Guest Posts on County 10 are provided by contributors and the opinions, thoughts, and comments within are their own and may not necessarily reflect those of County 10.
Savi Sharma is an Indian (from India) novelist. The title of one of her novels is Everyone Has a Story. In the book she writes: “Everyone has a story. It might or might not be a love story. It could be a story of dreams, friendship, hope, survival, or even death. And every story is worth telling. But more than that, it’s worth living.”
For what it’s worth, I share her feelings that everyone has a story, and it’s my view that the following story is worth telling, and I hope readers will agree that it’s worth reading.
A couple of weeks ago, I was taking one of my afternoon walks around my neighborhood, having to make a concerted effort to stay upright on the sometimes icy sidewalks. My saunters often take me by the Pit Stop; and occasionally I’ll stop in, if I have a quarter burning a hole in my pocket, and buy a jawbreaker to enjoy as I meander my way back to my abode.
Early one afternoon, I stopped in to purchase one of those little round treats. The clerk behind the counter happened to be a Native American woman whom I had never seen before with a couple of elaborate tattoos, one on each side of her neck.
One aspect of human behavior that has always intrigued me has been the choice of some people to accumulate tattoos. When I worked at the Lander Middle School, many of the new hires and a good portion of the longtime educators sported tattoos clearly visible on their arms, shoulders and legs.
I’ve never had the desire to acquire a tattoo, as I prefer my artwork on the wall, but I was curious about the thought process one would go through to determine if a tattoo is for you. So during a day of professional development, while the staff took a break from whatever activity we were required to attend, I spied two of our more friendly tattooed staff members conversing together, a man and a woman.
As I expected, they had no problem with me inserting myself into the conversation and after a while I changed the subject a little by stating, “I’ve always wondered about the decision folks make to get a tattoo. Help me out here a little. What made you decide to get tattoos?”
They both indicated that any tattoo should be related to a significant event in one’s life. They both went on to describe the reasoning behind their decisions to get the various tattoos that were visible, and some that weren’t; and then the woman (a good friend of Gayla’s), with a devious smile said, “I know Gayla’s going to be gone for at least a week coming up soon, so when she gets back, you could surprise her with your first tattoo.”
Some surprises are better in thought than in practice. But then I thought: What single event in my life would I have the inclination to tattoo into my skin.
My marriage, thirty-eight years ago? Nope, we have photographs for that.
The births of our two daughters? No…those are mental images that I’ll keep selfishly to myself.
Heart surgery eight years ago? Nope…too gory.
In the end, I couldn’t come up with a single decent memory to get all inked up about.
…so back to the Native American woman working at the Pit Stop.
I don’t usually pry into the personal lives of others, but for some reason I had to know the significance of those two neck tattoos; so I asked her about them as I paid the twenty cents for an Atomic Fireball jawbreaker.
Not offended at all, she showed me the left tattoo, which was an image of a rose along with the name Kristen Rose. She told me that the name was her sister’s, who had died about seven years previous, certainly a significant event in her life.
I knew right then that this woman had a story to tell, and I wanted to hear it. I then told her that I write a column for County 10 every couple of weeks and would she mind if I interviewed her as the subject of one of my columns? She agreed, so I promised to come back in the next few days for an interview
Today she made time to sit at one of the tables in the convenience story so that we could visit.
I decided not to include her last name, even though she gave me permission. Sometimes a little anonymity is just good practice.
The oldest of five children, Jana is a Northern Arapaho tribal member, but most of her Native American blood comes from the Gros Ventre tribe of Montana, where she was born. She was educated at the Flandreau Indian School in South Dakota.
She lives in Arapaho, and for that reason, one would think that working on the reservation or in Riverton would be more convenient; and one would be right. She recently gave up a better paying job of seven years working for the tribes in what she called the 477 Program, a program designed to improve employment and economic development in Indian Country.
As a tribal member of only one quarter blood, she could not continue to accept the animosity of other tribal members who treated her poorly. Apparently she wasn’t Arapaho enough to suit her coworkers. Even though she made much more money working for the tribes, she could no longer stomach the disrespectful treatment there.
Besides that situation, she indicated that the working atmosphere in Riverton and that part of the reservation is toxic. She wanted to avoid the prevalence of drug and alcohol addiction, and its associated violence and other disturbing behavior more common in that part of the county by making the twenty mile drive each day to Lander.
“There‘s just a different vibe in this town,” she said. When I asked her to clarify, she said she is happy to be working where she is respected and treated well by her coworkers and customers.
Before her stint for the tribes, she worked at the 789 Bingo, an experience which helped her secure this job. Working here, she continued, “I don’t have to witness people high on drugs or drunk on alcohol beating each other up all the time. I actually look forward to coming to work each day.”
When I asked if she had experienced any racial mistreatment in her present job, she replied, “No, not that I can tell. I’m a people person, not a people pleaser. I treat people with respect, and I expect to be treated the same.”
I finally, with a little trepidation, lest I would broach a tender subject, asked her about her sister, Kristen Rose. She informed me that Kristen died in a head-on crash seven years ago on 17 Mile Road on the reservation. Her cousin, who was under the influence of alcohol, was driving a vehicle with her aunt, uncle, and sister as passengers. At some point, she veered over into the opposite lane and collided with a van with only the driver on board. All five individuals perished in the crash.
It was then she showed me the tattoo on the right side of her neck. Outlined with two feathers, her sister’s smiling face shone through.
With pride, she explained how she loved her beautiful sister, four years her junior. At the time of her death, Kristen had worked about five years at the Wind River Casino as a barista.
“Everybody knew her. Everybody liked her. My favorite memory of her is me teaching her how to ride a bike. I was a young teenager then, and didn’t really want to have anything to do with her, being a typical teenager. She kept asking me to teach her to ride a bike. Finally, I said I would.
“So I took her to the top of a hill near our house and gave her a push on the bike down the hill. She didn’t know how to brake, so she crashed at the bottom. But she got right back on again and didn’t crash the second time, and she learned how to ride.”
And then she added with a chuckle, “Everytime Kristen would tell that story when we were growing up, she would always end it laughing and say, ‘Jana was such an asshole!’”
Understandably, she wishes that young people would choose not to drink and drive.
“They think it’s cool, but they don’t understand how it hurts our people, even after they have experienced the results of drunk driving. But no one on the reservation wants to talk about it. Mothers and grandmothers always worry about their kids, but none of our tribal leaders want to talk about it, like it will just go away.”
As if Jana hadn’t experienced enough tragedy, she informed me that her two brothers both passed away this fall from Covid. Both brothers were in hospitals, one in Casper and the other in Idaho Falls.
“I don’t think they got the care they needed,” she said.
Yes, Covid is still a thing. Nationwide, several hundred Americans died today from the virus.
So, out of four siblings, she has only a sister left, and as Jana is the oldest at forty, one can understand why Native Americans have the lowest life expectancy of any minority race in the United States. The purpose of this column is not to point fingers, but the assertion that ongoing systematic racism exists might have some merit.
At this point in our visit, Jana indicated she needed to get back to work; so I thanked her for her time, shook her hand, and left.
Everyone has a story, and I feel fortunate to have learned Jana’s. May she have many happy days ahead.