Reviewed by Tina Jayroe
Howard Zinn & Lois Mottonen Fistfight in the Equality State
By Rodger McDaniel with Lois Mottonen
Dec. 2018, 172 pp, ISBN-13: 978-0-9896405-7-2
Howard Zinn & Lois Mottonen Fistfight in the Equality State is a courageous and timely memoir with a focus on the historic and contemporary discrimination, abuse of power, and unjust practices in Wyoming despite its claim as the “Equality State.” Lois Mottonen (1929–2017) was the daughter of second-generation Finnish immigrants. Her grandparents migrated to Wyoming and her grandfather began work in the mining industry just as Wyoming established its statehood in 1890.
Mottonen’s childhood was one of poverty, and her entire life gave witness to the exploitation of her parents, neighbors, minorities, women, disabled, and immigrant populations. Eventually overcoming these barriers Mottonen become an educated, successful, esteemed, philanthropic, and ultimately outspoken woman.
In 2017 at the age of 88, Mottonen died. But before she did, she chose Wyoming author, lawyer, pastor, and former legislator, Rodger McDaniel, to tell her stories. Specifically, she wanted him to write about the hypocrisy of the state’s motto. Mottonen, like Howard Zinn’s critique of mainstream U.S. history, sought to prove that Wyoming is anything but a society that promotes equality, asserting:
The motto has served as a shield against thoughtful proposals to rein in discrimination. For many, the motto has served as a substitute for genuine equality, an irony encountered frequently in daily Wyoming life. (17)
The book is chock-full of such irony. Along with the woman’s sweet and sometimes uplifting personal memories, such as strangers selflessly helping others survive the two-month Blizzard of ’49, comes the personal trauma of her state’s long record of massacres, hate crimes, wage gaps, lynchings, censorship, mining deaths, internment camps, institutionalizations, conspiracy theories, neglect, fraud, and more.
Her accounts range from the Chinese and Thornburgh Massacres, to the coal industry’s denial and cover ups of black lung disease (which caused her father’s early death), to the slaughter of Matthew Shepard, to present-day disregard of MLK, Jr.:
Wyoming held out till nearly all others had declared Martin Luther King’s birthday a holiday and then reluctantly passed a diluted ‘Martin Luther King–Equality Day’ law with no recognition of the irony. By 2018, Wyoming remained one of the five states unwilling to enact hate crimes legislation. (135)
Fortunately, McDaniel is an excellent researcher and writer and human rights advocate. He has previously authored books on the wrongdoings, tragedies, and policies that keep Wyoming on its intended path of smothering its most vulnerable. His bold, blunt and just-in-nick-of-time-before-you-start-crying sarcastic delivery sets a very serious tone while humorously acknowledging absurd arguments made by those who go to great lengths to keep the playing field uneven for their own personal benefit.
During the Joe McCarthy era when universities were being told that subversive, communist materials were infiltrating their library shelves:
A panel headed by UW Law School Dean Robert promptly demanded department heads develop a list of required texts. The school’s leaders had stepped into a mess they had not anticipated. The board members saved face by appointing a group of professors to review some books and report back. They read 64 books, provided the board with their assurance they contained no anti-American or subversive information and the matter was laid to rest. . . . [Yet] Many in Wyoming continued worry about the Reds until Donald Trump told them it wasn’t necessary any longer. (96)
Like the Mottonens, I am also the child of a poor, uneducated, exploited, European immigrant. Upon discovering this book I could not believe my eyes. Having lived in Wyoming for the past four years, reading it was verification for what I see, experience, and find problems with, constantly. I have often thought that Wyoming’s undeserving motto is a farce in comparison with its laws, policies, priorities, and politicians. And here was a Wyoming woman who lived, captured, and published the cruel reality of being a minority in this state with so much detail, accuracy, and innocence. In addition to that, these two authors found a supportive entity from within the state to distribute the work—WordsWorth Publishing in Cody. To give you an idea of just how brave this is, at one point in the text Mottonen says to McDaniel, “You and I are going to catch a lot of hell for this.” His response was that he hoped she was right. (3) This project took guts, not to mention ethics; and all its pages are filled with both.
Wyoming is not doing well from a financial perspective. The Governor is telling residents to brace for tough times ahead. For the past few years I have noticed the increase in empty lots, storefronts for rent, houses for sale, and people living in their cars. There is less college enrollment and fewer people with health or car insurance. I have heard racist comments, seen discriminatory behaviors, and received unfair wages while experiencing harassment in multiple state-funded workplaces. I also listen to the frustration of young people who wish they could live in a more just and socially responsible community. As Mottonen puts it:
The bigotry of the state has always come with the high cost of losing the best young, home-grown minds. . . . The Equality State has never been an especially tolerant place for those who are not white, male, Christian, heterosexuals. In spite of, maybe because of never having had many black people or other minorities among its citizenry, Wyoming long had a problem accepting them. Neither has the state been accountable to women. The state motto may have referred to allowing women to vote though it never extended to giving women the rights to much else. The motto certainly did not assure non-white citizens of much of anything. (130, 126, 127)
Mottonen wanted to tell the truth of her family’s and her community’s experiences juxtaposed with the state’s motto and she and McDaniel do just that. Most of Wyoming’s human rights history is not flattering and much of it is disturbing. With not a dull sentence between its covers, this piece is a no holds barred witness account of unfair and corrupt behaviors of those in power who continue—to this day—to exploit Wyoming’s under-privileged.
Wyoming has been a state for more than a century and a quarter. It’s had one woman Governor serve two years. That is apparently sufficient criterion for calling yourself the ‘Equality State.’ I grew up, came of age, and worked in a state which the motto no longer told the truth. (56)
Most impressive is the use of the historical record, making her claims undeniable and elucidating the deep and severe acts of deception and their subsequently negative effects on innocent people. Hence the other part of the title alluding to Sherman Alexie’s book, The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven. That classic, McDaniel states in his prologue, “provided readers a glimpse into the sort of cultural skirmishes Lois witnessed in her lifetime in Wyoming and the extent to which symbols and images built a non-existent reality.” (8)
Lois Mottonen penetrated several glass ceilings for women, approved of a final draft before she passed away, left two Wyoming colleges millions of dollars in order to ‘level the playing field,’ and made my year with this bold publication. I believe Howard Zinn would be proud to be associated with this book.