Wearing ‘red face’: A changed perspective

CaitlinChanging one’s values or opinions is never easy. It requires setting one’s pride to the side and admitting one is wrong.

This is something I’ve come face-to-face with in the past month, and it has been unsettling to say the least.

The small Wyoming town I’m from, Pinedale, celebrates the Green River Rendezvous annually for five days every July. It is by far the biggest event of the year – the whole town is in party mode. I would equate it to Jubilee Days.

The general gist of the event is quite innocent – it is celebrating the original meetings that took place in the early 1800s where the mountain men and Native Americans would peacefully unite to trade, drink and socialize.

Pinedale celebrates this by hosting street vendors of all kind, live music, rodeos, interactive teachings at the Mountain Man Museum, a parade, a five-mile run and various other lively events. At the core it is a beautiful time where the entire community seems to get rowdy together.

Unfortunately, there is one other event that makes the entire Green River Rendezvous Days controversial. The last day a play is put on called the “Pageant.” Basically it reenacts the meeting and trading of the mountain men and Native Americans.

The controversial part is the cast is made up almost entirely of white Pinedalians. The mountain men simply dress-up in buckskin hide outfits and fur hats; however, the Native American actors not only wear buckskin outfits, but their faces are painted a deep brown, almost red color, and they either wear black wigs or dye their hair crispy black.

I regret to say I have worn the latter costume in past years.

My only defense is I grew up in the town, submersed in the culture and simply did not know better. The entire town participates and people see the event as a fun, innocent celebration, and in some ways it is, but the ‘red face’ is simply taking it a step too far.

Even worse, Rendezvous involves excessive drinking; thus, many people painted-up in ‘red face’ are running around drunk, “playing” the roles of Native Americans.

Again, I painfully have to admit I used to do this.

Upon further reflection, I am realizing what a disgrace it is to the Native Americans and their varied cultures.

Struggling with alcoholism is a real-world issue amongst many Native Americans. According to the CDC, about one in 10 Native deaths are alcohol related, which is three times higher than the national statistic. So to dress-up as Native Americans and be drunk is simply ignorant and humiliating for society.

I am fully aware I might seem like a hypocrite; however, I think changing one’s opinions and admitting wrongdoing is all part of establishing one’s values.

I tried for weeks now to defend my former actions during Rendezvous to my co-workers who have so blatantly stated this entire event is inconsiderate, racist and disgusting.

Ultimately, I could not defend it.

Although I still see the value in celebrating some form of Rendezvous – as it is part of Pinedale’s history – I do feel there needs to be definite changes.

Native American tribes should be invited to play the roles of the Native Americans, and if white people do play the roles, then there shouldn’t be any face painting involved.

Some might argue people are just acting and it’s a factual, historical reenactment, but at the end of the day, it is still in bad taste.

Historically, Native Americans have been repressed by the white culture and to this day many Native’s are living in poverty. A report by Gallup Independent described reservation living conditions as “comparable to Third-World.”

According to the New York Times, unemployment on Wyoming’s own Wind River Indian Reservation is higher than 80 percent, compared to Wyoming’s rate of six percent.

Therefore, white people dressing-up like Natives – painting their skin dark and attempting to reenact the culture – is simply a sad disgrace.

Changing my standards on this issue was incredibly difficult – I feel like I am saying goodbye to a part of myself forever; however, it is liberating to now stand for something that is morally correct and sensitive to another culture.

