Photos Of Hickenlooper In Headdress Spark Indigenous Women’s Call For Him To Exit Senate Race Right Before The Primary

Listen Now
4min 36sec
Courtesy of One Shot
Photographs displayed prominently on the “Reigning Champions” section of the One Shot hunting competition website.

Updated 9:41 p.m.

Seven Indigenous women, several of whom are prominent in Indigenous and environmental advocacy, have written a letter demanding that former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper end his bid for the U.S. Senate because of his participation in an annual hunting competition in Wyoming that he attended multiple times, up until 2018, and wore a headdress and a scarf from the Eastern Shoshone Tribe. 

When the letter was published on Sunday, five groups and individuals advocating for Native communities and environmental issues signed on. That number more than doubled to 16 by the end of the day. Some signers have been part of prominent efforts to end the use of Native imagery in mascots. The appeal for Hickenlooper to drop out came just two days before the primary election, in which nearly 600,000 ballots for the Democratic primary have already been returned according to the Colorado Secretary of State’s Office. 

Voters are deciding who will challenge Republican Sen. Cory Gardner this fall: Hickenlooper or former state house Speaker Andrew Romanoff. Several people circulating the letter have strong ties to environmental activism and back Romanoff, who, unlike Hickenlooper, endorses a fracking ban and the Green New Deal. Former Democratic Colorado Rep. Joe Salazar, a vocal Hickenlooper opponent, was first made aware of Hickenlooper’s involvement in the hunting event when someone sent him an anonymous letter in November. Salazar has sponsored legislation supporting Indigenous communities and circulated the document to a few people, but said he wasn’t the person who made Sunday’s letter-signers aware of the images.  

Kandi White, one of the letter’s co-authors, is with the Indigenous Environmental Network. She said she first saw the pictures of Hickenlooper and others at the hunting event last week, after she had a conversation with other people in the environmental movement. 

“I literally felt physically sick. And I was also mad. I was just disgusted that somebody who's supposed to be a prominent figure and is supposed to represent several voices in their community would have that kind of behavior,” said White, a mother of two who currently lives in Montana and is a citizen of the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation. 

She cried over the phone as she explained her feelings about the photographs and was especially upset over an image of Hickenlooper wearing a woman’s scarf. 

“This was just like a slap in the face, rubbing it in of how they made something like this into a game. And that it was funny. And immediately I thought of missing and murdered Indigenous women.” In past years, the event has used a slur for Indigenous women to refer to the “losers” of the hunt, but that term was not known to be used when Hickenlooper participated. Women are not permitted to participate in the One Shot hunting event.

Courtesy of PBS
In a story on PBS’ “Wyoming Chronicle” about the event in 2012, Hickenlooper is shown wearing a shawl-like scarf over his head, which was put on by an Eastern Shoshone woman to denote the "losers" in the antelope hunt.

The letter states that “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,” and that, “throughout the history of colonization, these tropes have been weaponized to subject Indigenous women to sexual violence and dehumanization.” 

The hunt is held on the opening day of antelope season in the vicinity of Lander, Wyoming. Colorado governors have a long history of participating and according to the organization’s website, 11 Colorado governors have attended, starting with Ralph Carr in 1941. In all, governors from 30 states have participated at one time or another.

Hickenlooper’s campaign did not make him available for an interview but campaign spokesman Ammar Moussa gave CPR a comment: "John has longstanding ties with Native communities, was the first governor to apologize for the massacre at Sand Creek, and was honored to be invited to participate in cultural celebrations like this one with the Shoshone tribe. This is a deeply disappointing attempt to misrepresent John's record and ongoing commitment to respecting and honoring Native people and traditions." 

Former Lt. Gov. Joe Garcia, who headed the Colorado Commission on Indian Affairs under Hickenlooper, said the former governor has a strong track record of addressing issues important to Native communities. 

“There are plenty of reasons to disagree with the governor on policy issues, but to mischaracterize an event in which tribal people were involved in to pretend that they weren't and to put this all together I think is deliberately misleading and unfair,” said Garcia.

Xiuhtezcatl Martinez, an Indigenous climate activist and hip hop artist from Boulder, signed the letter and is circulating it online. He disagrees with Garcia’s characterization and said he became aware of the pictures last week. Martinez opposes Hickenlooper’s climate policies and said even if some members of the Eastern Shoshone Tribe support the event, that doesn’t make it OK for Hickenlooper to participate. 

“It’s not about one Native person or a group condoning these actions because the issue is much more systemic. It plays into a much larger thing,” he said. “That’s what we’re calling out, the participation in this larger system. Creating a show for guests is problematic. It’s a struggle Native peoples deal with every day.”

The “One Shot Antelope Hunt” is dubbed as an elite men’s hunting contest that dates back to 1940. 

In recent iterations of the event, in which some citizens of the Eastern Shoshone Tribe participate, the “winners” of the hunt wear a headdress put on by a member of the tribe, and the “losers” wear headscarves put on by an Eastern Shoshone woman and stand or dance with some of the women from the tribe. In photographs and video from a PBS story, as well as photographs from the event’s website, Hickenlooper appears to take on both of those roles over the years, as recently as 2018. The event has traditionally been hosted by the governors of Wyoming and Colorado.  

Hickenlooper’s campaign provided a comment from Arlen Shoyo, an Eastern Shoshone elder who was known as the hunt chief during the event. “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.” Shoyo was not immediately available for an interview.

But a spokeswoman for the Eastern Shoshone Tribe said while some respected members are involved, the Tribe does not host the hunt nor provide any funding, though it does lend the war bonnet to Shoyo for use in the event. “I could also add that from what I've heard here from tribal members, there's mixed feelings when it comes to the act of placing the warbonnet on a hunt winner,” said Public Relations Director Alejandra Robinson.  

