“I think it’s important to be available, be accessible, and talk to anybody, and encourage them– because young people need to shoot for the stars and follow their dreams.” – Caroline Mills on mentorship
Caroline Mills is the director of the Fort Washakie Learning Center.
She was born on the Wind River Indian Reservation and is a member of the Eastern Shoshone Tribe.
In this episode, Caroline talks about what it was like to grow up on the Wind River Reservation, the time she met Fidel Castro, and how she imparts her wisdom to young people on the reservation.
Emy DiGrappa: Welcome to First, But Last? bought to you by the Wyoming Humanities, I am your host Emy DiGrappa. Wyoming is called the equality state because we were the first to give women the right to vote. 150 years later, we wonder what Wyoming women think about the progress towards equality now. Let's fine out and thank you for listening.
Emy DiGrappa: Today we are talking to Caroline Mills, she is an American Indian woman living on the Wind River Indian Reservation, welcome Caroline.
Caroline Mills: Hello, glad to be here.
Emy DiGrappa: I'm so happy to finally connect with you. I wanted to ask you, were you born and raised on the Wind River Indian Reservation?
Caroline Mills: Yes I was. I was born in Lander, Wyoming and I attended most of my elementary, um, grades in Fort Washakie and then I attended high school in Lander.
Emy DiGrappa: Oh okay. And then where did you go get your degree?
Caroline Mills: Well, when you grow up on the reservation and there's not much to do you want to get away, and so I got peer pressured into going to Haskell Indian Junior College in Kansas, for my AA degree in liberal arts and then I transferred to Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington for my bachelor’s degree in Indian Studies and then I came back to Wyoming for my masters at the University for Educational Leadership.
Emy DiGrappa: And so what have you been, I mean I know that you've been working very instrumentally with young American Indian students. Tell me what you do with them on a day to day basis?
Caroline Mills: Well, I'm currently the director of the Fort Washakie Learning Center and um, I've been working there for 20 years and the primary focus of my job there is high school equivalency instructor, so I do a lot of math and a little bit of English and some reading.
Emy DiGrappa: And what best describes growing up on a reservation?
Caroline Mills: Well, in my day, you know, back in the day, we didn't have a home telephone and of course back then it was the dial up, you dial it and you know, you've got to wait for it to ring and I believe people that did have one had the party line, so you had to know how many rings before you answered, but of course people listened in. We had three TV stations, black and white TV and sometimes Billy Graham was on all three so of course I didn't spend a lot of time watching TV.
Caroline Mills: I spent a lot of time outside, I was always next door playing with my cousins and you know, just being outside all the time and, but um, I knew when to go home. When the sun was going down, when I would see it right above the mountains I said, "I gotta go home," so I'd run home. Had to be home before dark.
Caroline Mills: And I grew up just, you know, playing with, um, rocks by the river. We, you know, we had nice shaped rocks that we could use for like houses and cars and sticks for people and one time we left a few of the toys my cousin had along the river and guess what? Spring run-off came and away went what little we had. Um, I used to walk over to my aunt's, I lived on South Fork Road, my aunt lived on Trout Creek Road. I had to cross the canal, but I would sit up on this hill above Sacajawea Cemetery and I would watch the community of Fort Washakie go by and you know, not a lot of cars back then, but I would look at the ants and they were all lined up going somewhere, and later in life when I first came across or got familiar with a freeway, today that is what I think of when I see all these cars going somewhere and they're all following each other, I think of those ants.
Caroline Mills: And um, you know, my mom and her sisters would go berry picking, so at an early age I was checking all the bushes to see which ones were ready to pick and to this day, I still love to go gather berries. In fact, when I got married, my aunt gave me the Indian name of [inaudible 00:04:26] which means, berry woman or berry picker.
Emy DiGrappa: Well and you were telling me that you are working to restore the [inaudible 00:04:36] ancestral food gathering. Tell me about that.
