Native American Education Conference, 2023
By Kylie McCormick
Last week we attended the annual Native American Education Conference, held this year at Central Wyoming College in Riverton. It was my first time exploring the beautiful campus, with its great art and comfortable classrooms. The conference is sponsored primarily by the Wyoming Department of Education and organized by department staff. It draws educators from all over Wyoming, but primarily from schools on the Wind River Reservation. Since 2021, School districts must comply with state standards mandating that all grades learn more about Indigenous people in Wyoming and the West—and the conference is an efficient way to help teachers make that happen.
The conference opened with blessings given by the Eagle Spirit Singers and Dancers led by George Abeyta. In his booming powwow-announcer voice, Abeyta introduced the Northern Arapaho and Eastern Shoshone members of the color guard, along with the different types of dances, describing each one with a unique blessing for educators and the coming school year.
May we all have the energy of the fancy-shawl and jingle-dress dancers in this coming school year! Abeyta had to coax the last and littlest dancer center stage but once he was there, the little guy stomped fiercely to the drums in honor and blessing over the students of Wyoming and our future generations. They closed with a stirring song and dance of victory. The entire conference was filled with their upbeat spirit.
Wes Martel, former Eastern Shoshone Business Council member and longtime advocate for Native rights, especially water rights and the care of wildlife, gave a rousing keynote that examined the deep, historical roots of tribal sovereignty on Wind River. Martel was among the leaders of tribal investigations into theft of tribal oil on Wind River in the 1970s and 1980s. New federal legislation protecting tribal mineral and other interests was the result.
We were glad to see the memory of the late Eastern Shoshone elder Willie LeClair honored at the conference. It was sad to lose him earlier this year but comforting to know that his preservation work continues. The first day of the conference included a showing of a Wyoming Humanities video interview with LeClair about his vast knowledge of Plains Indian sign language. When the video was suddenly (and mistakenly) interrupted by a YouTube ad featuring, in huge capital letters, a woman panicked over STUCK POOP, the auditorium nearly collapsed from people’s laughter. We like to think Willie would have liked the joke.
Opening ceremonies closed with the Pacesetter Awards. Each of the winners is among the brightest, kindest, and most creative students in the state and it was fun to hear about their accomplishments and future plans. I spent the next two days getting to meet some of their educators and I can see why their students are doing so well. It was wonderful to meet a bus driver who is learning Arapaho to better serve her students and community, as well as educators who are eager to get back into their classrooms.
Rob Black and the Wyoming Department of Education did an excellent job putting together this conference and there were several sessions I wanted to attend. I was glad I got to learn more about some of our partners like the Wyoming Student Atlas. You can explore their content on their interactive site or get linked to specific maps through lesson plans like this one featured in our Digital Toolkits for teachers. WyoHistory.org editor Tom Rea and I enjoyed sharing about the toolkits and more during our session. The second day featured keynote speakers Tim McGowan and Dr. Justin Conroy discussing their methods for decreasing the suicide rates in schools and among veterans. By strengthening community networks and increasing the presence of trusted adults, the two were able to significantly decrease suicide rates in high-risk communities. The conference was a great balance of culture, community and education, and set a hopeful tone for the future. It was wonderful to meet new people and learn more about the awesome projects and educators in our state.
Kylie McCormick is an assistant editor at WyoHistory.org.