The library at Wyoming Indian Middle School in Ethete is hands-down the coziest place in the building. When I walk in after driving through a snow storm, the lights are dim and there's some kind of woodsy incense burning. But a few weeks ago, librarian Jenn Runs Close to Lodge said the atmosphere was a bit more chaotic.
"We had about 15 kids in the library here. You know we had glitter everywhere and horses laying all over," Runs Close To Lodge said.
Tiny paper horses, that is. Her students spent more than 30 hours designing those horses, scanning them into a computer program, cutting them out with a laser tool and painting designs on them, all so they could go inside clear, plastic Christmas ornaments and hang on Wyoming's state tree outside the White House in Washington D.C.
Wyoming Indian Middle was one of 56 schools chosen to help decorate the trees surrounding the National Christmas Tree- one from each U.S. state and territory- as part of the National Park Service's "America Celebrates" program.
"The students decorate ornaments in ways that represent their homes, whether it's state flowers, state trees, state landmarks or parks," said Katelyn Liming of the National Park Service.
Every year, the Park Service partners with the U.S. Department of Education to identify schools that want to help. Once those schools get their 24 ornaments in the mail, the instructions are simple.
"They're asked to represent their states in some way. We love if they can incorporate a holiday theme in some way," Liming said.
And they're asked to keep their project a secret until the Parks Service coordinates a national announcement. So, Runs Close To Lodge told her eighth graders a little fib about what the ornaments were for. When they learned the truth, that their artwork was headed to Washington D.C., the kids couldn't believe it.
"How did our tiny school on the Reservation get picked to make the ornaments?" said middle schooler Roberta White Plume.
She and her classmates wanted to design something that all Wyomingites could connect to, so they went with a red horse as the center of their ornament. But they also wanted to reflect the uniqueness of their school and their home on the Wind River Reservation. That's where eighth grader Dante Shakespeare's design skills came in. He drew the horse in Plains Indian ledger art style.
"Ledger art represents Native American culture," Shakespeare said. "So I looked at the ledger art, I thought about it. I used a piece of blank paper and just started drawing."
Ledger art has roots in the early Reservation-era, when people from the Arapaho, Shoshone and other plains tribes were forced onto Reservations and suddenly didn't have access to animal hides that they traditionally painted historical scenes on. Using ledger paper, often discarded by federal Indian agents or missionaries, they started to document their lives and histories with pencil drawings instead.
In a ledger drawing, everything from the colors to the symbols an artist uses has meaning. So, Shakespeare said he and his classmates spent a lot of time deliberating over what the horse should look like. In the end, they came up with a simple design that packs a punch. White Plume said it tells a story about the natural beauty of the Wind River Reservation.
"The mountains represent the Wind River mountains, and they're blue because of how they look in the night time. And there's also the evening star, because it represents our night sky," White Plume said. "It's really cool that we get to show people our culture a little bit."
The students hung their horses inside the ornaments using fly fishing line, dusted them with gold glitter for good measure and shipped them off to D.C.
To be clear, these things do not look like your typical middle school art project. They'd fit right in on the shelves of a fancy gift shop in Jackson Hole. And the kids know that.
"One of the 8th graders was like, 'This is cool, and ours looks so much better than everyone's!'" Runs Close To Lodge said with a laugh. "And I said you're okay, it's okay, that little bit of vanity is okay."
Because when people think of the Wyoming Indian School District, Runs Close To Lodge said the first thing that comes to mind is usually its sports teams.
"We're known for basketball and cross country and our athletic programs," she said. "People forget that we have a lot of cultural things that occur. A lot of our kids are fantastic artists. They're singers, they're dancers, they're beautiful writers. They do a lot of things in their community that represents who they are and their identity."
And on December 5, those young artists will be watching from Wind River as the National Christmas Tree and 56 state trees are lit up, hoping to catch a glimpse of the ornaments they made.
Have a question about this story? Contact the reporter, Savannah Maher, at email@example.com.
Savannah is a Report For America corps member.