Caroline Mills: Well, the um, University of Wyoming got a grant and it's a two year grant and what it is we're planning to do a study and it's supposed to happen this winter, maybe February/March, and what they want to do is, um, do two groups of people, 10 people will eat 50% traditional Shoshone diet and then 10 will be the control group. And then they'll eat Shoshone traditional food just for that month and then another group will do it and then they're going to do all the tests that they need to see if it makes a difference. And so we've been out once a month we, we gather together and we go and see what's ripe or what's available and then we gather it.
Caroline Mills: And we've been drying it, we've been freezing the meats, and some of it like choke cherries we grind up, make choke cherry patties, and, and we'll use that in our berry gravy or our berry pudding.
Emy DiGrappa: Oh wow, so has that brought back memories for you?
Caroline Mills: Actually I've learned quite a bit. I mean, I knew a lot about the berries, but I didn't know a lot about the roots, um, we were out looking for, um, wild onions and I had completely forgot about knowing what that plant was and then after we started gathering it I remember, I could tell a wild onion just by walking through the field because I could smell it. And so during that class meeting we all learned a good lesson, plants are very similar and you have to know the exact plant you're gathering because some are poisonous, so we learned the difference between a wild onion and another one.
Caroline Mills: And you know, of course plants at different stages look different, so sometimes you gather 'em early, sometimes you get, um, the root, sometimes you get the leaves, and sometimes you get the whole plant and when you take the whole plant, like the root, you have to be mindful of only taking a few and leaving some so that they'll come back next year.
Emy DiGrappa: That's really interesting and so I've heard that a lot of the Native American people are trying to return to the ancestral food gathering, has that been your experience?
Caroline Mills: Yes I think it's something going, um, going on all across the United States and you know, it's just going be so beneficial to the people because first of all you'll be getting exercise because it's a lot of hard work trying to dig up those roots, especially if you're digging a biscuit root out in the Red Desert, man that was like digging a hole for a post, you had to go almost a foot deep, and just, you know, eating the healthy foods that are, haven't been processed and got all this chemical’s on 'em. Um, and hopefully people will not continue buying junk food that really has no benefit to good health.
Emy DiGrappa: Well that's true. Which, which has been so detrimental for the Native Americans, especially.
Caroline Mills: And it's free, that's the best thing is it's free but you do have to get out there, so, again, by gathering you do have to put a little exercise and hard work and sweat and um, but, you know, it all comes together to be a healthy person. We just need to start convincing the younger people that this is the way to go.
Emy DiGrappa: Oh, that is such a great goal. So you've been working for 15 years with youth on the reservation, and who has influenced you most when it comes to your approach to work?
Caroline Mills: Well I would have to say my husband, he's been, um, gone 18 years now but when I first met him I was kind of a quiet Wyoming native that, you know, didn't know about the rest of the United States because we were so secluded, what Casper Star was the main paper, didn't even read the paper back then but, he was an Indian activist and, you know, he was my opposite. He was, he had a gift of gab, don't give him the microphone, and I was just a quiet listener. And because of him I've learned to speak up for what is right.
Caroline Mills: And one good example was, I don't know, maybe seven, eight years ago I went in to renew my license tabs for my vehicle, and you have to go to the country court house in Landor. Well, there's a place you line up, you know, for the next person. So I was standing in line and waiting because that lady had just finished, uh, with one person and she was putting her paperwork, you know, finishing up. So I was kind of waiting for her to say, "Next person please." But at that moment, when I was standing there, a rancher lady came in.
Caroline Mills: She was probably in her 80s, a local non-Indian rancher, and instead of getting in line, she went right to the counter. And normally I have respect for the elders or the older people and I would have, you know, normally just said nothing and let her go up front, but something inside me said, "Say something." So I said, "Excuse me, there's a line here."
Caroline Mills: And she looked at me with a dirty look and said, "Hm." Like I had the nerve to say that. And so she had to get in back of the line and there was two or three people behind me, and I got to go up first, but you know, I had never done that before. And um, that was ... I just had a good feeling after that, like it was the right thing to do, because in Wyoming, I think growing up we've always just been quiet people. We've never protested really, we've never said anything like, "That's wrong." We've just kind of accepted things the way they were. I always thought it felt like it was a norm, you just be quiet and listen to directions and do what you're told.
