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Documentary Urges Wyoming’s Wind River Tribes, Others To Assert Their Water Rights

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By Wendy Corr, Cowboy State Daily 

Wes Martel is on a mission. 

In his role as the Wind River Conservation Associate with the Greater Yellowstone Coalition (GYC), Martel serves almost as an intermediary between Native American tribes and local governments, representing tribal interests in a society that has for generations overlooked native rights. 

But Martel, a member of the Eastern Shoshone Tribe, is getting an assist from a film series touring the region.

“Tribal Waters,” a film produced by Teton Gravity Research and presented in partnership with Patagonia, tackles the issue of water rights that are legally owned by Native American tribes but that have been usurped by local and state governments.

The GYC is hosting screenings throughout the Yellowstone region with events that include remarks and Q&A segments from experts like Martel. 

“Out of the 576 federally recognized tribes, there’s only about three dozen tribes that have done anything with their water rights,” Martel told Cowboy State Daily at a recent event in Cody. “So there are still about 540 tribes that have done nothing to lay a claim or foundation for their water.” 



‘Tribal Waters

The documentary tells the story of water management practices on the Wind River Reservation, which are largely tied to Diversion Dam.  

The dam diverts much of the water from the Wind River off the reservation, which itself comprises about 2.2 million acres, roughly the same size as Yellowstone National Park. 

“We have 265 Lakes, 108 miles of rivers, streams and wetlands, geothermal springs,” said Martel of the reservation. “I like to refer to us as the ‘Indigenous Yellowstone.’” 

The land around the Wind River has been home to the Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapahoe tribes for more than 10,000 years, and the river is central to the tribes’ ways of life, customs and histories. 

“The habitat along the rivers are very critical for the health and wellbeing of tribal people,” said Martel. “We have a lot of medicines and plants and foods that we utilize in our daily activities and in our ceremonies and lodges.

“And so that’s really what we want to try to instill in our young people as we regain that respect we have for the land.” 

But the Wind River isn’t the only region in which Native Americans are seeing their legacy literally draining away. 

“All over the western United States, Indian water rights are being allocated and utilized,” said Martel. 



Starting the Conversation 

Scott Christensen, executive director for the GYC, said the film series opens the door for conversation with residents and local leadership throughout the Yellowstone region about the role the Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapahoe tribes can play in preserving the Wind River waterway in central Wyoming. 

“There are so many people who live in Wyoming who are just unaware that there’s a dam on the Wind River that pushes most of that water off reservation,” said Christensen. “And that dam was built with $77 million that was supposed to benefit the two tribes at the reservation, but of course never really did.” 

Christensen explained that the water from the river is used to grow crops all over the region, both on and the reservation, which means there’s some tension between interests that would keep water in the river versus diverting it into a canal. 

“I think the tribes would tell you, and we would agree with them, that there’s a way to do both,” said Christensen. “But it’s going to require different interests coming to the table, working together, trying to figure out how to reengineer that system and come up with a better solution that benefits all the different people and players that are involved.” 


Wes Martel, Wind River conservation associate with the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, discusses “Tribal Waters” during a recent Wyoming event about the documentary and effort to encourage Native American tribes to exercise their water rights. (Wendy Corr, Cowboy State Daily)

Power To The People 

Martel believes water is the key to giving tribes political and economic power that they’ve never realized.  

“But they’ve got to do it right,” he said. “I mean, you’ve got to have good policies, laws, regulation standards, and you need to understand your treaty.” 

Martel said the scientific and technical data backs up the tribes’ position.  

“The art of the deal is how do we make sure that our elders and our young people understand the importance of water to Wind River?” he said. “How do we use our land and our water and our energy to start diversifying our economy and strengthening our families and communities and start doing things for ourselves?” 

“When our ancestors signed the treaties, they were trying to protect our way of life,” Martel pointed out. “And that’s all I’m trying to do.” 

Martel explained that because of the sovereignty allowed in their treaties, tribes have more leeway to control their environment. 

“We can have higher standards in air quality and water quality than under state and federal governments,” he said. “And so we can adopt our own laws and policies and figure out how we want to control and manage and protect our resources.” 

Greater Yellowstone Coalition 

The mission of the GYC is to work with people to conserve the land, water and wildlife in the greater Yellowstone ecosystem, Christensen said.

In this case, he said the organization’s goal is to raise awareness for residents in the region about the tribes’ right to water from the Wind River. 

“We’re working with the two tribes in partnership to try and restore the Wind River and turn it back into the amazing fishery that it used to be and support the tribes’ interest in ancestral foods, food sovereignty, and reconnecting with that river itself,” Christensen told Cowboy State Daily.

