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Zarif Khan, "Tamale Louie", a Wyoming Legend

A Wide World of Stories:


On a social media wall, a man flashes the horn hand symbol as he glares at the camera, intent on spreading his message that Muslim people have no place in his community. The man – an unemployed oil field mechanic named Bret Colvin has spent years trying to drive the small community of Muslims from northeastern Wyoming. While too many agree with Colvin’s religious and political rejection of Muslims, others recognize that most of the community of people he is targeting were born and raised in the state, their parents were born and raised in the state, and even their grandparents were born and raised in Wyoming.


Above - Zarif Khan as a younger man.


Wyoming is the nation's smallest state - home to under 600,000 people. Other than the Shoshoni reservation in the west central part of the state near Riverton, and in Cheyenne near the air force base, the state is at least 95% white. Which makes the success and acceptance of a significant Muslim population surprising to some. Few realize that the majority of the small community are descended from immigrants who arrived in Wyoming from Asia near the beginning of the 20th century.Today, these Wyoming Muslim families own businesses and employ hundreds of people across the region, deepening the tourism industry through hotel and restaurant chains.


Due to the response of the mayor of Gillette where Colvin lives, his efforts to drive the Muslim community out and close their private, unmarked mosque ultimately failed. But Colvin's efforts also raises questions about history and heritage, of the stories this nation has told, about who built this nation, and about the role religion played in that creation. The story of faith and racism in northeastern Wyoming dives into the purpose and meaning of religion and how differing spiritual beliefs can lead to conflict, and how they can also create new pathways to build stronger communities in the face of oppression. If you ask the majority of people in Wyoming what they consider important for a person to believe - faith in God would be mentioned by most. Bret Colvin's effort to drive out faithful people and stop them from worshiping God demonstrates that for most - religious freedom as defined by the Constitution does not apply to those who are not Christian.


Kathryn Schulz shared the story of the Muslim community in Wyoming with the wider world in a 2016 article in The New Yorker magazine titled “Citizen Khan.[1] She told the story of patriarch Zarif Khan and his arrival in Wyoming. “Who the Khans are and where they came from and what they’re doing here is a long story, and a quintessentially American one,” she stated. “The history of immigrants is, to a huge extent, the history of this nation, though so is the pernicious practice of determining that some among us do not deserve full humanity, and full citizenship.” [2]


Zarif Khan arrived in Wyoming in 1909, just twenty years after the state had been admitted to the union, and how he made his way to the western United States demonstrates the deep relationship between religion and racism in our collective history. Many people in this nation know of Ellis Island, tracing their lineage back to the generations of poor, European immigrants who made their way through New York into other places and locations between 1892 and 1924. In fact, many view the willingness of this country to open up for those fleeing famine in Europe as representative of what America means.


Yet, on the other side of the country, immigrants from Asia and the Pacific island nations also fleeing famine were never welcomed in the same way. Instead, beginning in 1882, immigrants from those areas were regulated by The Chinese Exclusion Act. Like the recent nationalistic efforts to restrict immigration, misdirected blame was placed on the immigrants, linking the .002 percent of the United States who were Chinese to declining wages and lack of job opportunities. Although similar efforts attempted to keep Catholic immigrants from Italy and Ireland during the nineteenth century, racializing the discrimination and linking issues to non-white populations made the discriminatory practices easier to perpetuate them well into the twentieth century.


Chinese men started arriving in California during the Gold Rush, hoping like others to “strike it rich.” From the beginning, their experiences were drastically different from those arriving from the eastern United States and Europe. The state of California passed racial restrictions and added additional fees to the Chinese workers. When they attempted to sue for equal rights and the removal of the fees, the United States Supreme Court ruled that like African Americans and American Indian tribal members, Chinese men were not allowed to testify in court (see People v. Hall, 1854). The act also barred anyone who was Chinese from citizenship through naturalization.


Although the act was supposed to only be in effect for two years, the state and national government kept extending it through additional acts. One of the worst was The Geary Act of 1892 which extended the ban for ten more years, but also required any Chinese person already in the United States to acquire a Certificate of Residence. Like the passes required of Black people in the southern United States under slavery, any person caught without this documentation was sentenced to hard labor, and the only person who could testify on behalf of the Chinese person hoping to avoid that sentence was a white man. One of the primary motivations of these efforts was to prevent the intermarriages of Asian immigrants and white women, using Biblical justification for the immorality of these unions, even though with the ban on immigrants there were not any Chinese women to marry.



