ARAPAHOE — At St. Stephens Indian School, the past is never far away for students. A graveyard from its Catholic mission roots, marked with crosses and adorned with colorful decorations, can be seen from the school’s front doors.
Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos drove past the graves on her way to the school Friday, her second stop on the Wyoming leg of a tour dubbed “Rethink Schools.”
St. Stephens is one of several schools on the Wind River Reservation. Its students are largely members of the Northern Arapaho tribe, with some Eastern Shoshone members.
The school is funded by the Bureau of Indian Education, but it’s operated by the tribe. Its boundaries extend across the reservation, unlike public schools serving reservation students.
The school has higher graduation rates than its neighbors for American Indian students, but its scores on Wyoming standardized tests are comparable.
DeVos, who briefly addressed students and didn’t take questions from press, made no sweeping statements about the school or its policies. But she consistently praised mentions of parent and student involvement in school planning.
“I’m thrilled to hear about your focus on really engaging all of the stakeholders,” she said.
St. Stephens Superintendent Frank No Runner said the school has shifted to focus more on positives than negatives.
“We don’t focus on why teachers are leaving; we focus on why they’re staying,” he said.
Reservation schools often struggle with teacher recruitment and retention, a situation that has improved in recent years at St. Stephens, No Runner said.
DeVos briefly met with school staff for an overview and introduction before observing second-graders practice subtraction using blocks of ones, tens and hundreds, and a high school science activity building a solar system scale model.
Politics were discussed only briefly, when Eastern Shoshone Business Council member Leslie Shakespeare noted that some tribal member disagreed with some of the policy positions of DeVos.
He noted public schools on and near the reservation, along with St. Stephens.
“All of these schools are very important,” he said. “We respect that you’re here to listen. That’s what education is all about, is listening.”
No Runner described St. Stephens as “a school of choice,” but larger school choice policies — of which DeVos has championed — never came up.
St. Stephens receives some funding from Wyoming, but not as much as public schools. Most funding comes from the federal government.
DeVos visited a Casper school earlier Tuesday. She’s slated to visit Colorado, Nebraska, Kansas, Missouri and Indiana later this week.
Two tribes plan to demonstrate in favor of renaming a valley and a mountain in Yellowstone National Park, places they say are associated with one man who advocated slaughter of Native Americans and another who carried it out.
Leaders of the Blackfoot Confederacy and Great Sioux Nation will gather Saturday at Yellowstone’s North Entrance near Gardiner, Montana, tribal officials said Tuesday.
The tribes seek to change the name of Hayden Valley, a subalpine valley just north of Yellowstone Lake, to Buffalo Nations Valley. They want to change the name of Mount Doane, a 10,550-foot peak five miles east of the lake, to First People’s Mountain.
Efforts to change place names and remove monuments to controversial figures in U.S. history have gained momentum since white supremacists opposed to taking down a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee clashed in August with counter-protesters in Charlottesville, Virginia.
But several Native American renaming efforts — some simply to erase racist terminology from maps — have been going on for years. Elsewhere in Wyoming, tribes seek to change Devils Tower, the name of an 870-foot volcanic mesa in the first U.S. national monument, to Bear Lodge.
Devils Tower is the name white settlers gave the feature. Bear Lodge is what the Lakota, Crow, Cheyenne and other tribes call the formation important if not sacred to their cultures.
In Yellowstone, Hayden Valley is named for Ferdinand Hayden, a geologist whose explorations inspired the park’s establishment in 1872 but who also called for exterminating American Indians who wouldn’t acquiesce to becoming farmers and ranchers.
Mount Doane is named after U.S. Army Lt. Gustavus Doane, who took part in killing 173 noncombatant Indians — women, children and elderly men — in Montana in 1870.
“America’s first national park should no longer have features named after the proponents and exponents of genocide,” the Rocky Mountain Tribal Leaders Council, which represents every tribe in Montana and Wyoming, stated in a 2014 resolution.