But the conservation nonprofit – which is headquartered in Bozeman, Montana, but has offices in Driggs, Idaho; Jackson, Lander and Cody in Wyoming; as well as Fort Washakie on the Wind River Reservation – is working with the tribes on more than just this water rights issue. Christensen said the GYC supports the Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapahoe as they work to restore small herds of buffalo on the Wind River reservation.  

“Each tribe down there has a small herd of buffalo that they are hoping to expand and grow over time,” he said. “It’s kind of a new area of work for us. We frame it through this lens of partnership with the tribes and trying to learn from them about what their interests are, and how we can help support them.” 

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State In Talks To Continue St. Stephen’s Support By Sending Federal Bureau $1.5 Million

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Photo by Clair McFarland
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By Clair McFarland, Cowboy State Daily
Clair@CowboyStateDaily.Com

Wyoming often accepts federal funds, but now the state is trying to send state funds to the federal government. It’s an effort to continue state funding for students at St. Stephens Indian School on the Wind River Indian Reservation.  

Formerly run by an elected school board on the Wind River Indian Reservation, St. Stephen’s Indian School was taken over this summer by the Bureau of Indian Education, following an explosive federal report accusing upper-level staff members of sexual harassment, drug abuse, and other misconduct.    

State lawmakers at a Monday meeting of the Wyoming Legislature’s Select Committee on Tribal Relations contemplated whether, and how, the state can keep funding the school now that it is in the hands of the federal government.    

A Wyoming Attorney General’s opinion from a decade ago declared it illegal for the state to fund the Bureau of Indian Education directly, according to Chad Auers, deputy superintendent for the Wyoming Department of Education.  

Wyoming for several years has given St. Stephen’s Indian School between $1.3 million and $1.5 million annually in operating costs. The state funnels that money through the Northern Arapaho and Eastern Shoshone Tribal governments on an alternating annual schedule – after securing contracts guaranteeing that the money will be used to advance Wyoming educational standards.   

Although it didn’t control the school until recent weeks, the Bureau of Indian Education also has funded the school historically, and in recent years has given St. Stephen’s about $4 million per year in operating costs.    

State Money For The Feds   

Rather than channeling its $1.5 million through the tribal governments to benefit the once-privately-owned school, Wyoming now is faced with channeling that money through the tribes to supplement the Bureau of Indian Education – a federal agency.    

Wyoming law demands that the state fund St. Stephen’s and other schools on the reservation, to a degree that supplements any shortfalls in their federal funding streams.    

“It’s obviously a very unique situation in that St. Stephen’s exists outside the traditional parameters of how the state of Wyoming supports public schools,” said Auers, in a Tuesday phone call with Cowboy State Daily. “But it is also, while it’s unique, it’s also very important.”    

Auers told legislators at the meeting Monday that his department has been working with the Bureau of Indian Education in the hopes of securing a promise, that the bureau will use the state’s money to implement state educational standards.    

“There are some accountability measures, some deliverables that need to come back to the Wyoming Department of Education,” Auers said in his Cowboy State Daily interview. “Those are around attendance, enrollment, curricular programs; and then a report on how the money is being spent on behalf of educational programming for the students.”  

But in the education department’s talks so far with the Bureau of Indian Education, receiving those guarantees appears likely, Auers told the committee on Monday.  

The committee did not draft legislation to address the new arrangement, but may take up the topic again at its Oct. 18 meeting in Laramie.   

The bureau’s takeover of the school occurred after the two tribal governments operating on the Wind River Indian Reservation, where the school board’s constituents also reside, released a misconduct report in May by the Bureau of Indian Education.    

The report detailed sexual and general harassment by upper-level staff members at the school. It also accused the school’s superintendent of nepotism, bullying, alcohol use on campus, and misuse of funds; and accused the school board members of misapplying funds.

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Native Woman Pleads With Tribal Police Chief For Answers To Sexual Assault Problem

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By Clair McFarland, Cowboy State Daily
Clair@CowboyStateDaily.com

When a federal police chief overseeing the Wind River Indian Reservation met with state lawmakers Monday in Riverton, an indigenous woman approached him to ask for help, and solutions to the area’s sexual assault problem.       

Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) chief Erick Blackburn, who manages the Wind River contingent of the large federal police force, met Monday at Central Wyoming College with the state Legislature’s Select Committee on Tribal Relations to discuss staffing.     

