The States Project

Wyoming: A Westerner Encounters Open Range Religion

By | June 29, 2012

Devil's Tower

(American Blackroom / Flickr.com)

“Oh give me a home
Where the buffalo roam
And the deer and the antelope play
Where never is heard a discouraging word
And the sky is not clouded all day.”

–Brewster Higley, “My Western Home
 

Although I grew up singing “Home on the Range,” I never thought it described an actual place. Then I moved to Wyoming. Buffalo roaming? Check. Deer and antelope playing? Check and check. Clear skies? Definitely check. As for the frequency of discouraging words, that depends on whom you listen to. It’s very easy, in Wyoming, to get out of earshot of anyone—there just aren’t very many people around. Wyoming ranks dead last in population in the United States: the 2010 census counted only 563,626 people living in the state. Meanwhile, it is the ninth largest state in geographic area, with just over 97,813 square miles of territory. That translates into a population density of 5.8 persons per square mile—second only to Alaska as the lowest in the nation.

Profiling the Least Populous State

Wyoming’s small population makes its religious profile difficult to determine. According to the 2008 American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS), nearly half of Wyoming residents (47 percent) self-identified as Protestants or “Christians,” with another 13 percent identifying as Catholics. Seven percent identified as Mormons, and less than 0.5 percent each labeled themselves as Jewish or adherents of “Eastern Religions.” Strikingly, a full 28 percent identified as “None,” defined as “no stated religious preference, atheist, or agnostic.” (By contrast, only 15 percent of Americans as a whole claim the “None” label.) While the small sample size (only 132 respondents) means that these percentages are less than exact, they still reflect a long history of immigration to the area that became Wyoming. Well before Wyoming achieved statehood, Catholic and Protestant missionaries—Pierre Jean DeSmet and Sheldon Jackson, among others—worked their way through the region, baptizing people and establishing churches. They found, and worked among, Native American communities whose presence—and complicated history with U.S. governmental entities—continues to shape political life in Wyoming, particularly when it comes to land use. In the second half of the nineteenth century, white Mormons colonized the western portions of Wyoming, founding LDS communities that endure to this day. More recently, Hispanic immigrants have changed both the complexion and the religious profile of the state. While the 28 percent of Wyomingites that identify as “Nones” might look like a recent development in Wyoming’s religious history (the size of the group has doubled since 1990), even they have a long history here: in the nineteenth century, white settlers in the American West were far less likely than their eastern counterparts to be adherents of institutional religion.

While Wyoming’s religious profile is difficult to pin down, its political profile is pretty simple, at least at first glance: the state is overwhelmingly Republican. This dominance is particularly visible in the 2011-12 state legislature, which is even more lopsided than usual. Of ninety members in the Wyoming House of Representatives and Senate, seventy-six are Republicans and fourteen are Democrats. The governorship of the state is actually more likely to change hands: currently occupied by a Republican, the governor’s office was held by Democrats for all but eight years between 1975 and 2010.

Despite its history of Democratic governors (and more balanced legislatures), Wyoming has acquired a reputation for solidly right-of-center politics and attitudes. If you know nothing else about Wyoming politics and society, you probably know these two things: it is former Vice President Dick Cheney’s home state; and it is where Matthew Shepard, a gay university student, was murdered in a hate crime. Using these two facts, it is easy to create a stereotype of the state into which other nationally-reported stories on Wyoming politics can be inserted. The apocalyptic mentality of the recent “doomsday bill” that would have created a state task force to prepare for “a complete breakdown of the federal government” fits comfortably alongside the militarism of the Bush-Cheney administration. And the misogyny of Wyoming-based billionaire (and former Rick Santorum supporter) Foster Friess’s comment that contraception could be as simple and inexpensive as women putting an aspirin between their knees complements the homophobia of Shepard’s murder. Seen this way, Wyoming embodies a caricature of ignorant, gun-toting, right-wing survivalism that many have come to associate with the most rural areas of the Rocky Mountain West, a caricature that often includes an element of zealous Christian fundamentalism as well.

Nevertheless, although Wyoming’s electoral and legislative politics are Republican, they tend more often toward a libertarian “live and let live” philosophy rather than an overtly religious brand of social conservatism. Religious right activism has been seen in the state: for example, a Christian organization called WyWatch (once explained to me as “Wyoming’s version of Focus on the Family”) lobbied hard for bills that would have restricted gay rights and reproductive rights in 2011. Despite the large Republican majority in the state legislature, though, all of these bills failed. Wyoming voters prefer to keep their religion private: although religiously-defined voting blocs may emerge around social issues, Wyomingites are more likely to cast their votes based on factors related to the state’s rural character or on their own economic interests than on religious doctrines. However, the moral and religious convictions that remain unspoken in legislative debates and electoral politics find expression in discussions of land, as an array of interested parties stake their claims—religious or otherwise—on Wyoming’s range and its sacred spaces.

Encountering the Sacred at Devils Tower

Consider the case of Devils Tower—known to Lakota Sioux as Mato Tipila, “Bears’ Lodge,” and to a generation of movie watching Americans as the iconic landmark of Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977). Designated as a National Monument in 1906 and administered by the National Park Service (NPS), Devils Tower is a sacred site for many Plains Indian tribes and a magnet for rock climbers. The site is also a major source of revenue for northeastern Wyoming because of the tourism it generates.

Faced with competing demands from Native American groups, climbers, tourists, and local residents, in 1995 the NPS instituted a voluntary ban on climbing during the month of June, when many important Native American ceremonies occur. The policy has reduced the number of climbers during the month: in 1994 (the year before the ban went into effect), 1,293 people climbed Devils Tower during June. By 2007, that number had declined an average of 79 percent.