“I would say most tribal members find it disrespectful to place a war bonnet 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.” 

In a story on PBS’ “Wyoming Chronicle” about the event in 2012 Hickenlooper is shown wearing a shawl-like scarf over his head. Then, in photographs displayed prominently on the “Reigning Champions” section of the One Shot website, Hickenlooper is wearing a headdress in 2018, when his team won the event. Participants in the hunt are made up of three-man teams, and each man pays $1,600 to participate. The website says hunters hear the “Legend of the Hunt” and are made “blood brothers of the Shoshone Indian Tribe. Each hunter is given an Indian Name, which usually corresponds to his vocation.” 

In an interview with Colorado Public Radio in 2015, Hickenlooper said he wasn’t a regular big game hunter but participated in the One Shot competition because it was a tradition and rivalry between the two states. 

“I think tradition is a big part of it. It's part of Western culture. When you go out to Lander, the dinner the night before, there's a long dance with the Native American tribes of the area, you have a powwow together and they end up blessing each, each hunter has one bullet. And so it is blessed by the Indians. There's a great deal of the traditional Indian lore, kind of mixed in with this. And then you go out and you try it. And let me tell you, it's very, very hard with one shot to kill an antelope.” 

Several tribal citizens say the "ceremonies," including the one blessing the hunters' bullets and the “blood brothers” ceremony, are pageantry, and are not actual Eastern Shoshone traditional ceremonies. 

Not all of Colorado’s governors have participated, and not all have dressed up as Hickenlooper did.

Gov. Jared Polis did not attend the hunt in 2019 and his office said they do not have a record showing that he was invited to participate. 

“My understanding was he didn’t participate because he’s not a hunter and not a big proponent of gun rights,” said Scott Harnsberger, the Executive Vice President of the Water for Wildlife Foundation & One Shot Past Shooters Club. Harnsberger said he’s been affiliated with the event for about 30 years. 

Hickenlooper’s predecessor, Bill Ritter, went to the One Shot event but says he did not wear the Eastern Shoshone headdress or the woman’s scarf. A picture from 2009 on the event’s website shows Shoyo welcoming Ritter, who is wearing an orange baseball hat.  

“I was a very good friend to the Wyoming governor so I went,” said Ritter in an interview on Sunday. Ritter said he attended the first three years he was in office, but skipped the hunt in 2010 to attend a funeral. 

Ritter said he had heard about the losers of the hunt in the past having to dress up as a “squaw,” which is a derogatory term for Indigenous women. But Ritter said he didn’t see or hear anyone using that offensive language the years he attended. Harnsberger told CPR News that term had been used in the past but that “it has been a long time.” In the letter on Sunday, the people who signed say the term “squaw” is “associated with the sexual assault, targeting, dominating, and violation of Native North American Indian women.” 

Ritter said he believed in the past that the event was not culturally sensitive, but that “The three years I was there, I did not witness anything that appeared to me to be culturally insensitive.” 

Ritter, who endorsed Hickenlooper for Senate on June 24, declined to comment on Hickenlooper wearing Eastern Shoshone attire. 

Other former Colorado governors who have attended the hunt include Roy Romer and Dick Lamm. It’s not immediately clear if any of them also dressed in Native attire.  

Garcia, who served as Hickenlooper's lieutenant governor, said there are a lot of different perspectives even within Indigenous communities about whether it would be appropriate to participate as Hickenlooper did. "Some in the native community may say it's always wrong for an Anglo to wear a native headdress. I would say again, as someone who's part native myself, that if the tribe is not only sanctioning it, but involving you, it would be disrespectful to decline to participate. And I think John went along within an event that the tribe was very closely tied to and has been for decades."

Climate and Indigenous advocates are drawing attention to Hickenlooper’s participation in the One Shot event.

One of the seven women who co-authored the letter is a member of the Eastern Shoshone tribe, but she declined to comment for this story. Some of the women are prominent voices in the Indigenous community around issues of climate justice, including White and Tokata Iron Eyes, who is a member of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe. Amanda Blackhorse is a social worker and lead plaintiff on Blackhorse v. Pro-Football, Inc. which seeks to revoke trademark protection for the name of the Washington, D.C., NFL team.

Tara Houska is the co-founder of “Not Your Mascots” a nonprofit which educates people about the harms of stereotyping and promoting positive representation of Native Americans in the public sphere. 

Several progressive environmental groups that are supporting Romanoff in the race against Hickenlooper this week also signed the letter. Hickenlooper does not support a broad moratorium on hydraulic fracturing, and Romanoff does and says it will help protect communities of color. Climate Hawks Vote, 350 Colorado, and the Sunrise Movement are among the groups that have endorsed Romanoff and signed onto the letter condemning Hickenlooper’s actions in the One Shot events. 

Kandi White said that permission from some members of the Eastern Shoshone Tribe doesn’t make the event less racist and she isn’t surprised that the tribal community is conflicted about it.  

“We are oppressed by our own history of oppression to the point where we give up, we get stuck in apathy and we say, there's nothing we can do,” she said. 

“We've been beaten down by every single source that we've ever fought against and ended up on a reservation. There's a sense of, there's nothing you can do. It's almost like if you can't beat them, join them, just forget about your culture, forget about your ways. And that is really sad and scary.”

Wyoming Public Radio Reporter Savannah Maher contributed to this story.

Editor's note: A source has been removed from this story because Hickenlooper's campaign says the interview with the source was on background.