First place-based education event connects Wind River youth to land, elders, and community
On a bright Wednesday morning, forty or so sleepy-eyed high school students from Wyoming Indian High School sit at folding plastic tables. They’ve got journals and pens in front of them, but they’re not in your typical classroom. Instead, they’re in an open field of sagebrush that’s currently home to the Eastern Shoshone bison herd.
“We want you to prepare yourselves in a good way for the future,” said Wes Martel, an Eastern Shoshone conservationist who works with the Greater Yellowstone Coalition.
He’s trying to get the teens hyped up for the day.
“How do you want to figure out your life? What do you want to do in your life, to take care of yourself and your family, and be part of your community and be part of your tribe?” he asked.
Some of the high schoolers were still waking up, but the sun and the surrounding landscape seemed to be doing the trick.
“We're pretty lucky to be from Wind River,” said Martel. “We have 2.5 million acres of land – we're the same size as Yellowstone National Park and we have everything that Yellowstone National Park has except Old Faithful.”
The event is a partnership between the Haub School of Environment and Natural Resources, Greater Yellowstone Coalition, and the Wind River Tribal Buffalo Initiative – and it’s the first of its kind. The project came about thanks to a grant from the Western Water Assessment.
The day is part of a larger, three-day learning event that also brought 5th and 8th grade Wyoming Indian School students to the Shoshone bison pasture.
Its goals? To help young people connect with elders, and to support cultural empowerment, environmental stewardship, climate action, and tribal governance on the Wind River Reservation.
Learning on rotation
Nine shaded booths are set up in a rough circle across the green and gold pasture. At each station are regional experts in the fields of biology, hydrology, and conservation, and tribal members with lessons on language and climate change.
The high schoolers rotate between the different booths throughout the day.
At one station, Cameran Bahnsen is leading a discussion about sagebrush conservation and how the plant might be managed in an ever-changing climate. She’s Assiniboine and works as a park ranger at Grand Teton National Park.
“Do you think the government should play a really, really big role and have a lot of restrictions or be on the other end of the spectrum?” she asked the students. “Do you think it should be a free-for-all? I want to hear your opinions. Is anyone in the middle?”
At another station, the students make chimichurri from green onion, cilantro, garlic and shallots, then put it on reservation-sourced bison burgers sizzling fresh off the grill.
Tim Berquam is a 6th grade teacher at Wyoming Indian Middle School and is chefing up the bison burgers. He helps with a program called “Back to Health” at the middle school and said adding wild game and locally gathered foods to meals can make a big difference.
“We can take modern recipes and incorporate some of the things that we can get out here to make them better,” he said.
The importance of place-based education
Janna Black is a graduate student at the University of Wyoming who helped to organize the event.
“It's been really wonderful to see the facilitators being so engaged with the students and having these lesson plans, and then going with the flow and with how the students are asking questions,” she said.
Black is Alaskan Athabascan on her mom’s side of the family. She said a big hope of the event is to help the students feel more spiritually grounded in the land and to bring together community members, elders and educators to engage students outside of the classroom.
“In this age, I feel like we are becoming a little more disconnected from the land,” she said. “I feel like a lot of this camp is about sense of place and building that connection to the land.”
Eugene Ridgley Jr. is teaching about some of the different uses of bison at one of the stations – food, clothing, shelter, and guidance, to name a few. He works at the Northern Arapaho Tribal Historic Preservation Office.
He said he hopes the event can inspire young people to keep staying connected with their culture.
“Let's start a spark in someone to continue doing what we're doing – and even make a career with the National Park Service, finding positions there and coming back and helping and sharing our knowledge with our people,” he said.
Ridgley’s presentation made an impression on at least one student – Wes Martel’s granddaughter Kaylia Martel, who’s a senior at Wyoming Indian High School.
“My favorite station was when they were passing around and telling us about the uses of buffalo,” she said. “There's a lot of ways that you can use them.”
For her grandfather, that connection is the whole point of events like this.
“That’s what we're trying to do,” said Martel. “Strengthen our families and our communities – our young people are an important part of that and an important place to start.”
This first iteration of the event was a success, so the organizers are working to find more grant funding to make sure it can continue in the future.