By Clair McFarland
Via- Wyoming News Exchange
RIVERTON — Claims of systemic racism by the leader of the Northern Arapaho Tribe last week have caused push-back by county officials, especially regarding the treatment of COVID-positive transients.
Before a Wyoming Legislative panel on Monday, Northern Arapaho Business Council Chairman Lee Spoonhunter accused the Fremont County Sheriff’s Office, the Fremont County Commission, and Riverton’s SageWest Healthcare of mistreating tribal members.
All three entities bristled at the attack, calling the tribal leader’s statements outright falsehoods.
The speech has since led to disputes about whether tribal entities should be entitled to continue using the county’s vehicle to transport COVID patients, unless Spoonhunter issues an apology.
Spoonhunter has refused to issue an apology.
“Some of our tribal people were going to Riverton to get medical help,” began Spoonhunter at the meeting of the Wyoming Legislature Select Committee on Tribal Relations.
“Riverton SageWest was turning away our tribal members in fear of coronavirus. Our tribal members were put on the back of sheriffs’ trucks, straight from the hospital (and taken) out to the transient camp” in Arapahoe.
“This information was without merit,” wrote SageWest spokeswoman Lindsey Anderson in a Tuesday response to the allegations. “To deny care is a violation of federal and state law – as well as our mission.”
Spoonhunter also complained that the county government was sluggish in its efforts to help the tribe isolate its transient members when the latter contracted the virus.
Several transients occupy public spaces in Riverton daily, such as the Riverton City Park, the Rails to Trails recreation path, and the Riverton Branch Library. Many of the transients are repeat public intoxication offenders.
This spring, Spoonhunter said, “they all tested positive” for COVID-19. He said the tribes held a lengthy discussion with county officials, after which tribal leaders agreed to isolate the wanderers in Arapahoe, on the Wind River Indian Reservation.
“I’m not trying to point fingers, but to that point we had no cooperation from Fremont County until we said we were going to put them at the Arapahoe Great Plains Hall… and then once that happened,” the tribal leader said, the sheriff and Fremont County Commissioners agreed to help with transportation.
A transient isolation camp was later assembled in Arapahoe from vacated mining trailer-houses, and is still in use today.
Fremont County Sheriff Ryan Lee wrote Wednesday that the allegation that he or any of his deputies transported citizens in the backs of trucks was “completely false and without any merit whatsoever. The Fremont County Sheriff’s Office did not, would not, and has not transported any Fremont County Citizen in the back of a pick-up truck.”
Sheriff Lee also disagreed wholly with the perception that his office was unwilling to help the at-risk population on Riverton’s streets.
He wrote that when the transient community contracted the virus, he “worked above and beyond to coordinate shelter, supplies and safe and reliable transportation, after being asked by tribal health officials for this help.”
At first the sheriff tried to broker a deal with county-contracted AMR ambulance services for transporting COVID-positive transients to their initial isolation site at Great Plains Hall in Arapahoe, but neither the county nor the tribe could afford the ambulance company’s costs.
Lee and his undersheriff, Mike Hutchsion, “personally retrofitted” with protective plexiglass a vehicle for transporting the patients.
Before the pandemic, that vehicle was used to transport mental health patients cared for by the county under Wyoming Title 25 statutes.
The vehicle, the sheriff wrote “was retrofitted with a plexiglass screen between the back and front seats to provide the needed transportation services and, at the same time, keep the driver and occupants of the vehicle safe.”
Lee and Hutchsion together “personally delivered the vehicle to Wind River (Family and Community Healthcare) staff for their use.”
The tribes continue to use the vehicle, although tribal authorities have since bought a van for the same purpose.
The positive-testing individuals settled temporarily in Great Plains Hall using bedding the sheriff borrowed from the Fremont County Detention Center, which is under his oversight. They were later moved to the isolation camp housing.
“At no time did any Fremont County Sheriff’s deputy transport any citizen of this county in the back of their truck — period,” the sheriff’s statement concluded.
The NABC Chairman has since stated that his reference to the backs of Sheriff’s trucks specifically was “imprecise.”
Fremont County Commission Chairman Travis Becker called State Rep. Andi Clifford, D-Ethete on Wednesday, and said the tribes may lose access to the Title 25 vehicle unless Spoonhunter apologizes for the damaging statements he made before the legislative panel.
“I won’t apologize for shining a light on anti-tribal prejudice,” Spoonhunter is quoted as saying in a Wednesday press release written in response to Becker’s phone call with Clifford.
“And I won’t apologize for talking openly and honestly about systemic racism and how it has contributed to a COVID-19 pandemic that continues to infect and kill our Arapaho people and members of Indian Country in disproportionate numbers.”
Of the 14 Fremont County citizens whose deaths have been related to the virus, all were Northern Arapaho Tribal community members.
Becker related, conversely, that when Northern Arapaho transients began gathering at the Fremont County Fairgrounds for testing, “we weren’t ready for them, but we prepped them and ended up getting the lunchroom at the fairgrounds to house them for a little bit until a more permanent solution could come up.”
“They showed up, and we took them in. I went and personally bought breakfast for everyone and took it to them so they had something to eat,” Becker said.
Initial reports from that gathering indicate that there were about 11 transients, all positive-testing.
“They were not in good health,” Becker remembered.
The testing of the transient community resulted from the death of one of their known close contacts, Alan Jenkins, who was among the first four COVID-related deaths (all of whom died on the same day) for the county.
“I can’t tell where Chairman Spoonhunter’s comments came from, but what he stated (about the sheriff’s office and county) was blatantly false,” said Becker.
Becker also confirmed that as, one commissioner, he would advocate to the board to withdraw the county’s vehicle from the tribe’s possession if an apology was not given.
“We have not spoken as a commission, but I would certainly expect an apology and a reflection of the record, to show (Spoonhunter’s) misstatement,” he told The Ranger on Wednesday.
Becker also noted that the county is under no statutory or governmental obligation to furnish the vehicle, and that doing so was a gesture of kindness and coooperation.
“We’ve allowed Wind River Cares to use this with no charge (other than fuel and upkeep)… We did that because it was the right thing to do.” However, he added, “the truth is being castigated as something totally different and totally wrong, and that should not be the case.”