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The Modern West: Mending the Hoop weaves together historical atrocities and current indigenous issues

The Modern West: Mending the Hoop weaves together historical atrocities and current indigenous issues


Photos by Ana Castro

Wyoming Public Radio’s The Modern West podcast’s latest season, Mending The Hoop, examines the intertwined and inseparable story of Indigenous people’s history and present, specifically focusing on the Plains Indians’ experiences from the Sand Creek massacre through today’s challenges.

For many Americans atrocities like Sand Creek, the Trail of Tears, or Little Bighorn are singular events in the inevitable narrative of the settling of the West. Examined from a more complete perspective, these atrocities — plus the systematic attacks on indigenous ways of life such as massacring bison and forcing children in to boarding schools — presents a narrative of cultural genocide that has resulted in extreme poverty, ecological disaster, and an epidemic of missing women that mainstream media rarely mentions.

Tracing the historical impacts through the generations allows a wider perspective and deeper understanding of not only the challenges that many indigenous communities face, but also helps weave together the narrative of how and why current problems exist. The story of Colorado, and indeed the entire continent, is incomplete without including voices of the numerous indigenous nations. 

The Modern West host and producer Melodie Edwards in the field at a wild bison release on the Fort Peck Reservation in Montana.. Photo bu Ana Castro.

It’s not all doom and gloom, however. YS spoke with podcast host and producer Melodie Starr Edwards and Ojibwe playwright Marty Strenczewilk who were both instrumental in crafting season six. The episodes walk listeners through difficult conversations and realizations, but ends on notes of hope. Combining things like Land Back movements with conservation efforts, plus the recent receptiveness of the general population to Indigenous stories — like the hit TV series Reservation Dogs — presents a moment of opportunity to reshape the narrative around America’s first inhabitants. 

Austin Clinkenbeard: Thank you for both joining me this morning. YS has been writing a history series this year of Boulder County and the North Metro, each month focused on a local town. Unfortunately the story of the history of this area often begins in a disingenuous place — with the miners, and fur trappers, gold being discovered, and people coming out West. While that is definitely a component of the story, there’s a deep history that extends a lot further back in time that many people just aren’t aware of. They haven’t been taught it intentionally, and the effects of the lack of knowledge ripples out. If we can touch on the general idea of bringing up the kind of history that’s uncomfortable for many white Americans, how do you approach that topic?

Melodie Starr Edwards: The idea came out of the Sand Creek Massacre being something that had been lost, we don’t hear about a lot. Just realizing we had this issue where a lot of times this history is disjointed in the way that we might hear about the Battle of Little Bighorn or Wounded Knee, but we don’t realize that it’s all one through line and it really does start on the eastern plains of Colorado, with the Sand Creek Massacre.

I didn’t want to just stop there. I was also interested in showing how history is still affecting indigenous communities across the West, and showing really clearly, connecting all of those dots to see how history is affecting people, and how people are working to try and heal that history. That was kind of the impetus and thank heavens I had Marty come on board and help make sure that I was able to tell that story in a coherent way.

Marty Strenczewilk: Any group that’s writing to get people to understand them, you get a lot of angry writing, and it alienates the audience, because the audience can’t be invited in. How do we tell the story that this is no different than the Holocaust. You need to be able to say the gory things that really make people’s stomachs turn. But if you’re finger pointing, you’ll turn your audience away. I always want to invite people in, and I’ve seen so many plays, books, movies, etc. that don’t do that.

Melodie: It was perfect that Marty came along because he’s a playwright, especially in those first three episodes which are just pure storytelling. We have George Bent, who was a Cheyenne leader, and he had written a book. He was at the Sand Creek Massacre, and then was a warrior in subsequent battles afterwards. He was a first person character.  I could just bring in his voice, indirectly, and quote him. Marty helped me track down a whole bunch of indigenous actors and all of these really great actors brought it to life.

We encouraged those actors not to necessarily try to sound like they’re historical, just let them use their own voice so that we can realize that this wasn’t distant history.

Marty: What I found most grounding are people who are living lives right now, as you said, affected by things that

A wild Yellowstone bison at the Fort Peck Reservation’s quarantine facility. Photo by Ana Castro

weren’t a long time ago. When you hear a woman’s story about daughters that have been taken away, not 75 years ago, this decade, that’s much more [impactful]. As a native person, we only get to exist in two ways, as cartoon characters and something that happened a super long time ago, that’s it. There’s so many people who think we’re extinct, which is insane, but I’ve heard people say that as if we’re dinosaurs.

I have to do a ton of research because we don’t have history books. We don’t just open a book and find the chapter, or [go to] Wikipedia to find my people’s history. It just doesn’t exist outside of when somebody interviews a guy who’s lived this life and he says, ‘here’s my story,’ and you go, ‘whoa, that’s not written down anywhere.’”

YS: You touched on one of the aspects that always fascinated me, which is oral history. We purport oral history to go back to the Epic of Gilgamesh, which is how many 1000s of years ago, I think there needs to be more credence and more acceptance of the oral historians of Native Americans because, like you’re saying, Marty, this is one of the only way to have this knowledge. It’s not written down, on purpose in many cases.

