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Hickenlooper criticized for wearing Native American headdresses at Wyoming hunt

Democratic candidate hears "red face" allegations after 2018 photos spread

Former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper faces off against former state House speaker Andrew Romanoff for a debate in the studio of Denver7 in Denver on Tuesday, June 16, 2020.
Former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper faces off against former state House speaker Andrew Romanoff for a debate in the studio of Denver7 in Denver on Tuesday, June 16, 2020.

U.S. Senate candidate John Hickenlooper has faced criticism in the days leading up to the primary election for attending, on at least five occasions, a Wyoming antelope hunt at which white men wear Native American headdresses.

Native American activists accused Hickenlooper, a former Democratic governor, of engaging in “red face” after photos from the 2018 One Shot Antelope Hunt spread online. As part of the annual hunt, which dates back to 1939 and historically has involved only white men, hunters are given an “Indian name” and a medicine bag. Winners are presented with a warbonnet and losers wear a woman’s headscarf.

“Gov. Hickenlooper displayed an unacceptable lack of judgement in choosing to participate in this event, while disrespecting indigenous women and appropriating traditional dress of Native peoples,” wrote activist Xiuhtezcatl Martinez in a recent open letter online.

After easily winning Tuesday’s Democratic primary, Hickenlooper will face Sen. Cory Gardner, a Yuma Republican, in November. Ammar Moussa, a spokesman for Hickenlooper, says criticisms of Hickenlooper’s participation in the antelope hunt are “deeply disappointing” attempts to misrepresent his respect for Native American people and their traditions. Hickenlooper was the first Colorado governor to apologize for the Sand Creek Massacre, Moussa noted.

“This was a longstanding, traditional hunt,” Hickenlooper told Colorado Public Radio on Thursday. “The headdress was placed on my head by the hunt chief, Chief Shoyo. Had I not allowed him to do that, he would have been offended. It was a very complicated situation.” He said he will not go to the hunt again.

Elders in the federally recognized Eastern Shoshone Tribe of Wyoming preside over some elements of the One Shot Antelope Hunt closing ceremony, including the presentation of headdresses. Alejandra Robinson, a spokeswoman for the tribe, said respected elders take part but there are mixed feelings about the ceremony among tribal members.

“I would say most tribal members find it disrespectful to place a warbonnet on a hunt winner — as he is white — but there isn’t a big outcry or huge opposition, probably because it’s been happening for years,” she said. “That’s me speculating.”

One detail that is unclear is whether women at the One Shot Antelope Hunt are still called “squaws,” now considered to be a racial slur. Press reports suggest the term may have been used as recently as 2013, when former Vice President Dick Cheney reportedly said losers must “dance with an Indian squaw” after the hunt. Organizers of the event did not comment when asked if the word is still used.

“Our people have enjoyed a warm and friendly relationship with the One Shot and we have a lot of fun poking fun at the hunters by giving them official Shoshone Indian names and having the celebration after the hunt where we honor the successful hunters,” said Arlen Shoyo, the Shoshone elder who takes part in the event. The statement from Shoyo was provided by the Hickenlooper campaign.

A 2012 episode of “Wyoming Chronicle,” a public broadcasting show, shows Hickenlooper dressed in a pink headscarf and standing next to then-Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead. The two, along with other hunt participants, shuffle their feet alongside female tribal members in an apparent Native American dance.

“It looks like he’s playing along with other non-Native men, making fun of and mocking Native women,” said Crystal Echo Hawk, a Coloradan and CEO of IllumiNative, a nonprofit which combats negative narratives and stereotypes about Natives in media. “It is so deeply hurtful at a time when we are, as Native people, dealing with an epidemic of missing and murdered indigenous women and girls.”

Keith Michael Harper, a member of Democratic National Committee and the first Native American to be appointed a U.S. ambassador, called it “a very bad look” for Hickenlooper on Twitter. And the Association of American Indian Affairs shared criticisms of Hickenlooper on its social media accounts as well.

Hickenlooper’s teams lost the hunt in 2011, 2012 and 2015 but he was on a winning team in 2016 and 2018, according to the event’s website. His predecessor, former Democratic Gov. Bill Ritter, competed in 2007, 2008 and 2009. Of the past 15 Colorado governors, 11 competed in the antelope hunt at least once.

“I’m a great believer that it is very important to be competitive on the little things, so you can collaborate and work together on the big things,” Hickenlooper told an interviewer during the 2012 television episode, when referring to a long-running rivalry between the governors of Colorado and Wyoming.

Republican Bill Owens, who was in office from 1999 to 2007, was the last Colorado governor to not attend the hunt at least once. He said Monday that his nonattendance was unrelated to the alleged “red face” behavior there.

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