Editor’s note: This story originally aired on June 19, 2015
Fort Washakie senior Keenen Large watches from the bleachers as his grade school counterparts parade through the school gym in traditional dress. This is what the school calls ‘Indian Days.’ Keenen remembers what it used to be.
“When I was a kid it was like five days,” says Large. “Man, every day was fun. They actually brought a buffalo here and they really performed a gutting ceremony—and then we ate it afterwards. It’s good.”
There’s no buffalo this year. Just a pow-wow, with lots of dancing. The special occasion has been shortened to one day, to make more time for testing and other requirements, but Native history and culture are explored in classrooms here all year long.
Not so long ago, boarding schools run by the government or Christian missionaries punished Native children for speaking their languages and practicing their traditions. In response to that cruel history, schools today on Wyoming’s Wind River Reservation try to integrate language and culture into the school day.
“It’s really important for our students to understand their culture, because that’s one thing, traditionally, that was taken away from them,” says school counselor Scott Polson.
Polson says Shoshone language classes are one way to pass along the culture here, but they don’t produce fluent speakers. Polson says that’s because it’s hard to find anyone who speaks the language—and has the skills and certification to actually teach it to students.
But the school can help kids better understand their traditions. Gabe Joyes co-teaches a class exploring the art, culture and history of indigenous peoples throughout the West.
“It’s different,” says Joyes. “It’s not U.S. history from a textbook. It’s not basic geography class or government class, but it’s ‘let’s focus on Native American culture, let’s infuse it with art and enjoy learning.”
Calvin Weatherwax is the K-12 social worker here. His top priority is creating continuity between lessons learned at home and at school. Today, he’s helping students play a traditional game.
“So, I figure, allowing cultural recreation that parents do with their children—and this is one of them. It’s called ‘handgame.’”
Handgame is a guessing game often played at pow-wows. It involves teams distracting each other by singing and making sounds with sticks and rattles.
Weatherwax says activities like this one are small steps the school can take towards restoring important tradition.
“We’re such a plugged-in society that we have to start sharing cultural heritage knowledge with the younger ones. It’s not lost, it’s still there, we just haven’t used it.”
This cultural connection—from games, to language and classroom discussion—doesn’t exist for Native students who go to school outside the Reservation’s borders. Senior Blaze Condon says she didn’t get this when she was a student in Lander.
This has to be the most cultural school I’ve been to, and I’ve been to three, including this one. Everyone seems to be connected through the culture and there’s not a lot of bullying and negative things I’ve seen like at the last two schools, maybe because of the culture thing.
Some students are more connected to tradition than others. Back at the ‘Indian Days’ pow-wow in the gym, Manny Vasquez leads his drum group in song.
“It’s kind of like a religion,” says Vasquez. “It just feels good, spiritually and physically.”
Manny is Eastern Shoshone and Kiowa Apache. He plays in this drum group with his dad—and plans to do his thing at a number of pow-wows this summer.
“Not a lot of students here show their traditional side,” says Vasquez. “They don’t sing or dance.”
During the ceremony, most of the high school kids are either staring down at their phones or wandering out of the building. Che Stiffarm seems disengaged. But when, I ask him, he tells me he cares deeply about connection to traditional culture.
“We’re the next generation,” says Stiffarm. “The seventh generation. The generation that’s supposed to bring back our language and culture.”
He’s talking about a Native American prophecy that says, after seven generations of separation from tradition and nature, young people will have a cultural awakening. But Che says he isn’t seeing that in his community.
“The only people who really have the best insight is our elders,” says Stiffarm. “And, just to be blunt about it, they ain’t really gonna be here for much longer.”
So, there’s a sense of urgency, Che says, to pass that wisdom along.
“If the kids out there don’t realize anything about it—if they haven’t learned at a young age,” Stiffarm says, “how are we going to bring it back?”
These reports are part of ‘The American Graduate: Let’s Make It Happen’—a public media initiative to address the dropout crisis. Supported by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.