Caroline Mills: But um, like one time at the Landor Hospital I went in for emergency for something, and um, I was talking to the nurses and doctors that were there and they said it's interesting because one lady came from the back east and she couldn't believe how we were treated and it was because most people that go there have insurance. Well, a lot of us use Indian Health Service and so it's like the government's paying for our health care and she said the Native people were kind of had to wait and they, you know, treated the non-Indian people first and she just couldn't believe it, how, how we were treated and how, um, it was accepted.
Emy DiGrappa: So going from that perspective right there in that experience, how do you view yourself as a woman living in Wyoming? And as a Native American woman? What do you think are some of the challenges and differences and things that you've learned along the way?
Caroline Mills: Well, I've learned that there's two tribes here and instilled in some of the older people there's just this, I wouldn't call it a negative thing, but there, there's a hatred for the other tribe. And when I was growing up, my Shoshone people, we would talk about the neighbors, the Arapahos, and I had girlfriends that I grew up in high school and I would be at their house and their family would be talking about the Shoshones and then when I would show up they would quit talking, but it, it didn't bother me, you know. I knew it was going both ways.
Caroline Mills: But when I, my first teaching job at Saint Stephen's Indian High School, um, my people would ask me, "Why aren't you working up here with your own people?" And I'd, I'd have to tell them, "Well there's no openings. When you're in secondary education you have to have an opening in your field." And my field at that time was social studies. But I got a lot of that, and then as time went on now I'm working with my own tribe so I, I feel like I'm giving back to my own people.
Caroline Mills: Other challenges, um ... well another example was when I moved back to Wyoming, I was living in Washington State, I moved back in '97 and I applied for, um, the director of a higher education program and the only reason it was available was because the current director put his name in for, um, to run for the Shoshone business counsel. Well he got elected and so his position became vacant, so I applied and I was um, I was hired. After two years he got his job back, and I was like, "Okay, what do I do?" Uh, you know, I don't have a title, I don't have a name, luckily they kept me on the payroll and that's when our post office, um, a new one was built and that little building that was our old post office was vacant.
Caroline Mills: Well a local, um, young man put in a good word for college students and said, "Indian students have to drive 35 miles one way to the local community college." He said, "They need access to computers," and so our leaders decided the learning center would be in that building where there was computers, and the business council wanted me to put me in there right away. But I said, nope. I said, "I want to hear it from my people." I said, "You need to advertise for a position, I will apply, and you can select the best candidate."
Caroline Mills: Well, we went through the motions and I was hired, but you know, I just, when people don't follow rules and don't let people know there's a vacancy it, it bothers me and so at that time, I said I would not take the position unless they advertised so they advertised. And nobody had nothing to complain about like I was picked special for that.
Emy DiGrappa: So do you, do you feel there's been any kind of challenges for you as a woman specifically?
Caroline Mills: Well, I'm the type of person that if I see a challenge, I'm going to tackle it, I'm going to go around obstacles, and I'm going to, um, you know, try to get the job done. I really can't think of too many challenges other than the weather, I guess, but not yeah, I'm, I'm just that kind of a determined person that it's like, what? You're telling me no? Okay, we'll see about that. So-
Emy DiGrappa: (Laughs)
Caroline Mills: Find, find unique ways of going around whatever obstacle it is and then um, you know, just be a little squeaky wheel and pretty soon they get tired of me and, you know, eventually though I convince them to see it my way, which is usually the right thing to do for the people. I'm all about the people, it's for the people. I share everything, I share knowledge, I share, um, my building is open to anyone, doesn't matter what color, race, well you have to be 13 on up to come in by yourself, but even tourists come in and one, one time two people came in and they couldn't even speak English but we figured out they needed a computer, so.
Emy DiGrappa: Oh, I admire that Caroline. Tell me, I, I want to hear a story because you told me at one time in your life you met Fidel Castro. And so I wanted you to tell me that story.
