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.