Outdoor Day Camp Focuses On Exposing Wind River Reservation Fifth Graders To Their Own Culture

May 17, 2019

Last year was the first year fifth graders from three schools on the Wind River Reservation participated in a cultural field camp just south of Yellowstone. The day camp organized by the National Forest Service hopes to give Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapaho children a chance to learn their culture while outdoors.

On a sunny day on a sagebrush meadow at the Blackrock Ranger district, just a couple miles from the south entrance of Bridger-Teton National Forest, Patrick Moss of the Northern Arapaho tribe stood inside a circle of fifth graders from the Wind River Reservation with the Tetons in view.

Pat Moss welcomes the kids to the day camp.
Credit Kamila Kudelska

"Today is the culture day of this field camp. Throughout the day, you all will be having a time at each of the stations learning and sharing what you know as well as learning what the elders will be providing," said Moss.

Moss introduced the elders that will be their teachers for the day, then five fifth graders sung a flag song.

This is Blackrock field camp. It's organized by the U.S. Forest Service and sponsored by many agencies like the Sierra Club and the Elk Refuge. The camp started four years ago just for fourth graders to learn outdoor education. But last year, a second day was added for fifth graders with a focus on learning about their American Indian culture. Joshua Mann, Eastern Shoshone historic preservation officer, said bringing awareness to younger kids is very important.

"When it comes to technology and other devices, it makes a lot of our kids reliant. And a lot of our culture is kind of fizzling away," said Mann.

But he said at least his tribe is aware of this problem.

"It's all dwindling away and that's sad to say, but it's one of the truths that we can change now," he said.

Margie Willows speaks to a group of students about the four elements of self.
Credit Kamila Kudelska

Then Mann was pulled away by a curious kid asking what they were going to be talking about. Mann replied the discussion will revolve around what the ancient tribes did to make arrowheads. He pointed to a table where they were rocks and arrowheads

All around Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapaho elders were heading up different stations like archery, painting medallions, or making a beaded chokers.

Stanford "Butch" Devinney presided over the storytelling station.

"I just did a story on the legend of the Devil's Tower. These stories are here for the children to learn about their culture," he said.

Devinney said when he was growing up, he played, hunted, and fished outside with his uncles or other family members who taught him his culture.

"Now a days everything is modern...[they] get information from the internet and learn to do things from the internet, and they don't go outside like in my day [when] we went outside all day," said Devinney.

The kids definitely enjoyed the outdoors. A group of boys said they learned how to make chokers and why they are important.

"Why are they important? I asked. "The buffalo!" yelled the boys.

Under one of the yellow activity tents, I met Kalen SunRhodes. He's a Northern Arapaho and a single father of two sons. The field camp is exposing the boys to things that SunRhodes himself didn't even know.

Kalen SunRhodes and his son, Colton.
Credit Kamila Kudelska

"They talked about some of the traditional medicines that they used to grow that is still growing here," said SunRhodes. "And they (his sons) were able to know some things that I didn't know about."

SunRhodes said seeing the kids making chokers and doing other activities seems to give them an understanding of who they are.

"That little necklace they made or something that they painted here is something to reflect on, look back on, as a little reminder of understanding that you are an Arapaho or you are a Shoshone descent and it's strong in you," said SunRhodes.

To the elders, even such a small recognition means that the kids learned something at the Blackrock Field camp. The hope is to eventually do an overnight camp so the kids can learn stargazing and night time storytelling.