‘Since You’re Here’    

During these discussions, an American Indian woman named Jessica Swallow walked to the front of the room and seated herself next to Blackburn. Speaking as a community member, Swallow asked the committee to ensure that a forensic pathologist can oversee suspicious deaths of American Indian women.   

Swallow then addressed Blackburn.     

“I’m glad you’re here, Mr. Chief of Police,” said Swallow. “Now that you have some more staffing, if you could take a look into the sexual assaults that go on, on our reservation – that’s another essential thing.” 

Blackburn had told the committee that with 18 agents, he is comparably well staffed. But the Wind River agency still struggles with having to send officers to help other agencies, and with the huge land base it covers and the violence it encounters, he added.     

Swallow said she hopes the bureau can employ a victims’ advocate to work with sexual assault victims.   

“We have predators that walk our reservation and it’s scary. It’s really scary,” she said, adding that she has picked people up at the hospital who have been severely assaulted.     

“Nothing has ever been done. You go to a powwow and you walk by these people, and it’s scary,” she said.     

Often, victims are too intimidated to report the assaults because the perpetrators have big families, she added.     

“One of my friends said something (to police) – and she was getting death threats; she had to go buy a gun and move out of the county,” said Swallow, routinely fighting back tears. “And since you’re here – I’d like you to look into that.”     

Rep. Lloyd Larsen, R-Lander, who co-chairs the committee, thanked Swallow for voicing her thoughts.     

“Jessica, thank you. That’s not an easy thing, to come up here,” said Larsen.     

‘Out Of Control’    

Blackburn told Swallow and the committee that sexual assaults are “out of control” on the reservation.     

A Wyoming Division of Criminal Investigation annual report shows one rape reported in 2019, and zero for each of the two years prior for the Wind River agency. There may have been more sexual assaults reported to the FBI, which has official jurisdiction over felony-level crimes on the reservation.    

Blackburn said sexual assaults often are difficult to investigate due to a lack of victim cooperation. Victims often will not speak to police or may be hostile toward them, and sometimes they don’t remember the attack, he said.     

A lack of cooperation is the agency’s biggest “hurdle,” said Blackburn.      

“We try everything in our power to try and get them the help we can through (the FBI’s) victim services. A lot of the time, though, they just don’t want to cooperate,” he said. “I don’t know if it’s out of fear – I don’t know.”     

Jordan Dresser, the chairman of the Northern Arapaho Tribe’s executive branch of government, told the committee that employing a victims’ advocate under the bureau would help. Dresser also bemoaned what he described as social pressure discouraging victim cooperation.     

Federal bureaucratic constraints that stall incoming federal police agents in six months of background checks also may limit police action in dealing with sexual assault victims, Dresser theorized.     

“We need help to cut down this bureaucratic level of (oversight): Six months to a year to get someone into a position – that’s ridiculous,” said Dresser.     

Top Secret Clearance    

Before Swallow spoke to Blackburn, the chief gave a presentation to the committee regarding staffing.     

There are two victim advocates’ positions available on the reservation, said Blackburn. He also said his agency for four years has been limping along by using the FBI’s victims’ advocate rather than having its own.     

A main reason for that, he said, is that federal background checks for the bureau can take six months or more. The federal officers are cleared for top-secret access during the background-check process.     

“Our top-secret security clearances we’re required to get for BIA are a little too much,” he said. “We don’t have access to national security items. It seems a little bit excessive, but that’s not my call.”     

Blackburn also described issues with “details,” that is, when other Bureau agencies borrow police officers from better-staffed branches. For a reservation the size of the Wind River, and with violent encounters occurring frequently, having officers dispatched by higher powers stretches the local bureau thin, said Blackburn.     

“My guys are busting their tails to answer, call to call, and it’s violent stuff we’re dealing with,” Blackburn said. He added again, “it’s violent.”  

Sen. Cale Case, R-Lander, who is a member of the tribal relations committee, said he hoped Wyoming’s federal delegates could remedy some of the force’s staffing issues. He addressed two people who were in the room on behalf of Wyoming members of Congress: one person who was there for U.S. Rep. Liz Cheney and another who was there for Sen. Cynthia Lummis. 

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Wind River Man Convicted of Revenge Murder Wants a New Trial, Says Lawyer Failed Him

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By Clair McFarland, Cowboy State Daily
Clair@CowboyStateDaily.com

A Wind River Indian Reservation man convicted of first-degree murder is asking for a new trial or a sentence half as long, saying his attorney failed him last year in court.  

Seth Blackburn, 32, just finished the first year of his 60-year prison sentence. He confessed in May of 2021 to kidnapping Victor Addison and shooting Addison in the head with a rifle on the Wind River Indian Reservation three years ago.  

