In 2013, Business Insider described the Wind River Reservation as the “most depressing and dangerous place to live,” but according to Sunny Goggles, the Northern Arapaho Tribe would rather be known for the efforts it took for them to overcome and survive.
Located in Arapahoe, Wyoming, it is the only reservation in the state. Wind River sits within Fremont County and is home to the Eastern Shoshone Tribe and the Northern Arapaho Tribe. The reservation suffers from high unemployment (76 percent), poverty (68 percent, some receive public aid) and substandard housing. The county leads the state in substance use and violent crime, according to Goggles, director of the White Buffalo Recovery Program, which is run on the reservation.
Darwin St. Clair Jr., chairman of the Eastern Shoshone Tribe, remembers that just over a decade ago the reservation was systematically attacked by a drug ring, from 2000 to 2005. He says it took a coordinated effort by law enforcement to break up the ring. St. Clair remembers the minimal police force, seven officers, available then to cover 2.2 million acres, or 3,500 square miles, which the ring saw as an opportunity to feast on an already hurting community. In the years following the bust, the number of law enforcement officers grew to 26. As a result, the reservation is now able to be proactive rather than reactive in dealing with such issues.
However, St. Clair says the Bureau of Indian Affairs police force number will be reduced to nine officers this year, leaving the staff working large amounts of overtime and possibly creating burnout for officers. The reduction is due to transfers and promotions according to St. Clair. He fears this cutback would take the reservation back to one of its darkest times.
“The tribes do not want to idly stand by as their tribal members are taken through addiction or suffer thru victimization by association of the drug trade,” St. Clair says. “The tribe is currently taking steps to address this situation through our recovery program, rehabilitation program, Sho Rap lodge, juvenile probation, ESCAPE program, UNITY, and drug court. They are a few programs that assist in addressing these issues, but are not enough.”
Goggles and St. Clair shared their concerns at a Senate Committee on Indian Affairs (SCIA) oversight field hearing held on the reservation to address the harmful effects of dangerous drugs in Native communities on March 31.
“It was important to bring this hearing to the Wind River Indian Reservation,” Sen. John Barrasso (R-WY), SCIA chairman said. “It is the home of two Indian tribes. … Around a decade ago, their community was targeted by criminal drug trafficking organizations. The meth brought in by those criminals had devastating effects.”
Many of those effects are still visible today on the reservation, as they are in many parts of Indian country.
The field hearing featured two panels, and was held to help brainstorm ideas on how to address the issues going forward. The first included witnesses from prosecution and law enforcement agencies. The second panel featured witnesses from the tribal governments, service providers, and the tribal community. Throughout the hearing members of the SCIA heard testimony on the hard facts of drug abuse in Indian country, lack of law enforcement, jurisdictional obstacles, and proactive ideas in addressing the issue.
Darren Cruzan, director, Office of Justice Services, BIA, testified that incarceration was not the answer, instead working to focus on prevention, treatment and recovery would help stem a cycle that is increasing rather than decreasing.
“Tribal communities continue to express grave concerns regarding the high rates of alcohol and drug use in their communities, and are even more concerned that it seems to be increasing rather than decreasing,” Cruzan said. “Alcohol and drug use is the primary contributing factor to increased involvement in the justice system, violence toward women and children, and a diminishing sense of overall community safety. In Indian country, what we most commonly see are community members who are dependent on alcohol or other substances and whose actions are influenced by these substances. I firmly believe our focus should be less on simply incarcerating people and more on alternatives to incarceration and prevention, treatment and recovery opportunities.”
U.S. Attorney for the District of Wyoming, Christopher Crofts testified that alcohol is the most damaging drug on the reservation. According to Crofts, alcohol is a contributing factor in most of the violent crime on the reservation. Not only does it have an impact, “on crime, but obviously it has many more negative effects – on health, families, Indian culture, and quality of life on the reservation in general,” he said.
“Substance abuse costs lives, hurts children and families and places a burden of expense on police, courts, jails, and public expenditures,” Goggles said.
Building a treatment plan to address alcohol abuse is a must, Crofts said, if the community hopes to reduce the violent crime rate on the reservation.
Claullen Tillman, Eastern Shoshone tribal member and the Rocky Mountain Representative for United National Indian Tribal Youth (UNITY) presented the idea of incentive programs. Tillman discussed the random drug testing of students under the age of 18. He also mentioned the idea of smaller incentives. Tillman’s belief is that offering an alternative to drugs will help diminish the dependency on substances in the community. During his testimony, Tillman, offered another incentive program for those over the age of 18 who are being drug tested by an employer or future employer. Rather than firing or casting the user to the side due to a failed drug test, he says those people should be offered help through rehab and prevention programs.
Wyoming Division of Criminal Investigation Special Agent Andrew C. Hanson spoke mostly to the jurisdictional obstacles law enforcement officers currently face when dealing with drug related criminal activity. “The distributors of controlled substances do not recognize or respect borders, tribal sovereignty or state and federal laws; however law enforcement officers must. And it is because of this, that jurisdictional issues arise. State agents and law enforcement officers are often unable to conduct criminal investigations on the Wind River Indian Reservation because they do not possess proper authority,” Hanson said. He went on to state how all drugs are having a significant impact on Native communities and more than just Methamphetamine is being trafficked on the reservation.
“These issues here on the Wind River as well as in Indian country need to be looked at from a holistic approach, involving all the aspects to address these issues from all angles,” St. Clair said.
“Effective prevention and treatment of alcohol and drug abuse is far from easy, even with adequate resources available, but I believe it is worth the effort. Ideally, better alcohol (and drug) treatment and prevention programs would prevent the crimes of violence from occurring in the first place,” Crofts said before crediting the work Goggles is doing at White Buffalo Recovery along with others.
“I know our issues will get better. I know we are taking strides down the right path. I know there is hope,” Goggles speaking about Wind River, though fitting for all of Indian country.