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5 Comments

  1. Well this article makes me sick and sad that you would think this pageant is racist or trying to disgrace Native Americans in any way. Also being from Pinedale and growing up involved in the pageant. It goes to show you how little you now about Native American Im also a native from the wind river reservation. You are just as racist to write this article if not more due to the fact you have little to no idea about reservation yes there alcoholism, poverty but there are more proud natives then what your statistics show this alone make you sound closed mind and ignorant. By making them out to be victim’s your placing all natives as poor, alcoholic nobody’s living in third world conditions. To put it nice your are an idiot plus for years in the early 50-mid 80s Hollywood use hundreds of white actors to play the native American role due to there were no native actors. All of this white actors were paint and had black hair but I’m guessing you cant name one of this movie’s.Before you decided to damn something you may want to do actual research other then typing native American into the computer and going off statistics. Numbers don’t mean anything living and knowing traditions matter more and you have no clue about Native Americans or about the history of the Pageant. So in the end your the racist for being so closed minded about skin color and alcohol you miss that the pageant its showing the days Natives were proud people that helped the trappers survive and live off the land and expand our great state. Without the Native American people we would not have this history and the pageant and the people in it reenact this glorious time.

  2. Wow Caitlin,
    I like you as a person but you couldn’t be more off base on this article. You really should have done some more research on this before you wrote it.
    I have been a part of this pageant longer than you’ve been alive, and my dad’s still in it to tell you of history. The earlier Sublette County rendezvous had actual native Americans in them. They haven’t been on the historical pageant in many many years. This is a busy time of year for the tribes. They have dances going all over this time of year. However, apparently you don’t realize that they have an open invitation to participate, AND furthermore the Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapahoe send representatives to provide feedback and critique the Rendezvous Pageant. We have dialogue and communication with them.

    Personally I think the halter top you wore was more degrading to the native Americans than a group of people working tirelessly for the past 80 years to preserve an amazing part of American history that actually occurred in this county. As an alumni of the University of Wyoming born and raised in Pinedale I have no idea where you are coming from! I was an Indian in the pageant growing up. Now my children are. Never was I, or my chchildren, or my wife “drunk”.
    Neither do I see the parallel’s you draw to bigotry and mimicking the problems with addiction on the reservation. I feel sorry to demolish your argument but you opened the door.

  3. Hi Caitlin,

    I think that while you may have made the right choice for you, you painted a troublesome picture of a historical reenactment that is practiced, produced and performed by dedicated and committed local residents. As someone who has the pageant woven into my family, I have to say that you seem to be sensationalizing the role of Indigenous Americans in the pageant as something nefarious. If you remember correctly, the role of the Antelope soldiers, the pony dancers, the horsemanship performed in the Chief’s race takes an enormous amount of patience and skill.

  4. Caitlin, I’m sorry people are insulting and attacking you and your thoughtfulness to understand something that became a problem for you personally – right or wrong – anyone with an open mind should be able to see that the point of your editorial (which is the one and only part of a newspaper that’s for personal opinions) is that you had the courage to state how YOUR personal values are evolving. It seems to me people find fault with hot button issues that are larger in scope for them personally than the pageant and rendezvous. Making personal attacks online against anyone is an unfortunate byproduct of the internet world, where invisible people judge you while defending themselves – in an uncalled for manner. For example, the above comment about the “degrading” halter top….
    Part of the “danger” of expressing your opinions and shifting values as you form them, in a public forum, is that people will attack you in writing, personally, behind your back. They are now judging YOU, in their error, instead of trying to be useful in a conversation. Unfortunately, this is the world you’ve signed up for as a journalist! Makes you wonder sometimes why we want to write for the public – but don’t give up – there are many times when it’s the most worthwhile thing we can do!

  5. As the previous commentator notes, this article simply reflects your personal journey and thoughts about changing your hair and skin colour to look more Indian for the Pageant (which I attended last year). It does not dictate to people who disagree with your opinion how they should behave or what they should think. From that perspective, you have struck a good balance – stating your own opinions without telling others what they should think.

    The sentence in your article that struck me most was: “I think changing one’s opinions and admitting wrongdoing is all part of establishing one’s values.” This shows insight, humility and thoughtfulness on your part.

    FWIW, last year I met and befriended an Eastern Shoshone elder at the RV weekend. He was very enthusiastic about white people dressing up as Indians and re-enacting Indian history. I suppose he took the view that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.

    Good luck with your journalism – It looks like you’ll need a thick skin! I grew mine when I was training to be a teacher some 20 years ago. It can be very hard but will serve you in good stead.

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