Over the past two years, the Fort Washakie School has revived a tradition called the 5 Buffalo Days, a week-long celebration of the cultural and ecological significance of buffalo for Plains Native people. This year's celebration had to be moved online, but tribal educators say the lessons students learn during the 5 Buffalo Days are more important than ever. Wyoming Public Radio's Savannah Maher spoke with one of those educators.
The 5 Buffalo Days are all about helping students know themselves better-where they come from and what their role is in the community. But for the better part of the last 10 years, the event took a hiatus.
When Lynette St. Clair took a job as the Indian education coordinator at Fort Washakie School, she felt her students were missing out.
"It was, I thought, important for them to understand the connection that we have as Indian people to buffalo. Because for many reasons, we are still here because of the buffalo," St. Clair said last summer.
So, she brought the 5 Buffalo Days back. It started with lessons in science classrooms.
"The teachers teach them about the several different uses of the buffalo parts. They teach them about the geography, you know the migratory patterns of the buffalo," St. Clair said.
Then, grandmas and grandpas started coming into school to teach the kids stories about the buffalo, how to tell them in the Shoshone language, and how to use different parts of the animal in ceremony.
Last year's revamped 5 Buffalo Days came with some modifications. Instead of a Friday parade all around Fort Washakie, students rode on horseback and in floats around the school building. And unlike the old days, they didn't get to harvest a real buffalo.
But last year's celebration was supposed to be special in a different way. It coincided with a gift of five buffalo from the Fort Peck tribes in northeast Montana to the Eastern Shoshone Tribe's herd.
"We were super excited. It was like poetry in motion, how it was happening at the inception of the return of our 5 Buffalo Days here at the Fort Washakie school," St. Clair said.
But it didn't quite work out that way. Bad weather in Montana meant that the buffalo couldn't be rounded up, so their trip to Wind River was postponed.
"We were really bummed that it didn't happen. Of course, it was a reminder by, I think, the powers that be, that we're not in control of everything. So for me, it was a really strong reminder that you have to adapt and change to accommodate the times and the circumstance," St. Clair said.
And of course this year, Fort Washakie School students are learning that lesson all over again.
"[Because of] COVID-19, we had to recalibrate and figure out how we were going to bring the 5 Buffalo Days to our students through a virtual aspect," St. Clair said.
I spoke with St. Clair again this week, day three of the virtual 5 Days of Buffalo. In some ways, this is a pared-down version. But she said that during the pandemic, it's even more important that Fort Washakie School students understand Shoshone and Arapaho history.
"You know for Indian people, of course [the pandemic] affects us in a huge way. But these are things that we've contended with since the reservation system. These are storms that we ride out, but we do it together," St. Clair said.
And it's important that they understand Shoshone and Arapaho values.
"I've never been more proud of where I come from. Because you know when this first started how everyone was going out and buying all this stuff up, and it was like what the heck? People are thinking more about themselves rather than about anybody else," St. Clair said. "It's about me, me, me. And it's not, 'Gee I'd better help my family and my elders'. Here on the rez, we were going, 'What's with all the toilet paper?' You know, taking care of each other is something we've always done as Indian people and that we'll continue to do."
St. Clair said there's one event that they won't be able to move online. Because of that gift of five buffalo last spring, the Shoshone Tribes herd had a few to spare this year.
"Our kids were really excited to have the opportunity to actually see a buffalo being harvested and learn more about the process," St. Clair said.
But while they didn't watch the harvest, many Fort Washakie School students got to eat some of the buffalo meat, which was donated to Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapaho tribal members in need.
The harvested buffalo have been replaced by two new calves born into the herd this spring, and the tribe is expecting more. St. Clair hopes that means there'll be buffalo to spare next year, too, and her students will get to experience a harvest.
Either way, she says next year's 5 Buffalo Days will be one to remember.
"Yes, it will be. A huge celebration. I think the community will be ready for that. I know I'll be."
Have a question about this story? Contact the reporter, Savannah Maher, at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Savannah is a Report For America corps member.