Caroline Mills: Okay well I was living in Washing State in the 70s and um, there was going to be an international youth festival in Havana, Cuba in 1978 and so somebody threw my name in and all of the sudden I was selected to go. And I used to play basketball, but I never played high school basketball because that didn't start until after I graduated, so I played Indian ball and I traveled, you know, different reservations in Washington state, Oregon, even up to Canada, and um, when I went to Cuba, of course I had to get a passport, never had a passport, but we traveled to New York City and in New York City I met up with about 20 other natives from around the US.
Caroline Mills: Then we traveled by bus up to Canada, and then we flew to Cuba because at that time you couldn't fly directly to Cuba from the US. Well during that week there was all kinds of workshops and gatherings and several of us got on this bus because we wanted to go hear Fidel Castro, he was talking to the people and um, we had our little transistor radios because they were supposed to translate in Spanish, we didn't speak Spanish. And um, that evening of course, our little radios didn't work, but we enjoyed just watching the whole event. And alcoholism is so bad in the United States with Indian people we choose as a group of 20 to now, um, drink alcohol and at all the receptions and at all the meals in Cuba they served rum.
Caroline Mills: So we were leaving early instead of going to the reception and when we left, um, that area there was Fidel Castro in his Jeep and he was sitting there and he had armed guards. And I was like, "Oh my gosh, I'm so close," and so I was right in front of his Jeep and I had this bag I was carrying stuff in, you know, you just want to carry what little money you had and maybe some pamphlets or whatever you gathered. And my bag touched the front of his Jeep. And he pointed at me. And it was like, "Oh, oh my gosh."
Caroline Mills: And my heart felt like it was coming out of my chest. And then the guy he was talking to had the people move back away from the Jeep and he, um, you know kind of escorted me right in front of him, or right next to him, because he was in the passenger side of front of the Jeep, and he spoke to me in English um, I had to really listen because, it was, you know, I, I, first of all I couldn't speak. I was so deathly scared because four armed guards around the Jeep, he had two in the back seat and they all had rifles, and I could barely talk. And when he asked me, he goes, "Are you going to your bus, your bus?" And I nodded. And then he said, "Where are you staying?" And I pointed way over there and then, um, it was just like I was speechless because I thought that um, you know, something bad was going to happen.
Caroline Mills: And, but he asked me three questions, and I did the best I could without even speaking a word, but I did say, "Can I take a picture?" But I was so close my first one didn't have, it was a disposable camera, it didn't have a flash, the flash didn't go off. The second one, but, we did take it but I was so close I got cut out, so when I got back to Washington state I went to a photographer and he put me in, but I think the reason that he pointed at me was I had a cloth dress on because of the Cuban weather was pretty hot in the summer. I had my hair braided, I had moccasins on, and medallion, and I was the only one he, he spoke to but, I had told my friend later, "Why didn't you tell me to ask him can we get 10 minutes of your time as a, a group of us?"
Caroline Mills: But um, what was also interesting that week in Cuba is the US had a flag and they were, every country was going to parade in with a flag, right? Well the Native people we said, "Well we don't have a flag." So we found a sheet and of course we put the medicine wheel on there and we were at the tail end of the US delegation, which was about 200 people. And our picture got put in the Havana people three times that week. Us, the Indian people. And um, a lot of the US delegates that were non-Indian, they didn't really like that that we had gotten so much attention.
Caroline Mills: But what I remember from that whole visit was that he said that we lived in the belly of the monster. And that's kind of stayed with me.
Emy DiGrappa: Wow. That's a great story. Thank you for sharing that.
Caroline Mills: Yeah and three ladies, um, three of us got, um, interviewed and I have the article but it's all in Spanish and I don't read, you know, I don't read it, I don't speak Spanish, but I'll have to get it translated sometime. And the other person that got interviewed, but she wasn't there when we encountered Fidel Castro, was Winona LaDuke, she was probably about 19 years old at that time, so I think that also influenced her life.
Emy DiGrappa: Well it sounds like it. That would be a life moment. So my last question to you is, as a Native American woman, how are you imparting wisdom to young women on the reservation to succeed and, and have a, you know, have a good self-image?
