Wyoming is home to two indigenous nations—Northern Arapaho and Eastern Shoshone—whose peoples originated in the Great Plains and Great Basin.
Their legislative bodies, or business councils, have sovereign authority over 2.2 million acres of land—at 3,532 square miles, that’s more area than Puerto Rico or Cyprus.
Northern Arapaho and Eastern Shoshone have government-to-government relationships with the United States, and each governs more than 40 government departments and economic enterprises. Northern Arapaho and Eastern Shoshone enterprises provide jobs in construction, health care, higher education, hospitality, and ranching.
In Wyoming, only Cheyenne, Casper, Laramie and Gillette have larger populations than the Northern Arapaho and Eastern Shoshone’s Wind River Indian Reservation.
But students don’t learn much about that in Wyoming’s public schools. According to state education standards, Wyoming’s graduating seniors will have studied broader subjects such as “the historical development of the United States Constitution and treaties and how they have shaped the United States and Wyoming government”; “how the unique characteristics of cultural groups have contributed and continue to influence Wyoming’s history and contemporary life”; and “the conflicts resulting from cultural assimilation and cultural preservation in Wyoming, the United States, and the World.”
In Honors U.S. History, high school students “trace the realities of economic power, racial prejudice, and conservatism” in the “Early American Republic” unit.
And Wyoming Public Media reported in November that many non-Native students “may have never heard of Chief Washakie,” the 19th century Shoshone leader, noted hide painter and central figure in Wyoming’s Native American history. Lynette St. Clair, a teacher at Wyoming Indian Middle School, told Wyoming PBS that textbooks didn't even mention Washakie’s name when she was in school in the 1970s. “I learned about Columbus Day and about 1492 and I learned about the presidents,” she told Wyoming PBS. “But I never learned about the great chiefs that we had.”
All of that is changing.
Wyoming PBS has developed a series of six 42-minute videos and matching lesson plans that teachers can access online to teach students about Wyoming’s Native Peoples. According to Terry Dugas, general manager of Wyoming PBS, all of the videos were vetted by Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapaho teachers. Dugas provided the state legislature’s Select Committee on Tribal Relations with a copy of the lesson plans and previewed two videos on November 14.
At that meeting, the select committee approved a bill that would require Wyoming’s Department of Education to work “in cooperation with the Eastern Shoshone and the Northern Arapaho Indian Tribes [to] develop a model educational program addressing the cultural heritage and contemporary contributions of American Indians, with particular emphasis on the Eastern Shoshone and the Northern Arapaho Indian Tribes.”
The six-member select committee unanimously approved the bill. The next step: Introduction for consideration during the next legislative session. Among those testifying in favor of the bill and/or recommending amendments were Jason Baldes, director of the Wind River Native Advocacy Center; Terry Ebert, superintendent of Fort Washakie Schools; and Michelle Hoffman, retired superintendent of Wyoming Indian School.
Like similar legislation in Montana and Washington state, the bill aims to provide all students with a more complete knowledge of Wyoming history, bolster educational engagement of Native American students, and build bridges of understanding between Native and non-Native peoples.
“The legislature recognizes the cultural heritage and contemporary contributions of American Indians and declares it is the state’s policy to preserve that heritage and contributions through education,” the bill states. “It is therefore the intent of the legislature that all teachers and other school personnel have an understanding and awareness of American Indian tribes, with particular emphasis on the Eastern Shoshone and the Northern Arapaho Indian Tribes, to gain an understanding of and appreciation for American Indians and to help relate effectively with American Indian students and parents.”
Legislators hope that the bill will become law in time for the 2017-18 school year, when “each school district within this state shall provide an educational program addressing the cultural heritage and contemporary contributions of American Indian tribes.”
Baldes, Eastern Shoshone, told the Casper Star-Tribune that there “isn't a lot of curriculum” in the state about Wyoming’s Native Peoples. “And the result is a discrepancy … that results in racial tensions.”
Pete Gosar, chairman of the state Board of Education, told the Casper Star-Tribune that the bill is long overdue.
“As a former social studies teacher, this is something in the state that’s really been missing,” he told the Star-Tribune. “They’ve been here first and they’ve been here the longest. You do a disservice to all children in Wyoming—not just Wind River children, but all children.”