The Wind River Reservation is home to over 5,000 Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapaho Indians. Spanning 2,268,008 million acres in west-central Wyoming's Wind River Basin, it is the third-largest Indian reservation in the country. Learn about the history and the economy of one of the poorest areas of the United States.
The only U.S. reservation where Native Americans were able to choose where they wanted to live, Wind River was established by Chief Washakie for the Shoshone people. In 1863, he negotiated the Fort Bridger Treaty with the federal government, establishing 44 million acres of land for his tribe. The second Treaty of Fort Bridger in 1868 pared down the land to less than 2.8 million acres. After General Custer's defeat, the Northern Arapaho migrated south because they were offered a reservation in central Wyoming. The government reneged on this promise and forced the Arapaho people onto the Shoshone Reservation in 1876. The two tribes were traditional enemies who had fought each other almost continually throughout the 1800s. Their acrimonious relationship hindered reservation governance for more than a century.
Between 1900 and 1938 the tribes suffered extreme hardship. Off-reservation hunting prohibitions, minimal government and outside investment, meager rationing and tuberculosis and measles epidemics ravaged the population. After 1938, the tribes received a multi-million settlement for lands ceded north of Wind River. Oil, gas and uranium mining leases were reactivated and the Indians were allowed to expand cattle ranching operations. When effective treatment for TB became available, health improved markedly. During this time, the Eastern Shoshone and Arapaho began to interact more productively, though ambivalence about their forced arrangement and prejudice remains.
Though the Eastern Shoshone and the Arapaho still jointly rule the Wind River Reservation, each retains a separate identity, culture and tribal government.
The reservation has extensive oil and natural gas fields and water rights on the Wind River. Since the beginning of the 20th century, tribes have jointly leased land for grazing and crop cultivation. Other sources of income include construction, fisheries, gaming, mining and tourism. As on many reservations, low incomes, high unemployment and high poverty rates are a chronic problem. An in-depth census of households was conducted on the reservation in 1987 and again in 1998 to analyze the area's poverty.
Survey findings include:
Source: "Residential and Household Poverty of American Indians on the Wind River Indian Reservation," Judith Antell, Audie Blevins, Katherine Jensen and Garth Massey, Department of Sociology, University of Wyoming. Findings taken from the Wind River Indians Needs Determination Surveys, 1987 and 1998, commissioned by the Business Councils of the Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapaho tribes, Bureau of Indian Affairs, Indian Health Service, various Wyoming state agencies, the University of Wyoming and Johns Hopkins University.
- Job opportunities have not increased to employ rising numbers of Indians with increasing levels of education. For example, more than 20 percent of families with a head of household who has at least four years of college remain below the poverty line.
- The 1998 WINDS-2 study found that among 18-54 year old Indians living on the reservation, 54 percent were unemployed. Of these, 94 percent wanted to work. Of the 46 percent of employed Indian adults living on Wind River, more than half were working for the government.
- American Indian couples earn $71 for every $100 earned by all U.S. married couples.
- Between 1979 and 1989 the percentage of American Indian families below the poverty level rose to 27 percent, while the poverty rate for all U.S. families was around 13 to 14 percent.