The tribes asked Yellowstone last year to rename Hayden Valley and Mount Doane. Park officials responded by explaining the renaming process overseen by the U.S. Geological Survey’s Board on Geographic Names, park Superintendent Dan Wenk said.
“The National Park Service understands that this is an important and sensitive issue,” Wenk said in a statement Tuesday. “We look forward to continuing this conversation.”
The Park Service has a responsibility to take up the matter with the board on the tribes’ behalf, said Crow Creek Sioux Tribe Chairman Brandon Sazue.
“We are not individuals, we are sovereign nations, many with treaty rights to this region, and those treaties are enshrined in Article VI of the U.S. Constitution,” Sazue said by email.
The Board on Geographic Names has received several emails on the issue but no official proposal to change the names of Hayden Valley or Doane Mountain, Geological Survey officials said.
In truth, I had not thought about visiting Mount Rushmore all that much.
It was an optional stop on my first trip through the Black Hills. Devils Tower was going to be the centerpiece of the journey, followed by Rapid City and Hill City, South Dakota, for the cosmopolitan experience and the wine experience, respectively. If we had time and the weather cooperated, we figured, sure, we’d see the faces of the presidents.
After all, it wouldn’t have been the first viewing for either of us. My boyfriend had visited the monument years ago with his family, and although I’d never actually been on the grounds, I’d glimpsed it from the road when I moved to Wyoming from Wisconsin, about three and a half years behind me now.
It was February – is there any better time to plan an interstate move? My mother had been driving my crumbling and very likely overloaded car on the icy roads. I was in the passenger seat, tending to my darling and ancient orange cat, who was relocating along with me. We had chosen a longer route that offered a view of the famous faces from the road, just to add a little sightseeing to the drive.
And when we reached that point – well, there they were. George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Teddy Roosevelt, Abe Lincoln. It was undoubtedly cool to see them, but we were far away, so they were less imposing than they are from the ground at the monument. I remember driving slowly to take it in, but in retrospect, that could also have been linked to the condition of the road, the car, the wind – so new to us at the time – and my poor mother’s nerves.
In short, Mount Rushmore did not take my breath away the first time I saw it. It was impressive, but given the magnitude of the move I was making and the admittedly limited abilities of my brain, I was already overwhelmed. I lacked the capacity to be wowed.
So that’s about what I was expecting when we had discussed a potential return visit and then solidified those plans. But instead, when I caught my first glimpse of the four faces, they were blurry. My eyes had welled instantly. And although I hadn’t anticipated it, I knew why.
Back then, I had been taking the biggest risk I’d ever taken – a calculated risk, yes, but one that meant leaving my family and exploring unfamiliar terrain. It meant learning to live entirely on my own (well, with the darling orange cat). It meant bracing for the possibility of gaping loneliness in a place that was foreign to me.
As I looked up at the four of them, the transformations I’ve experienced since then tore through my mind like a river. I have found true friendships and discovered favorite places in Wyoming. I’ve drummed up the courage to make the first major purchase of my life – a car that starts every time I need it to and isn’t afraid of icy roads. I’ve traveled the state with my boyfriend and started to build a home with him. Nothing that I would have dared to hope on that icy February day.
All that time, those four faces were up there on that mountain in South Dakota, and that wind has blown over the fairgrounds and the prairies and the hills. And of course, they’ve all been at it much longer than that, and will continue to be – the presidents have been gazing at us for decades, and the gusts are simply timeless.
But I’m not. We’re not. We have such a limited time to do all the things we want to do – take adventures, learn new things, cultivate friendships, fall in love. We never stop chasing. It’s a lot to think about all at once.
But against the backdrop of Mount Rushmore, where time is slow and winds are strong, there’s time to think and reflect and smile. There’s time to think of how incredibly fortunate you are to have the friends you’ve found and to love the people you do. There’s time, too, to think about where you’ll find yourself the next time you see those faces – and how grateful you will be for all the moments in between.