Look around Lynette St. Clair's Shoshone language and culture classroom at Wyoming Indian Middle School, and you’ll see this isn’t the usual Wyoming social studies class. There’s vintage photos of famous Shoshone people, a miniature tepee, and the white board is scribbled with Shoshone words and translations. And what the kids are learning is unusual too. The students are reading a speech by Shoshone chief Washakie from the 19th century. St. Clair teaches them key words from the speech in Shoshone.
“Well, the lesson plan that I went over today had to do with the October core belief of courage,” St. Clair said. “And courage is one of the values that our tribal elders had brought forward many years ago as a really critical component to education in general.”
It’s one of eight core values the kids will study this year. But many non-native students in Wyoming may have never heard of Chief Washakie. St. Clair said growing up in the 70's, even her textbooks didn't mention his name.
“I learned about Columbus Day and about 1492 and I learned about the presidents,” she said. “But I never learned about the great chiefs that we had.”
That’s why St. Clair was happy to help when Wyoming PBS began developing a series of videos and matching lesson plans to teach to students around Wyoming about the state’s tribes. In just a few weeks, Wyoming teachers will be able to download these materials off the Wyoming PBS website. St. Clair said the lesson plans she prepared, she addresses how important the Wind River Mountain Range is to the traditions of Shoshone people.
“We as human beings have to honor the earth and treat it well. So there’s some environmental things that go into the lesson plans. And so we’re tying in science, technology, so STEM standards.”
St. Clair said in the past, schools tried to rid native students of their language and traditions. She said that’s why it’s so important for such customs and languages to be valued now. And valued by all Wyoming students…
“It’s important, you need to know who your neighbors are!” said Michelle Hoffmann, the educational coordinator for Wyoming PBS and a retired superintendent from the Wind River Indian Reservation. She said she’s been working for years to get the Indian Education for All Act passed because she’s observed how hurtful discrimination. She said it was something she witnessed when her students visited other schools for sports or music events.
“Sometimes the treatment our kids received based upon their skin is unacceptable,” Hoffmann said. “And that’s where I come back to say, we haven’t done a good job in this state of educating the people in the state of what the reservation means and how rich it is here.”
Hoffmann said, more cultural literacy might reduce that stereotyping. For the project, she’s been bringing together elders, leaders and educators from both tribes to create the six short videos, and to make sure they fulfilled Wyoming state teaching standards like 8th grade social studies or science. Hoffmann said, maybe the resistance to passing an Indian Education For All bill would melt away if the curriculum is available first. If school districts begin using these materials, maybe they’ll be more convinced.
“Now if you look at Montana, South Dakota, Nebraska, oh my gosh! They’re light years ahead of Wyoming. Why are we so far…? Well, we’re so far behind because we haven’t done a good job of educating our citizens of the state.
“So educate them first?” I asked.
“That’s right, that’s right. Go around the back door now,” Hoffmann said and laughed.
Fremont County Senator Cale Case agreed. “Yeah, I do think the efforts that Wyoming PBS has done are going to pave the way to make this a little better success and in fact could possibly be part of it.”
Case serves as co-chair on the Select Committee on Tribal Relations and is a big proponent of Indian Education For All legislation, which he said will go one step further than the videos by creating checklists for schools to make sure they thoroughly cover Native American issues.
“We think our history begins with statehood or begins with the trappers that came out. No, no, no,” he said. “Our history goes back to the first peoples.”
But Case says it’s not just tribal history Wyomingites need to know, but also how tribal government works today and why the Northern Arapaho and Eastern Shoshone governments are so often at odds.
“Well, ask the question, why is that? Do you realize this is the only reservation in the country that two sovereign tribes share the land and the governmental responsibility? Now that is a very difficult thing,” Case said.
He said the Tribal Relations Committee will meet to discuss what’s next for the Indian Education for All Act at their meeting November 14 and plan to introduce the bill in the next legislative session.
As for teacher Lynette St. Clair and her students, Indian education is already a way of life. This month, she turns to teaching the next Shoshone core value: honor.