Two small cemeteries - located in this community on the eastern side of the majestic and towering Wind River Mountains in western Wyoming - are visual reminders of the heritage of many Shoshone members of the Wind River Branch.
One cemetery is an old military cemetery and includes the gravesite of Washakie, a Shoshone Indian chief, who befriended the Mormons and eventually was baptized. He spent his later years negotiating for lands and rights for his people on the two-million acre Wind River Reservation.The other cemetery is located a short distance away. This cemetery is now called the Sacajawea Cemetery and includes what is believed to be the gravesite of Sacajawea (also spelled Sacagawea), a Shoshone Indian woman who was a guide for Lewis and Clark on their expedition to the Northwest in 1805-06.
Two of the descendants of Sacajawea and Washakie are in the presidency of the branch that serves the 312 Church members who live on the reservation.
The branch president, Louis Twitchell, is a great-great-great-grandson of Sacajawea on his mother's side through Sacajawea's adopted son, Bazil. Pres. Twitchell, who worked for 33 years for the Bureau of Indian Affairs as manager of the Wind River Irrigation Project, is now a fulltime cattleman, with 500 head of limosine-angus cattle. His second counselor, George Abeyta, is a great-great-grandson of Washakie. Brother Abeyta, a graduate of the University of Wyoming, teaches kindergarten on the reservation.
Most of the Shoshone members of the branch, said Pres. Twitchell, are descendants of either Washakie or Sacajawea. Although there is some disagreement when Sacajawea died and even where she is buried, the grave monuments erected to her and to Chief Washakie in the two Ft. Washakie cemeteries serve as reminders of the proud heritage the Shoshones in this area have. (Some accounts have Sacajawea's death date as early as 1812. Other accounts have her dying much later in 1884, which is the death date on the cemetery monument. Chief Washakie died in 1900.)
"We're really proud of our heritage," declared the 63-year-old branch president, who is a fourth-generation Mormon. But being a fourth-generation Native American member here is unusual. Most of them are first and second-generation members, he said.
The Wind River Reservation, which was established in 1868, is home to principally two Native American tribes, the Shoshone and Arapaho. However, because of tribal intermarriage through the years, Indians of several tribes now live on the reservation, as do many white families who own private land on the reservation.
Twelve years after the reservation was established, Amos R. Wright was called in 1880 on a month-long mission to the Wind River Reservation, one of many missions to the Indians to which he was called over a period of 20 years. During his 1880 Wind River mission, he baptized some 300 Indians including Chief Washakie. (Ensign, August 1982.)
However, Pres. Twitchell said, after the 1880s there was little Church activity on the reservation until about the 1930s. Members of the Twitchell and Enos families became the backbone of the Church in the area during that period. Today, Frank L. Enos, also a descendant of Washakie, is bishop of the Lander 1st Ward in nearby Lander.
A small white frame church house - the first LDS meetinghouse in Wyoming's Fremont County - was built in Ft. Washakie in the 1930s. The meetinghouse was used until it was sold by the Church some years later when the branch was dissolved. In the late 1970s, the branch was reorganized and in 1983 a new brick meetinghouse was constructed. "The brick building has a permanence to it. It says `We are here to stay,' " commented Pres. Twitchell. A new addition to the meetinghouse, which will enable the building to house two wards or branches, is now being constructed onto the rear of the structure.
The Wind River Branch is composed of about 70 percent Native Americans and Cemetery monuments are visual reminders of Shoshone heritage about 30 percent white, roughly the same percentage as those living on the reservation, explained the branch president. Most of the leadership positions in the branch are held by Native Americans, including the presidents of the elders quorum, Relief Society, Primary, Young Men and Young Women.
Pres. Twitchell has been branch president for eight years, and has seen many challenges as well as blessings during that time.
"Being branch president is one of the greatest callings I've had," he said. "There is so much work, but it is so gratifying to see families grow in the gospel. The greatest blessings are diligently working with families and then seeing them go to the temple and be sealed."
Temple work and family history work are catching on in the branch. "We try to make a trip to the temple as a branch every couple of months," said Pres. Twitchell. The branch, a unit of the Riverton Wyoming Stake, is in the Ogden (Utah) Temple District, about a six-hour drive. During the branch's first temple trip in 1993, three members from the branch attended the temple. During the next temple trip, 34 went.
"That was a real turning point," related Kevin McNiven, a former counselor in the branch presidency who now lives in Colorado. "The branch is gaining a testimony of the spirit of Elijah." Brother McNiven was instrumental in helping the branch set up its family history records.
Family history work among Native Americans is "quite a challenge," said Pres. Twitchell, "because they generally don't have written genealogies." However, he continued, about 50 percent of the branch is now involved in researching their families. In addition to using Church family history records, branch members are able to access what written records are available on their direct ancestors at the Bureau of Indian Affairs office in Ft. Washakie.
Interest in family history work in the branch was heightened when branch members participated in the stake's handcart pioneer "Second Rescue" efforts. (Please see Oct. 19, 1991, Church News.) "Twenty-nine of our people were involved in that effort," said Pres. Twitchell.
Continuing, he remarked that one of his greatest challenges as branch president is activation. He explained that many Indian powwows are held on the weekends "not only here but elsewhere," which many Native Americans participate in.
"In our activation efforts, we really stress home teaching and visiting teaching," Pres. Twitchell said. But because the branch covers such a vast area, stretching 45 miles north and south and 40 miles east and west, visits are often difficult to make. "Keeping members informed is the secret of a successful branch," the branch president exclaimed.
Pres. Twitchell mentioned the branch holds several activities for the youth. "They spend a lot of time visiting the elderly, helping with yard work and taking goodies to them," he said. The branch has also "adopted" three miles of U.S. Highway 287, which runs in front of the meetinghouse, and the youth participate in the cleanup of the highway.
Several of the 25 young women and 30 young men in the branch hold youth leadership positions in the stake.
During the eight years that Pres. Twitchell has been branch president eight missionaries have been called from the branch. Seven of them were Native Americans.
"The Wind River Branch is a fantastic branch," commented Riverton stake Pres. R. Scott Lorimer. "They have a good spirit, and the members are very close to each other."