By the early years of the Twentieth Century, all immigration from Asia and the Pacific was managed through Angel Island in the San Francisco harbor. While immigrants in New York moved through Ellis Island in days or weeks, on Angel Island many immigrants remained for months, or even years. While there, the immigrants were served by the same agency that managed Indian reservations, and like in those places abuse was common, food often arrived rotten. Men, women, and children were all held in different buildings which meant that families were kept apart. Quickly, these bans were extended to all Asian immigrants except the Japanese – who by virtue of their connections with white Christian groups and missionaries were given exceptions until the Immigration Act of 1924. That 1924 act and the addition of Japanese people to the immigration ban was one of the causes of Japan attacking Pearl Harbor, drawing the United States into fighting World War II on two fronts.


However, then as now, immigration bans do not mean an end to immigrants from those nations arriving in the United States. At the time, the borders to Mexico and Canada were not regulated. Many immigrants simply entered one of those nations and then walked across the border into the United States to be reunited with family members already living and working to support their adopted home.


Zarif Khan disembarked from a ship in Seattle and made his way to Wyoming, likely bypassing Angel Island. In Wyoming, he quickly became “Hot Tamale Louie.” He sold tamales from a bucket until he could afford to build a lean-to stand in an empty alley and started selling hamburgers. He went back to Afghanistan to marry a Sunni Muslim woman, and they started a family. Over the next six decades, Khan built a life for his family in Sheridan, fully included and welcomed into the life of the town. His tamale bucket carried shop to shop in the earliest decades allowed him to give back to his adopted community. He sent community kids to university (anonymously until his death) and gave to civic organizations. He was so beloved in the community, that the news of his murder in the 1960’s made national news. A statue of his likeness now stands near where his much-loved burger stand once stood.


His family’s continuing presence in the community led to it becoming home for other Muslim families. By the time Bret Colvin decided to target the mosque in Gillette, Wyoming, an hour-and-a-half southeast of Sheridan, Muslim families had spread out across the region. Like Zarif Khan's family, the other Muslim families have a long history as part of the communities where they lived. Most of the schools in Wyoming had at least a few Muslim families attending starting in the 1930’s. By 2017, when Colvin stepped up to drive them out, Zarif Khan’s descendants owned hotel chains and restaurants, grocery stores and other businesses, and like Khan they had been generous in the support of the communities they helped build through the twentieth century.


With that history and those connections, Colvin’s group realized that it was unlikely they would ever drive the mosque out. They have now repurposed their bias, specifically focusing on blocking any Syrian refugee resettlement in Gillette and across Wyoming. Which means they have failed to learn from Zarif Khan's story, and instead continue to disseminate religious intolerance and bigotry to mask their own bias and fear.


The white nationalism of today is connected with the white nationalism of our past, but it is critical to understand that whiteness has also been advanced on the basis of religious discrimination. These stories inform how we should view religion and religious belief, because from the very instant Europeans encountered the people of the Americas, faith has been used to justify racial discrimination and annihilation. Yet outside of that narrative are thousands of small towns where pockets of Jewish, Islamic, and Hindu communities have thrived and grown alongside their Christian neighbors – becoming like the Khans, longstanding and well-regarded community members. Knowing these stories can help us develop new theories of religious belief that inform our civic and religious commitments, and even as we realize that they cannot be taken as an indication of true change in individual beliefs or community responses regarding race, religion, or immigration.


As Kathryn Shulz noted in her story; “Zarif Khan was deemed insufficiently American on the basis of skin color” when he first arrived in the United States. “Ninety years later, when the presence of Muslims among us had come to seem like a crisis, his descendants were deemed insufficiently American on the basis of faith." [3]



Christians have a difficult time facing their religious oppression in the past and present. Until they do, church hurt and harm will continue and there will be few avenues to heal it. A good first step is to do as Jesus did - ask questions and listen for the answer from people who live at the intersection/s of identifying characteristics in the world or in the church. As hard as some of these conversations might be - learning of harm, processing it, and engaging in restorative justice can lead to a stronger relationship with yourself, which makes it easier to develop stronger relationships with others. The opportunity to heal religious harm should be central to the ministry of the church, and there are few more egregious harms than racism.


Sheridan is a town that is not without racism, but one where some racial minorities have been able to thrive and be welcomed as neighbor. It is a demonstration of the power of transformation that can come after encountering the divine spirit in others. It is the embodiment of love.


The story of Zarif Khan is not the one most often told about the immigrant experience, but it is one that can change our perceptions of the past.


The God of Radical, Resilient Love is waiting for us to slow down and listen to the world, and to learn from the stories of those who walk with us and those who walked before us.


The statue of Zarif Khan, "Tamale Louie" in downtown Sheridan, Wyoming.

[1] Schulz, Kathryn. "Citizen Khan." The New Yorker, May 30, 2016. [2] Ibid. [3] Ibid.

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