To some Native Americans, this action does not go far enough. As an Arapaho Indian explained to anthropologists working for the NPS: “that’s God’s altar. And I don’t care how many taxes anybody pays, that [does not] give them the right to do things. That is still God’s altar to my people. I mean, you go to a Christian church and you jump on top of the altar and see how much ruckus is raised there. This is one place out of the whole northern Plains country that is an altar of God.” While in the view of many Plains Indians, the reduction in climbers during the month of June is an improvement, hundreds still climb Devils Tower during that month and thousands climb it during the rest of the year, violating the sanctity of the site.

To some climbers, the ban goes too far, protecting Native Americans’ religious sensibilities but violating the religious freedom of those who see rock climbing as a spiritual practice. Climbing guide Andy Petefish, for example, bluntly told reporters, “Climbing on Devils Tower is a spiritual experience for me,” a claim that other climbers echoed. For Petefish and other commercial climbing guides, the ban also represented a threat to their livelihood, because the NPS refused to issue commercial climbing permits during June.

Petefish and a collection of recreational climbers, along with a nonprofit group calling itself the Bear Lodge Multiple Use Association, challenged the constitutionality of the NPS’s climbing ban in federal court, arguing that the ban represented a governmental establishment of religion. In 1996, they won a preliminary injunction, instructing the NPS to continue issuing commercial climbing permits regardless of the voluntary ban, but the U. S. District Court ultimately upheld the ban, framing it as a permissible accommodation of Native American religions rather than an unconstitutional establishment of religion.

Teaching the Lessons of Martin’s Cove

Similar concerns about the entanglement of government and religion arose in the next decade when the LDS Church leased a site known as Martin’s Cove from the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). The hill-covered area in central Wyoming was the best shelter members of the Martin Handcart Company could find when an early snowstorm surprised them in 1856 as they made their way to Salt Lake City. Several dozen of these Mormon emigrants died at Martin’s Cove.

In the 1990s, the LDS Church purchased the Tom Sun Ranch, which surrounds the cove. After remodeling the ranch house to create a visitors’ center that offered historical interpretation of both the ranch and the cove, the church began working to acquire the cove itself. Although the U.S. House of Representatives approved the sale of the BLM land in 2002, Congress ultimately changed the deal to a renewable long-term lease.

Mormons come to Martin’s Cove to remember their pioneer heritage, to connect with their ancestors, and to re-enact the travails of that long-dead handcart company. In the process, they learn the lessons of faith and sacrifice that they find embedded in the story of the Martin Company. As an LDS Church reporter paraphrased one handcart trek organizer’s statement, “The handcart people sacrificed so much so they could come receive the saving ordinances of the temple and be sealed for eternity with their families.” The number of annual visitors has soared to over 100,000 as Martin’s Cove has taken its place among LDS pilgrimage sites. The owner of the general store in Alcova, the closest town to Martin’s Cove, capitalized on the increased tourism by building a small motel and offering handcart-themed souvenirs for sale.

Despite the economic incentives represented by increased tourism dollars, opposition to the LDS Church’s bid to gain control of Martin’s Cove was surprisingly strong. Many—including some members of Wyoming’s congressional delegation—feared that allowing the LDS Church to purchase the 933-acre parcel would set a precedent for the purchase of Devils Tower and other public lands by Native American groups. Others opposed the agreement because they feared the LDS Church would force religion down the throats of visitors to the ostensibly public site. This opposition went beyond a reflexive annoyance with proselytization to a deeper concern that the church would control interpretation of the site and stifle meanings other than those that advanced the LDS agenda at Martin’s Cove. Ray Ring, for example, editorialized in High Country News (a news outlet that reports on the Western United States) that “Martin’s Cove is a reminder that history is complicated, and that everyone makes mistakes,” a lesson he feared would get lost in the church’s story of the emigrants’ suffering and perseverance. After the lease was signed in 2003, the American Civil Liberties Union sued Interior Secretary Gale Norton and BLM Director Kathleen Clarke, arguing that the lease violated the establishment clause of the U.S. Constitution. Under the settlement reached in 2006, the LDS Church removed religious signs from the cove and made it possible for visitors to hike into the area without first traversing the church-run visitors’ center.

Finding Homes on the Range

Devils Tower and Martin’s Cove are not the only cases of disputes over sacred sites in Wyoming. Indeed, David Chidester and Edward T. Linenthal’s dictum that “sacred space is inevitably contested space,” from their volume American Sacred Space, hold true here. The contests over Wyoming’s sacred sites bring out not only the obvious religious claims—about the necessity of Devils Tower to the sweat lodge and Sun Dance rituals that the Lakota Sioux perform, or the sacrality of Martin’s Cove to the memory of the Mormon pioneers—but also the less regularized religious sentiments of those who do not have clear institutional or historical stakes in the sites’ religious meanings. Contesting access to Devils Tower, Andy Petefish and other climbers voiced their objections in a religious register. Arguing against Mormon control over Martin’s Cove, Ray Ring and other activists articulated alternative moral lessons to be learned at the site. In the political conflicts over sacred sites, the “Nones” still stake their claims to spiritual homes on the Wyoming range, and religion in Wyoming remains open—as wide-open as the range itself.

Quincy D. Newell is associate professor of religious studies at the University of Wyoming. She is the author of Constructing Lives at Mission San Francisco: Native Californians and Hispanic Colonists, 1776-1821. She thanks Barry A. Kosmin for sharing a more detailed breakdown of the ARIS data with her.

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