Blackburn told a federal court judge during his confession that he had heard bad things about Addison and suspected that Addison had something to do with the death of a young woman, Martika Spoonhunter, two days prior.  

Spoonhunter died Aug. 3, 2019 in a fiery crash, succumbing to what the former Fremont County Coroner called “extensive thermal injuries” from a one-vehicle rollover. The coroner ruled the case as accidental.

Blackburn now has filed a legal motion in the U.S. District Court for Wyoming, saying he deserves a new trial because, according to Blackburn, his lawyer did a poor job.    

The federal court sentenced Blackburn Aug. 17, 2021, to 60 years in prison for first-degree murder and for being a felon in possession of a firearm.   

Filed Monday, Blackburn’s motion claimed that during his prosecution, his attorney Thomas R. Smith convinced Blackburn to tell his brothers – who were charged as co-conspirators – to enter testimonies against him.    

According to Blackburn, Smith had promised to secure a plea agreement for the lesser charge of second-degree murder, which could have resulted in a sentence half as long.    

“I was somewhat troubled about (Smith’s) suggestion on the basis that I did not want to give up my trial rights in exchange for uncertainty,” Blackburn wrote. “But (Smith) also stated that if I didn’t follow through with his suggestion, the government would have brought criminal charges against my sister, whom (sic) has nothing to do with the charges at hand.”   

Smith, who is now retired, did not respond Wednesday afternoon to a message conveyed by his former receptionist.    

Blackburn claimed that after the attorneys arranged a voice call between him and the men he called his “brothers,” Brent Gould and Peter Blackburn, Seth Blackburn told them to testify against him.    

“Had I not told my brothers to proffer against me, they wouldn’t have done so,” Blackburn wrote.    

After that call, Blackburn learned that his attorney had not arranged the 30-year plea agreement before hand with the prosecutor, he said. 

Blackburn also claimed that if he had gone to trial, his mother, mother’s boyfriend and sister would all have testified on his behalf “regarding my whereabouts on the day of the crime.”    

Blackburn later switched lawyers, but by the time the new lawyer arrived it was too late, according to court documents.  

U.S. District Court Judge Scott Skavdahl ruled in July 2021 that Blackburn could not retract his confession.  

“After Seth Blackburn, in the courtroom and under oath, described killing Victor Addison by deliberately shooting him in the head, the Court finds his current assertion of innocence to lack all credibility,” wrote Skavdahl at the time. “He has offered no factual evidence, nor has the Court found any in its own review of the case… supporting his claim of actual innocence.”    

The court has not yet ruled on Blackburn’s request for a new trial. 

Autopsy   

Court documents from the original case said that Gould and the two Blackburns knowingly seized, confined, and carried away Victor Dale Addison to intimidate, assault, and murder him by shooting him in the head.    

The forensic pathologist on the case concluded that Addison’s death was a homicide caused by a gunshot wound to the head. The doctor also discovered other blunt force injuries on Addison’s body.    

The presence of toxins in Addison’s body at the time of his death was heavy with both alcohol and methamphetamine. 

State Investigative Board Clears Two Reservation School Administrators Of Harassment Allegations

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By Clair McFarland, Cowboy State Daily
Clair@CowboyStateDaily.com

Although a federal agency implicated two Wind River Indian Reservation school administrators in a sweeping misconduct report which detailed an alcohol-fueled party with a topless student dancer, a state investigative committee last week cleared the pair of wrongdoing.  

An unnamed source whose written statement was referenced in a Bureau of Indian Education (BIE) report in April had accused Matt and Macey Mortimore, St. Stephen’s Indian School administrators, of being at an alcohol-fueled party where a student danced topless.   

In response, the Wyoming Professional Teaching and Standards Board (PTSB) appointed an investigative committee to the case. School teachers and administrators in Wyoming must be licensed through the PTSB.   

Investigators found no evidence to support the bureau’s accusation, according to an Aug. 12 letter from the board to Matt Mortimore.   

The investigative panel consisted of two PTSB members, the board’s disciplinary specialist Jillian Reagan, the board’s executive director, assistant director, and prosecuting attorney. It met Aug. 12 to review the results of its three-month investigation.   

Reagan then sent letters to both Mortimores letting them know the panel found no evidence of misconduct, including misconduct involving harassment or alcohol use.   

“Our investigative committee found they did not violate anything,” Reagan told Cowboy State Daily on Thursday.   

Macey Mortimore said she was grateful for the chance to clear their names.