Marty: I’m Ojibwe and my people can track where they started in the very far northeast, and how they migrated, and the reasons they migrated. It’s recognizing things like the winter count, or the deer hide depiction of the Sand Creek Massacre, is a primary source, giving space for those kinds of sources, and giving them the respect they’re due.

The word ally is very easy for people until they have to sacrifice. A true ally has to sacrifice. It’s easy to say, ‘I support Native Americans,’ but when we say then there should be a certain percentage of the country that we own, or there should be a certain amount of reparations for the land you literally took, that is worth this much, and we never saw the money, and our people live in insanely destitute poverty, it becomes ‘whoa, my family doesn’t have a lot of money either.’”

YS: As a white person, you don’t want to come in and tell the story for Native Americans, but also I do feel like maybe it’s our goal to help educate other white people because like you’re saying Marty, that shouldn’t be your role, necessarily. How do we walk that line helping educate people that don’t know?

Melodie: I was trying to be a conduit. I’ve been doing this kind of reporting for a lot of years. I was covering the Wind River Reservation for years and tried to bring in folks that I knew would tell me honestly, what I was doing wrong where I was getting it wrong. I think there’s a lot of reluctance by white journalists to tackle this kind of storytelling, because they are afraid of doing it wrong. It’s hard, but I think it’s something that really needs to be done.

Marty: I did a poetry event the weekend after Thanksgiving at Creative Nations. Three native poets talked about what Thanksgiving is to us. You can imagine it wasn’t the most cheery event, and the audience was primarily white. It’s in Boulder, Colorado. No idea what the response would be. All these people thanked me, and then they asked me questions, and they basically said, ‘Thank you for being willing to share that with me.’ It’s been really healthy, at least for me to see that kind of change in the audience to take away the expectation, a little bit, of me to do the work for them.

YS: Another thing that was touched on was having indigenous people play a role in conservation. Are there other examples of that? Or do we see this movement growing throughout the nation?

Melodie: Over the years I’ve seen tribes are really getting involved in grizzly bear management, wolf management, even black footed ferrets, making sure that they’re reintroducing that species onto reservations, things like that.

Marty: Just this past week I was on vacation, in the middle of nowhere, and my wife pointed out how she was reading something that said how they recently put the tribe back in charge of the stewardship of that land. There was this large chunk of land, and you see the sign as you walk up, it is now being managed by the tribe. 

We talked about what does land back mean, and what are the opportunities. People think well you can’t give the whole country back, so that’s the end of the conversation. We started having these conversations even with people who are liberal minded, there is often some sort of resistance and pushback against these kinds of things. I don’t know if it’s just the idea of land ownership that is so ingrained in our culture and our psyche, but you experience that a little bit when you talk to people.

What people are asking for is some level of acknowledgement that there’s a wrong and some level of righting the wrong.

Ultimately, we’re a Western society in which all wealth that was made the last few hundred years was based on land ownership. So the idea that you got this parcel of land and a donkey, and it was only available to white people, that’s why we have generational wealth issues among Black Americans, as well as Native Americans is because at the core, wealth today is land ownership.

YS: One of the things I thought the podcast did exceptionally well was to not just tell history, but to bring that narrative straight into today by talking about missing Indigenous women, the restoration of bison, systemic violence we see today. It wasn’t just a history of the past, it was a story of what’s why things are the way they are. Was that always your intention or was that revealed through the people you talked to?

Melodie: That was something that I’ve been covering, as long as I’ve been a reporter, as well as bison restoration. It was kind of a case where I would go out and do the reporting and interview people about bison or high rates of violence on reservations, and every time I would interview somebody, they would end up telling me a story from history. And so this was really an opportunity to just turn on the mic and let it run. It felt really good to let these voices make all of those connections between history and what was going on in their daily lives. 

Marty: One thing that did evolve that I thought was really lovely along the way was our final episode. We just ground people through a really difficult season of really difficult topics, and to leave them just feeling like there’s no hope, I don’t think that’s a good place for this podcast. This podcast needed to say where this can go, here’s what sovereignty can look like. Here’s what the future of the arts and healing and restoration, restitution, etc. those things can happen. If you don’t directly say those things, it’s easy for someone to walk away and go, ‘Wow, it sucks for Indians. I feel bad. I’m helpless.’ But if you talk about these things that are happening, as they’re really starting to grow and make change, hopefully it gives people the opportunity to contribute, financially, volunteering, educating other people, just sharing the podcast is already a step in the right direction.

If you haven’t already, check out The Modern West: Mending The Hoop right here


Austin Clinkenbeard
Austin Clinkenbeard has been traveling the world with his wife for the past several years exploring food, history and culture along the way. He is a passionate advocate for stronger social science education and informed global travel. Austin holds degrees in Anthropology and Political Science from San Diego State. When he’s home there’s a good chance you can catch him cooking allergy friendly food. You can follow along Austin’s travel adventures and food allergy journey at www.NowWeExplore.com.

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