The Wind River Range outside of Wyoming is an undeniably wild and beautiful corner of the world, with some remarkable fishing too. However, the Wind River Indian Reservation experiences hardship and pain more than most in the United States. Indifly, in partnership with Costa Sunglasses and Art Lawson, hopes to establish sustainable fishing opportunities in this breathtaking region to bring opportunity to the Reservation’s people.
Indifly is a non-profit organization that works in remote and fishy locales to create sustainable, world-class fishing destinations–they are the only organization using the transformative power of fly fishing to create sustainable livelihoods for indigenous communities. Indifly began out of a Costa project far removed from any semblance of modern society years ago. Today, the organization has an impressive track record of leveraging amazing fisheries to improve indigenous livelihoods, including Rewa Eco-Lodge in Guyana and Anna Atoll in the French Polynesia.
The Wind River Project is six years in the making, but Indifly, with the help of the Reservation’s sole Fish and Game Director, Art Lawson, is achieving tangible progress to give the Reservation’s estranged youth a new opportunity and a path forward with a community-owned tourism lodge on the Reservation. Art, a lifelong outdoorsman had “always wanted to be a tribal game warden” for as long as he could remember. And that commitment to the outdoors and his community eventually evolved into working with Indifly.
Art knows the hills and streams within the Wind River Range more than most as one of the few wildlife officers on the Reservation. “One time on a 22 mile horseback trip in the backcountry to do a fish survey with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife,” Art said. “This trip was one of the scariest horseback rides I’ve ever been on. As we were riding horses down the mountain with our feet by the horses ears, we were holding on for dear life.” But all this treachery was worth it. “The cutthroat and golden trout fishing was amazing–I caught fish about every cast. To spend a week in the backcountry where not too many people go was a trip of a lifetime.” Art also know his community’s hardships well.
The 2.3 million acre Wind River Reservation is home to Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapaho Tribes and is rich in cultures and natural resources. However, the unfortunate reality is this Reservation, much like others throughout the United States, is also subject to extreme poverty, contributing to estranged and, oftentimes, troubled youth.
“Here on the Wind River Reservation, there is a lot of substance abuse with drugs and alcohol,” explained Art, “and, the unemployment rate is around 80 percent.”
As a community, “we don’t accept change,” added Art. “A lot of Reservations depended on the government to do everything for them after being cornered onto Reservations. To change the mindset of tribal members is a challenge, after being told what to do for years. But the best way to change things is with the youth.” That’s why Art and Indifly are working with the Reservation’s youth with after school programs and training opportunities to learn about fishing and becoming a guide.
Flyorlds: Helping Reservation youth is a huge part of the Indifly project. How is that progressing so far andwhat do you hope to accomplish?
Art: The progress with the tribal youth has skyrocketed. With the help from Indifly we have been able to reach kids through so many different ways with the outdoors. We have the funding to get a fly rod into kids hands, bring in hunting dogs, drones, and other outdoor filming opportunities. We have noticed there’s a lot more kids getting involved with the Tribal fish and game program, and there are more kids signing up for fly fishing classes and mule deer and bighorn sheep capturers.
Art jokingly acknowledged a slight resistance to the Indifly idea, but after several years of Indifly’s Director Matt Shilling persistence he came around and saw the opportunity to fundamentally breath life into his community. “There was this crazy white guy that walked into my office and promised me the world,” Art said. “He told me he was going to build a fishing lodge, educate the youth on conservation, and help me save lives, and then he was just going to walk away, and the tribes would be 100 percent owners of the lodge…I laughed at him for about 3 years and kept wondering what was in it for him. Then I figured I better learn how to fly fish because this guy wasn’t leaving.”
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And Matt, too, acknowledged this. He wanted to go at it methodically, because there is a fair hesitation among Indian Reservations to ‘outsiders’ coming in and trying to help. But that’s why Indifly and Costa’s progress is so commendable–they did it the correct way with the help and buy-in of local leaders. Back in October 2018, the Wind River Inter-Tribal Council unanimously approved the project.
Flylords: How did you find about the Wind River Range, and then have the idea to bring Indifly’s sustainability model there?
Matt Shilling, Indifly CEO: While Indifly’s origin story is largely international, we understood from day one the need to serve vital custodians (Indigenous peoples) exists domestically as well. We were originally introduced to the Wind River Reservation through a friend of Indifly board member Pete Vandergrift and quickly fell in love with the people and resources. We aim to create generational change across our pillars of sustainability – sometimes this requires taking the time to build relationships based on trust so we make it a priority. Along the way, we met Art who is extremely passionate about improving his homeland and enrolled members’ lives through the sustainable use of Wind River’s amazing resources. As Art tells it, I just kept showing up. Fast forward to today, and I’m honored to say our relationship is much deeper than the Indifly and Shoshone & Arapaho Fish & Game partnership – it’s a personal relationship I value greatly.
Matt’s perseverance and Art’s acceptance have created an amazing opportunity for the Wind River Reservation. “Working with Matt Shilling with Indifly for the last 6 years has been one of the best life experiences I’ve ever had. To be able to create change on my reservation to make it a better place has always been a high priority. Matt walking into my office 6 years ago has helped me in so many ways–to stay motivated through the tough times. With the efforts from Matt and all the great people from Indifly, I truly believe Tribal fish and Game will make great positive changes in the youth and conservation.”
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Flylords: Can you tell us about your partnership with Costa Sunglasses–how are they assisting y’all’s work in the Wind River Reservation?
Matt Shilling: Indifly and Costa have a long history together. The concept of Indifly started from a Costa-led project to help a village in Guyana. Once we saw the success of the project and realized how this model can 1. create sustainable livelihoods and 2. protect resources and could be adapted to other indigenous homelands around the world, Indifly was born. Costa has been supporting us every step of the way! Costa’s commitment to conservation is deeply rooted in everything they do. They’ve been an important asset to the success of Indifly, not just because of the financial support they provide (which is a huge help!), but the resources, time and talent that they offer as a partner as well. Getting the Wind River Reservation project off the ground has been no small and quick feat, but Costa has been a part of the framework from the get go, and we’re very thankful for the value they bring.
The effort to empower the community and create sustainable livelihoods on the Reservation is well underway. Today, Indifly, Costa, and local tribal partners are excited to see progress towards building a Lodge and continue teaching the communities’ youth about the outdoors. And to demonstrate their strong support for Indifly and the Wind River Reservation, Costa continues their commitment to this project with an annual donation of $50,000 to further these efforts.
Be sure to check out Indifly to learn more and be the first to know when you might be able to visit the Wind River Range.
Photos from Nick Kelly