By Marit Gookin

Staff Writer

Albertina Isis had a variety of baked goods on offer at the Wind River Farmers’ Market this past Thursday. Banana bread is her biggest seller, she explained, followed by rice krispie treats. Photos by Marit Gookin

Big things are happening in Fort Washakie and around the Wind River Reservation; tribally-focused organizations such as the Wind River Development Fund (WRFD) and the Wind River Food Sovereignty Project have been hard at work to increase their visibility and expand what they can offer their communities. This past Thursday, WRFD and the Food Sovereignty Project collaborated on an open house, inviting the public to come into the Frank B. Wise Business Center and visit with some of the organizations represented there. On offer were free root beer floats from the WRDF and pulled pork sandwiches for purchase from the Food Sovereignty Project; additionally, the project’s weekly farmers’ market operated as usual outside in the parking lot. 

Kathleen Thomas, who neighboring vendor Albertina Isis described as “The Great Salsa Lady,” is a fixture at the Wind River Farmers Market. “That’s about all they come for, is my salsa,” Thomas joked. She also offers other homemade foods such as soup, and additionally sells her daughter’s beadwork and goat soaps and butter at her booth; they are looking into expanding into also selling goat milk ice cream. Wind River Food Sovereignty is hoping to have a certified commercial kitchen for community use at some point in the future, which would allow people like Thomas to begin selling their goods at stores such as Mr. D’s in Lander.

The Wind River Development Fund has been operating for about 20 years, explained Director of Development Erika Yarber, but has experienced some ebbs and flows during that time. Its mission, however, has never wavered: “To help generate some economic development within our community,” Yarber said. 

While the WRDF is a Native-run and Native-focused organization, it doesn’t just serve people who live on the reservation. It is intended to provide what Yarber described as “wraparound financial services” to people throughout Fremont County, offering everything from loans to financial coaching to free Excel classes. While the organization’s focus has largely been on small businesses and individual financial endeavors in the past, it is now also expanding into offering mortgages and helping people navigate the Bureau of Indian Affairs’ Housing Improvement Program.

Wind River Food Sovereignty, on the other hand, is focused on improving access to healthy food on the Wind River Reservation. It does this through a variety of programs, including farmers’ markets held in Fort Washakie and Saint Stephens, grants to help support producers, cooking and food safety projects and will soon have its own demonstration garden. 

Founded by Dr. Hank Herrera in 2018, the Food Sovereignty Project’s initial concern was health. The Wind River Reservation, like many reservations around the country, can be considered a food desert, meaning that access to groceries is limited within the boundaries of the reservation. The food that is available is often snacks and junk food; fresh produce has often been difficult for people who live on the reservation to access without driving to Lander or Riverton. This has an impact on health, and often correlates with higher rates of diabetes and heart disease, co-director Kelly Pingree explained. The Food Sovereignty Project works to improve both access to fresh, locally-produced food and the ability of people in the area to produce this food. 

Aside from both projects helping to fund small businesses, there doesn’t seem to be an immediate connection between the two organizations – however, the two groups have a similar outlook and emphasis on improving the community by supporting local endeavors and increasing access to relevant resources and education. The WRDF works with CWC to offer free Excel and Quickbooks classes; the Food Sovereignty Project offers food safety and food processing and preservation classes. The two have even collaborated on past projects, offering grants to local producers and working to connect people trying to start up their own farms or agricultural businesses with local mentors. 

“It’s been really great to work with them,” commented Wind River Food Sovereignty Project Co-Director Livy Lewis. “A lot of different groups are doing very good things.” 

Yarber was similarly enthusiastic about the work that the Food Sovereignty Project is doing, commenting that the WRDF works with the organization frequently and wants to promote the work it is doing as well. 

The Thursday afternoon open house drew in members of the public, either there for the market or for the promise of free root beer floats. The two organizations also hoped to bring people inside the business center to introduce them to the array of organizations that have offices there, many of which are Native-run as well; both the WRDF and the Food Sovereignty Project are working hard to support Fremont County communities and many of the organizations that are working within them, especially on the reservation.

The Wind River Farmers’ Market is held from 4:30-6:30 p.m. on Tuesdays and Thursdays; at Saint Stephens School on Tuesdays and at the Frank B. Wise Business Center on Thursdays. A booth at the farmers’ market costs $5 per day or $20 for the season. The WRDF’s next upcoming free class will be a free Excel class on September 6, offered in collaboration with CWC, at the Frank B. Wise Business center. Advanced registration is appreciated; email to register.