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Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapaho students take school outside at Blackrock Field Camp

A person displays a yellow t-shirt with drawings of the Tetons, elk, bears and other wildlife with the words “Nature is beautiful.”
Hannah Habermann
Wyoming Public Media
A fifth grader at the Blackrock Field Camp shows off the front of their T-shirt, which is made especially for the event. Every elementary school on the Wind River Reservation holds a drawing contest, and one drawing from each school is incorporated into the final design.

On a sunny May morning, more than a 100 fifth graders played and explored in an open grassy clearing, surrounded by pine trees on the banks of the rushing Buffalo Fork River. They were attending the annual Blackrock Field Camp, a two-day educational event put on by the U.S. Forest Service each year for students from elementary schools on the Wind River Reservation.

Small groups of kids, mostly wearing yellow t-shirts, stand in groups, chatting and exploring the grass and the landscape around them. A group of five adults stand in a circle and talk in the foreground.
Hannah Habermann
Wyoming Public Media
Fifth grade students and teachers mingle and chat by the Buffalo Fork River before the day of educational programming at the Blackrock Field Camp.

The get together started in 2016 and is now in its seventh year. It takes place on the Bridger-Teton National Forest, just outside of Grand Teton National Park, and is all about place-based education and supporting tribal cultural traditions.

Whitney Sutt is a fifth grade teacher at Fort Washakie Elementary School. She’s been teaching at the school for 11 years and said coming to Blackrock is her favorite field trip.

“[The program] relates the learning to the Shoshone and Arapaho culture of the students. At the schools they get plenty of culture, but to be outdoors and learn from the elders is just so much more invigorating and special to the kids in the tribes,” she said.

Sutt said the bison burger lunch is a consistent highlight for the kids, as well as any sort of programming that gets them touching and interacting with the natural world around them.

“Kids love to listen to their stories, but as you know, kids have a hard time sitting still. So anything super hands-on and anything that they can have to take home is very nice,” she said.

On the first day of the programming, fourth grade students learned about environmental science and stewardship through a series of stations primarily staffed by folks from the Forest Service and nonprofit partners like Friends of the Bridger-Teton and the Wyoming Wilderness Association. Activities included identifying macroinvertebrates in the nearby river, checking out skulls and hides from local animals, and making a bison-branded “log cookie” using a crosscut saw.

A small group of students sit underneath a tarp with their backs to the camera, listening as an older woman standing behind a table holds a jar and gestures.
Hannah Habermann
Wyoming Public Media
Eastern Shoshone elder Diana Mitchell gives a show-and-tell talk about edible plants in the area with elementary students at the Blackrock Field Camp.

The following day, fifth graders got the chance to learn at stations put together by elders from both the Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapaho tribes. Northern Arapaho elder William C’Hair opened the day of learning with a prayer and a blessing. Then, he and a group of students sang the Northern Arapaho Flag Song to honor their veterans. Another group recited the Pledge of Allegiance in Shoshone.

C'Hair has worked in the world of education for over four decades and is a longtime Arapaho language preservationist. He said this kind of classroom – outside and intergenerational – is a welcome change.

“To this day, the state departments throughout our country have yet to recognize our different values, or different ways of thinking, or different ways of learning,” he said.

C’Hair cited the 1928 Meriam Report, the 1969 Indian Education Report from the Kennedy administration and the 2014 Native Youth Report from the Obama Administration as examples of the ways in which the United States’ education system continues to fail Indigenous students.

“Had they arranged their curriculum along our values, I think our children could learn much, much faster and much more,” he said.

Jason Wilmot is the Blackrock District Ranger and said the field camp is the Bridger-Teton’s biggest educational program, with somewhere from 60 to 70 employees and partners coming to support the event this year.

“I really care about this place and this just adds a lot of depth to it. There's some history here that goes back a long way and it feels good to be a steward of that,” he said.

The back of a yellow t-shirt, which says “Blackrock Field Camp” and has five logos underneath it representing the Bridger-Teton National Forest and the four schools involved in the event.
Hannah Habermann
Wyoming Public Media
The back of the Blackrock Field Camp T-shirt, with the logo of the Bridger-Teton National Forest, Fort Washakie Elementary School, St. Stephens School, Wyoming Indian School and Arapaho Elementary School.

Wilmot said the field camp is part of the Forest Service’s broader efforts to build relationships with tribes throughout the country. One piece of that is putting more effort into hiring more tribal liaisons.

“There's some really high quality folks nationwide building those relationships and talking about things like co-stewardship, connecting to people, asking them about their heritage and acknowledging treaty rights,” he said. “It’s pretty important.”

The fifth grader students spent the day making art by the river, building teepees, and listening to stories and teachings from tribal elders. Wilmot and the rest of the Forest Service team will use whatever lessons come out of this year’s camp to improve the programming for the next year – and he said they have no plans of stopping anytime soon.

Hannah Habermann is the rural and tribal reporter for Wyoming Public Radio. She has a degree in Environmental Studies and Non-Fiction Writing from Middlebury College and was the co-creator of the podcast Yonder Lies: Unpacking the Myths of Jackson Hole. Hannah also received the Pattie Layser Greater Yellowstone Creative Writing & Journalism Fellowship from the Wyoming Arts Council in 2021 and has taught backpacking and climbing courses throughout the West.
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