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Wind River deaths bring a reckoning with youth

WASHINGTON - Northern Arapaho leaders came to Washington from the Wind River reservation in Wyoming during the last week of June, determined to forge partnerships and institutions for protecting young people that can outlast any ebb and flow of tribal or Washingtonian politics.

They came in the aftermath of a stark tragedy that struck the tribal community June 4, when three teenage girls were discovered dead in a tribal housing complex. Alexis Gardner was 15, Alex Whiteplume was 14 and Winter Rose Thomas, 13. In-state media reports indicate that all were considered ;'good kids.''

Preliminary autopsy results were inconclusive on the causes of death, and more extensive findings are expected within two weeks of July 4, according to Jonathan ''Angel'' Barela, assistant public relations director for the tribe.

Ryan Wilson, a member of the Northern Arapaho Council of Elders, in charge of the tribe's language program, said the tribe is refraining from any comment on cause of death out of respect for the families.

The deaths have shaken the Wind River community (which includes the Eastern Shoshone) out of any complacency toward its youth, he said. ''It elevated them to the true top priority. ... It's a sacred birthright of our children to be in a place that is healthy, that is loving, that is protected, where they can learn, that is within their culture ... We haven't been providing that.''

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Tribal Business Council co-chairmen Anthony ''Al'' Addison Sr. and Harvey Spoonhunter led the Wind River delegation to meetings with federal agencies, including the BIA, and with Wyoming Sens. Mike Enzi and John Barrasso. The BIA was especially helpful in providing information and resources on Boys and Girls Clubs in Indian country, Barela said.

The meetings of Addison and Spoonhunter with Enzi and Barrasso, both outspoken in their support, respectively, of Indian health and law enforcement needs, were encouraging as well. The delegation also conducted a press conference and attended a Senate Indian Affairs Committee session, where Barrasso acknowledged Addison in the hearing room with words of commitment and hope.

Wilson said of the Washington trip, ''It was a first step, and a very powerful step, to coordinate services.'' Now the hard work of follow-through begins, he added. Addison and Spoonhunter specifically sought a wellness center and a Boys and Girls Club, venues where positive, healthy, protected Native youth development can occur under best-practice programs. Their goal is institutional change within the tribal community that will have a permanent impact.

''We who live out in Indian country have to deal with death often, and there's always the danger that it can become a natural part of our lives,'' Wilson said.

But not at Wind River now.

After June 4, ''There's no more sacred site than the space that occupies the mind of a Native child. We have to protect it. It's not a choice. If we can't protect our children, we don't have a future.''