Father above the clouds, and He told the Mormon captain to send these good men here to tell us the truth, and not a lie. They have not got forked tongues. They talk straight, with one tongue, and tell us that after a few more snows the buffalo will be gone, and if we do not learn some other way to get something to eat, we willstarve to death. Now, we know that is the truth, for this country was once covered with buffalo, elk, deer, and antelope, and we had plenty to eat, and also robes for bedding, and to make lodges. …

    The time was when our Father who lives above the clouds loved our fathers who lived long ago, and His face was bright, and He talked with our fathers. His face shone upon them, and … they were wise and wrote books, and the Great Father talked good to them; but after a while our people would not hear Him, and they quarreled and stole and fought, until the Great Father got mad, because His children would not hear Him talk.

    Then James Brown said that Chief Washakie drew a contrast between the Indian’s way of life and the white man’s, telling his people that they could gain much by learning from the settlers. The chief went on to say,

    We feel that it is good for them to come and shake hands. They are our friends, and we will be their friends. Their horses may drink our water, and eat our grass, and they may sleep in peace in our land. We will build houses by their houses, and they will teach us to till the soil as they do. Then, when the snow comes and the game is fat, we can leave our families by the Mormons, and go and hunt, and not be afraid of our families being disturbed by other Indians, or by anybody else, for the Mormons are a good people (James S. Brown, Giant of the Lord, Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1960, pp. 373–74).

    Brother Brown reports that without a vote being taken, each man in the group gave his assent to the chief’s decision.

    Chief Washakie encouraged his people to gain an education and to better themselves. He chose the beautiful Wind River mountains in Wyoming as the Eastern Shoshone’s permanent home.

    Photography by Laird Roberts, Janet Thomas, and courtesy of Wyoming State Archives, Museums and Historical Department.

    As the Ethete Powwow queen, Ann (left) leads the group in the traditional dance competition. Chief Washakie of the Shoshones (center) was known as the Peace Chief. Ann (right) loves her home in the Wind River Mountains with the same intensity that her great-great-grandfather did.

    South Pass in Wyoming (left) was the easiest route across the Rockies, opening the way for pioneers. Ann with her mother, Zedora (above). Washakie with family and tribe members in camp (center). Ann’s brother George (right) succeeded her as student body president of their high school.

    Chief Washakie with tribal leaders Oiti and Papagoit (below). Ann loves spending time with her friends (above) and plans to major in business management in college. Ann (far right) was an able representative of the Wyoming Indian High School.

    In a moment of reflection (far left), Ann studies the grave marker of Chief Washakie, one of her tribe’s most famous leaders. The beautiful Wind River Mountains (above left) ring the reservation. Ann enjoys powwows, or tribal gatherings, because she gets a chance to wear traditional dress (above right) and participate in the dancing.