Racism and Race Horse

By John Clayton 
(Editors’ note: John Clayton’s article, Who gets to hunt Wyoming's elk? Tribal Hunting Rights, U.S. Law and the Bannock 'War' of 1895, was published recently on WyoHistory.org.)

One reason I enjoy writing for WyoHistory.org is that I like to imagine Wyoming high school history teachers using these stories in class. Too often history is about memorizing dates, when it could be a springboard for discussions about values. To my mind, one of the best stories for these purposes is one we published last week, on the history behind the Herrera Supreme Court decision.

The 2019 Herrera decision largely validated Indian tribes’ treaty-reserved off-reservation hunting rights, repudiating an 1896 decision known as Race Horse. This reversal comes at a time when advocates for racial justice are prompting American society to reconsider racism. What does racism mean, how has it played out in history, and how (if at all) should we address it today?

By digging into the history behind Herrera—all the way back to the 1895 “war” in Jackson Hole—we discover questions along many of those changing dimensions of racism. For example, most of us can agree that the murdered Bannock hunter Se-we-a-gat was harmed by the views of individual racists such as Stephen Leek—how then do we judge Leek? For example, should he remain in the Wyoming Outdoor Hall of Fame? Should his bio there mention these issues? Should the National Park Service change the name of the marina he founded at Jackson Lake? Or do all people have flaws, which need not be mentioned when they are honored for their strengths?

Do we agree that harm to indigenous people also came from institutions, such as the paternalistic yet incompetent Indian Service—and if so, can we do anything about that? How about the National Park Service, which eliminated off-reservation treaty hunting rights in Yellowstone the same way, if much less violently, that the settlers did in Jackson Hole? 

Would we say that a system of laws and societal attitudes conspired to take away indigenous people’s rights in a racist fashion? If so, have we sufficiently reformed that system? Do those who have benefited from 125 or more years of that system owe anything to those who have been victimized by it? For example, has Jackson Hole’s current prosperity grown out of its elk hunting, from which Shoshones and Bannocks from the Fort Hall reservation (now known as Sho-Bans) were unfairly banned? If so, do people of the Jackson area—some newly arrived there—owe anything to the Sho-Bans?

These are not easy questions. Reasonable people can disagree about the answers. But they represent some of the ethical dilemmas that now face judges, wildlife managers and policymakers. Being able to talk broadly (politely and constructively) about these questions is a sign of a healthy civil society. In writing this story, my goal was to provide tools to spark and enhance those conversations—in Wyoming classrooms and maybe even more broadly across the state and nation.

Discuss this post on Facebook: