Origins of Sho-Rap firefighting crews detailed in new book published on 50th anniversary

Jul 16, 2017 By Alejandra Silva, Staff Writer

Robin Whiteplume, an enrolled Northern Arapaho, has released his first published book, "Sho-Rap Highway The Native American Firefighters of Wind River."

Whiteplume believes the book is a first of its kind, although he received crucial guidance from forest fire writer John Maclean, who also expressed interest in writing a book about American Indian firefighters.

"He became a mentor to me and pointed me in the right direction to get the book published by Kelly Andersson of Andersson Publishing," Whiteplume said.

The book is a culmination of six years of research covering archives, online searches, and oral stories gathered by Whiteplume on the formation of the Wind River forestry program in 1967 and the Sho-Rap firefighting crews of the Wind River Indian Reservation.

Creating the book became an eventful journey for Whiteplume, who also obtained additional information from newspapers, historical books, libraries and from former Wind River forester Roy Montgomery and Karl Brauneis, a retired U.S. Forest Service officer.

Whiteplume explained that the book tells the story of the Sho-Rap firefighters' struggles to adapt to a changing world right at home that eventually required them to step up and create the crews to fight fires.

"The nation's native populations already had experience in the wildlands of America, and their abilities with fire are well documented, but the means to integrate them into firefighting world took some help," Whiteplume said. "Although the nation's tribes had problems with white settlement and the armed forces that protected them, it took training and resources from the government to marshal the native fire crews into action on a large scale."

The book includes photos contributed by local people Lydell Whiteplume, Darren Willow, Duane Oldman and Ken Metzler of the Wyoming Fire Academy.

The Billings Gazette and National Archives in Colorado also made contributions. Whiteplume said most photos were taken with non-digital cameras so Lander photographer Sara Wiles assisted in enhancing the photos to acceptable printing standards.

The book tells the story of how wild land firefighting really began during the Civilian Conservation Corps era of the 1930s and intensified with crews being formed in the southwest United States then through the mountain and northwest areas.

"As of 2017, the Sho-Raps have been in formal existence for 50 years and have yielded thousands of fire veterans and generated millions of dollars in wages throughout the years," he said.

While he worked on the book, Whiteplume also put several seasons into fighting fires throughout the west on a private contract engine.

"While out I noticed that there was less native fire crew involvement than I remembered from the past," he said. "One fire supervisor in Idaho asked me, 'Where are all the Indian crews?' I had no answer."

Whiteplume noted that there are tougher physical standards being asked of new firefighters, and he himself was disqualified because of his use of a CPAP machine, used mainly at home for the treatment of sleep apnea.

"To have survived decades of large-scale firefights and to be retired because of a sleep malady, I understand why so many may have stepped back from a profession that was so good to us in the past," he said.

"Still I would like to see younger, physically able individuals step up to keep the Sho-Rap firefighting legacy intact."

He first trained to be a firefighter with the Sho-Rap crews out of Fort Washakie in 1985. He worked with them seasonally until 1999 when he joined the Bureau of Indian Affairs as an engine crew member and eventually as a fire prevention specialist. He left that position with the BIA in 2009.

Whiteplume now has a contract in place for a second book, which he said he will pursue after marketing for the first book is underway. Whiteplume described his experience as a published author as "refreshing" since he used to have trouble putting 500 word essays together in high school. It was hard work but well worth being able to say there's a book out there about the Sho-Rap firefighters, he said.

"This was never about me and my experiences but to document that our crews existed, the struggles to get us organized, and the need for natives to further contribute to protections of our wildlands," he said. "The literary area related to Native Americans and their forest firefighting is still relatively void of new material. I hope that this writing inspires others to explore and expand the research into the contributions of Native Americans and their historical contributions to wildland firefighting."

The book is for sale at Mr. D's Food Center in Lander, the Fremont County Pioneer Museum in Lander, Wind River Trading Company in Fort Washakie and the Wind River Hotel and Casino's gift shop.

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