Seeing Jackson Through Indigenous Eyes

By on June 20, 2018

As a global tourist destination, Jackson has a duty to responsibly reflect Native people, culture and history

Mykie RidgeBear and daughter JoLeigha Dust at the Shoshonean-Numic Language Reunion in Fort Washakie. (Darrah Perez)

JACKSON HOLE, WY – I remember Jackson from my childhood. My family would venture to Yellowstone National Park and then travel through Jackson on our way to Fort Hall, Idaho, for the annual Shoshone-Bannock Festival Pow-wow. Viewing the Tetons as we drove over the ridge from Dubois was always a stunning moment. We would stop to take pictures, posing in front of the magnificent peaks. While the mountains captivated us, the chance to see the animals that my ancestors held sacred was more alluring.

Seeing the buffalo reminded me of who I was and where I came from; it was my connection to the past. Growing up, I remember hearing stories of the traumas and losses of my people—a reminder that not too long ago the buffalo too had almost gone extinct. To know their presence was close to the town of Jackson gave me a good feeling. I looked forward to the yearly trips to Jackson.

As a Native American freelance journalist for Wyoming Public Radio, I recently visited Jackson to discuss the importance of reporting on Native communities. My trip happened to fall on the heels of controversy surrounding Bar T 5 Chuckwagon. The business had recently come under public scrutiny for using white actors to depict Native Americans in its parade entry and its decades-long shows in Cache Creek.

This time around, I saw Jackson in a different light.

I stopped and talked to locals, visited stores and tourist attractions. In doing so, I saw a side of Jackson that does not represent the Native community.

At the Jackson Hole Historical Society, I looked for information on Native American history. Instead, I found only history of the early pioneers. I was also disturbed that Jackson has no monuments or statues of the first people of the land. I wanted to see authentic images—images that depict a culture that still resides close to Jackson. I was struck how the town uses Native American names, symbols and culture for capital gain. I saw the words “Indian” and “Native” everywhere, but saw no Native people.

The problem is that the indigenous peoples of the United States are not benefiting from the revenues generated around popular tourist locales such as Jackson.

I turned to my aunt and de facto assistant, a member of the Eastern Shoshone Tribe. “Wouldn’t it be awesome to have real Natives posing in pictures with tourists?” I said.

A view of Ethete, Wyoming, one of the small towns on the Wind River Reservation.

I imagined a teepee in the Town Square, with tours inside and a story told from actual tribal people from the Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapaho tribes. Visitors and residents would experience Jackson Hole in a way it had never been portrayed before.

Instead, tourists are largely fed a false narrative that plays on the town’s Western history without acknowledging the Natives who planted roots not far from the town. Yellowstone, for example, was once home to the Native tribes before the land became the first national park.    

If tourists who visit Jackson Hole learned the true history of the area, they might consider venturing beyond the confines of Jackson Hole.

The Wind River Reservation is located 142 miles from Jackson. It is the home of the Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapaho tribes. It is a place of beautiful natural sights, and the Wind River mountains are just as stunning as the Tetons. It is a place that has a little something for everyone. I know of some people who even think of it as the Las Vegas of Wyoming. Admittedly, I don’t care for gambling, but when I visit the gift shops at the Wind River Hotel & Casino and The Shoshone Rose Casino, I find authentic Native-made jewelry and art.

If Jackson wants to recount history, if it wants to profit off Native culture with art, jewelry and performance, it should tell the whole story, the real story. And it should employ authentic performers and work directly with Native American artists from the Wind River Reservation.

Until this happens, the town of Jackson will remain a cultural desert, known only for its ski resorts and national parks.


About Darrah Perez

Darrah J. Perez is a member of the Blackfeet Nation with blood ties to the Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapaho Tribes. She is a freelance journalist for Wyoming Public Radio and the author of four books, It Never Happened, It Always Happens, It's Forever Happening, and The Perfect Eclipse.

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