RIVERTON —For two days last month, a group of Wyoming educators and local tribal members met in Riverton to discuss revisions to the state’s social studies standards.
The review committee was formed in response to a legislative mandate to include American Indian education in lessons taught in public schools throughout Wyoming.
Over the course of the two-day meeting, Wyoming Department of Education social studies consultant and standards specialist Rob Black said the participants worked their way through 32 educational benchmarks, outlining the expectations area students should meet in regard to knowledge of American Indian culture.
“I’ve been extremely pleased,” he said. “I was very impressed with the way they worked together, the way they were very thoughtful. ... I thought there was a lot of camaraderie and willingness to thoroughly discuss and work out different ideas.
“There’s really a feeling in the air of, ‘Let’s get this right.’”
Noting that, in her opinion, the effort to incorporate American Indian culture in public school education is “long overdue,” Fremont County School District 38 (Arapahoe) 21st Century Community Learning Center coordinator Teresa HisChase agreed that it is important that the new social studies standards be developed thoughtfully—and with input from tribal members.
“This is our opportunity give an accurate account of who we are and where we came from,” she said in an e-mail to The Ranger. “Our own histories need to be taught by us, in all schools across America.”
Once American Indian education becomes a standardized part of the school curriculum, HisChase said non-native students will have a better understanding of and appreciation for native cultural traditions. As a result, she believes social barriers that often come between people of different backgrounds will be broken.
Star Valley High School principal and social studies standards review committee member Homer Bennett, who grew up on the Wind River Indian Reservation and attended Arapahoe School as well as Riverton High School, also talked about social divisions, particularly those that have arisen in recent years due to a more contentious political climate.
“Public schools should serve, in part, to unify us as citizens,” he said in an e-mail to The Ranger. “I don’t believe this can happen unless we have a better understanding and respect for all our people.”
When he became a high school teacher more than 20 years ago, Bennett said he was “amazed” by how little many students and adults in Wyoming knew about the state’s reservation and the native people who live there.
“I think we have a serious gap in our state’s educational system that does a disservice to a very important demographic,” he said. “(We need help) exposing Wyoming students to the culture and history of our state’s most unique minority group.”
Several local committee members said a more thorough education about native cultures — past and present — will diminish the prevalence of stereotypes.
For example, some tribal representatives in the group said they often face questions from non-native people who wonder whether American Indians still live in teepees, or if natives all ride horses and are barred from leaving the reservation. In an effort to combat those misconceptions, Lynette St. Clair, the Shoshone culture and language teacher at Wyoming Indian schools, said she has gathered input from her students about what they would like their peers to learn about.
“(I ask them), ‘If you were to go to another school, what would you want those students to know about you as a person—not as a Shoshone or Arapaho tribal member, but as a person?’” she said. “I really want to make sure the voices of reservation students and communities are included in this process. ... If they were allowed to have a voice, they’d be able to dispel all the myths and stereotypes about Indian people.”
St. Clair also wants to make sure native students learn more about their own cultures in the classroom.
Celeste Spoonhunter, the Title VII facilitator and cultural resource specialist for Fremont County School District 25 (Riverton), said incorporating American Indian history into the mainstream educational setting will empower young tribal members to embrace their own identities. And students who are more comfortable with themselves are more likely to succeed, she explained.
“When you have that sensitivity in place of who you are ... you tend to be more willing to learn and have that door open up,” she said. “(You think), ‘Hey, I’m accepted just as well as the next person, and if you’re going to acknowledge who I am, then that’s respect to me.’”
During last month’s meeting, the committee reviewed the portions of the state social studies standards that have to do with culture and history, ensuring that the contributions of indigenous people were included.
Participants were divided into four subcommittees to study the standards as they pertain to certain age groups, then came together to create cohesive set of amendments to the standards.
“It was a tiring two days—I went home just brain tired,” said Caroline Mills, a former Central Wyoming College trustee and currently the director of the Learning Center in Fort Washakie. “It was like a crash course, cramming to get our input in two days.
“For an important topic like that, it seemed we were rushing it, (but) the state only has a certain amount of money, and that’s all they were able to do.”
St. Clair also acknowledged that the state’s economy is suffering and that funding streams are low, but she agreed with Mills that a project “of this magnitude” required more time.
“There’s still a lot of work to do,” she said. “We’ve done good work so far, but we’ve only scratched the surface ... We want this to be good. We want our work to be reflective o our community’s input, and our voice.”
Black said several committee members also expressed a desire to look at additional portions of the curriculum, specifically the government and geography standards. Another meeting has been scheduled for January to accommodate those requests.
Once they are finalized, the committee’s recommendations will go to the Wyoming State Board of Education, Black said, and that group will outline the next steps in the process to include the revisions in the social studies standards.