“We knew we didn’t do anything wrong so it’s great that the truth is out there in writing,” Macey Mortimore told Cowboy State Daily on Tuesday. “It also makes me hopeful that we will stop being judged for something we didn’t do and instead for all of the good things we’ve done.”   

Matt Mortimore called it a “relief.”   

Both remain licensed to work in Wyoming schools.   

The Professional Teaching and Standards Board has scheduled an Oct. 17 meeting to review its investigative committee’s findings.   

Banished  

The Intertribal Business Council, which is a joint governing board consisting of Northern Arapaho and Eastern Shoshone leaders, in April voted to fire many St. Stephen’s Indian School staffers and the school’s entire board.   

The council also released the Bureau of Indian Education report to the public.   

Matt Mortimore was one of the staffers fired; Macey was allowed to teach until the final days of school, when she was placed on unpaid leave.   

The tribes retroceded the school to the Bureau of Indian Education, which is a process by which tribal entities can turn a school over to federal control if they feel the school needs intervention.   

The school’s superintendent Frank No Runner, elementary school principal Greg Juneau, and meals supervisor Pattee Bement also were fired at that time following a slew of allegations of sexual and other kinds of misconduct involving staffers and students.   

No Runner did not keep an interview appointment with Cowboy State Daily to discuss the case.   

The council passed a resolution barring No Runner, Juneau, Bement, and Matt Mortimore from ever working on the Wind River Indian Reservation again.   

Macey Mortimore said she and Matt hope to have the tribal government reconsider his employment banishment.

“Even on my parents’ farm, he couldn’t work,” she said.  “Because it lies within the external boundaries of the reservation.”   

Jordan Dresser, Chairman of the Northern Arapaho Tribe’s governing council, did not offer a comment following a text inquiry sent Tuesday. The council’s spokesman Matt Benson also did not comment following a Wednesday inquiry.   

Eastern Shoshone Tribal spokesman Alejandra Silva said on Wednesday that she would ask the Shoshone tribe’s governing council if it would like to speak on the issue.   

Vetting  

According to the Mortimores, the PTSB’s investigative panel contacted witnesses from the BIE report, asked the BIE for documentation, and vetted witness statements against established facts to determine witness credibility.   

The Mortimores said the BIE did not provide its investigation materials to the state board.   

The BIE did not return a voicemail and email on Tuesday.   

Reagan said she could not yet comment on the panel’s investigative methods.   

‘Ghosted’  

The Mortimores have had no luck finding new jobs.   

Macey Mortimore said they both still want to work in education​. They’ve applied for various jobs in Fremont County schools. In some cases, they’re denied interviews altogether; in others, they’re simply denied the job, she said.   

“We’re just getting ghosted,” said Macey Mortimore. She noted that she has two master’s degrees in education.   

“If I would have interviewed with these districts two years ago, I feel like, I would have been inundated with offers,” she said.

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One Dead In Wind River Indian Reservation Police Shooting On Thursday Evening

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By Clair McFarland, Cowboy State Daily
Clair@CowboyStateDaily.com

UPDATE: In the hours after this story’s publication, the FBI confirmed to Cowboy State Daily that it is investigating the shooting detailed below. The agency did not comment on the death and will share “no further” information with the public during its investigation, but will deliver its results to the U.S. Attorney for Wyoming, an FBI spokesman said Friday.

At least one Bureau of Indian Affairs officer was involved in a shooting Thursday evening on the Wind River Indian Reservation, according to local authorities.   

Official records and interviews suggest that the suspect in the shooting has died, however, the FBI has not yet officially confirmed it.     

Two deputies from the Fremont County Sheriff’s Office responded at about 4:58 p.m. Thursday to the scene of an officer-involved shooting involving Bureau of Indian Affairs agents in Ethete, undersheriff Mike Hutchison confirmed Friday to Cowboy State Daily.   

“All the officers are OK,” Hutchison said, adding that the deputies were only on scene to aid with “scene security.”     

The FBI and the Bureau of Indian Affairs have jurisdiction on the reservation.  

According to the sheriff’s log, the Fremont County Coroner was called at 4:58 p.m. to a “stab/gunshot” fatality. Fremont County Coroner’s deputy Tony Simmers confirmed Friday that there had been a death.   

“Officer has shots fired; (Redacted) need a deputy to respond,” reads the sheriff’s log for the same incident.    

Hutchison could not give details regarding what may have led to the shooting or whether the suspect involved has died, as the sheriff’s office generally does not have jurisdiction on the reservation.    

Simmers said the fatality is under investigation, and the FBI is the primary source of information on the investigation. The FBI is reviewing a Cowboy State Daily request for information.  

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