Caroline Mills: Well I guess by being a role model, a good listener, I take time out because I, you know, the teenagers are the group I enjoy being around because when they say, "Oh, I'm bored." I'll say, "Only boring people are bored." And I said, "There's so much to do around here. What kind of hobbies you got?"
Caroline Mills: And I'll just kind of find out what they do and I'll ever offer to have them come to my home if they want to learn how to bead or learn how to sew, bake, you know just do different things that maybe they don't do in their home but of course nobody really takes me up on it. But I think just by putting your head up, and walking tall and um, I guess walking the talk, you don't just talk about something, you actually do it because I was involved with a youth group for ... oh, over 15 years, my, when my husband was alive there was a tragic accident on the reservation. I think it was in '98. Six teenagers stole a truck in Landor and they left, um, were headed to the reservation, they missed a curb, out of six kids, five of them got killed and that's when my husband said, "There's nothing to do for teenagers." So we started a, um, youth group and we called it, uh, the Rocky Mountain Youth Parent Organization. We really felt we had to use the word 'parent' as well because they needed to be involved in their own children's lives.
Caroline Mills: And when my husband passed away in, in 2001, I, I continued on with the youth group for about another 14, 15 years and we received funding out of an organization in Cleveland, Ohio, it's called International Partners in Mission. And um, I was a project coordinator and we, I would try to do one activity a month for the teenagers like, take them to a movie, we took them to, every summer I took them to the mountains. And we brought horses up and we went swimming and hiking and fishing and camped out and that was a favorite, went to [Thermopolis 00:23:50] and took them rafting, took them to Yellowstone Park, took them to the Medicine Wheel by [inaudible 00:23:54], we took them, um ...
Caroline Mills: And two of the main trips we took over the years was, one we took seven teenagers to Cleveland, Ohio. And after a week of activities there, I found out that Niagara Falls is only a two hour drive away and I said, "Two hours, that's nothing." So I said, "We're going." So I took them to Niagara Falls because I figured some, some of the may never see that on their own.
Caroline Mills: And then the last trip we took was we took three, um, three young girls to um, San Francisco for a Native Youth conference. But me and, uh, another lady who was the chaperone, we figured out we did over 50 different activities with the teenagers, and some were good and some were flops, but you know, we had to at least try.
Caroline Mills: I started out as a project coordinator, then I became a board member and I worked my way up the board, and so I got to be chair one year, and we had two board meetings, one was in, um, El Salvador. And one was in Nairobi, Kenya. And when we were in El Salvador, we were visiting various projects they supported around the world, and we got let off this little bus to go see a little project, and the bus left. And it was like, "Where's the bus going? Why is it leaving us?"
Caroline Mills: Well that is the, um, territory of a gang I think that's call MS13 that originated down there. And um, then the bus came back and picked us up, but they gave approval for us to go and visit that little project and when we were Nairobi, Kenya, we got to go on a couple safaris and I thought that was just cool because I'd always wanted to do that. You know and I've tried to beautify our community with the youth group. We planted shrubs and trees at the Sacajawea Cemetery, um, I still plant a few flowers in front of our post office because there's really not many flowers and people like that, so I'm really trying to do perennials now so that when I retire there will still be flowers there, but you know, the young people have grown up now and um, they're parents now, but you know I think it's just important to be available, be accessible and talk to anybody and, and encourage them because young people need to shoot for the stars and follow their dreams and, and I guess my advice to, um, young women is, get your education first and start a family later. It's just harder when you're trying to go to school and you have kids to take care of.
Emy DiGrappa: Yes, that's some good advice. Caroline, it has been such a pleasure talking to you. You are such an inspiration. Thank you so much.
Caroline Mills: You're welcome.
Caroline Mills: Thank you for listening to First, But Last?, brought to you by the Wyoming Humanities. Please join us again next week as we continue our conversations with women from around the state. You can also find us at thinkwy.org where we continue the conversation on our blog about the history, journey, and the challenges of Wyoming's intrepid women living in the equality state. And if you enjoyed this episode, please subscribe to the show and leave us a review on iTunes. Thank you for listening.
“Get your education first and start a family later.” – Caroline Mill’s advice for young women