Skip to Content

Save the Indian, Save the Child

For American Indian students, learning their ancient traditions may be key to their future success.

By Cindy Long

When eighth-grader Gabby Thunder speaks Arapaho at home, it brings hope to her grandmother that the old ways will live on. To Gabby, it brings cultural pride and a sense of rootedness to her people, even as she looks to a future away from "the rez."

Gabby is taking an Arapaho language class at Wyoming Indian Middle School on the Wind River Indian Reservation in central Wyoming. In the small village of Ethete -- pronounced EETH-eh-tee, meaning "good" in Arapaho -- the school is next door to the Wind River Tribal College and across a lonely intersection from the Little Wind Casino.

"At our school, we get to learn about the heritage of our tribes," says Gabby. "We learn our language, but we also get to learn traditions like archery, storytelling, singing, dancing, and drumming -- even hand games."

Gabby doesn't know if she'll return home to the reservation after she attends college, probably at the University of Phoenix. After all, the jobs are in the cities. Like many reservations, Wind River is plagued by poverty and high unemployment, and many residents depend on per-capita checks, their share of the tribe's income from casinos and leased tribal lands. Alcoholism is chronic and, more recently, meth has found its way onto the reservation, perpetuating the cycle of poverty.

The educators and administrators of Wyoming Indian Schools -- comprising an elementary, middle, and high school -- hope to break that cycle by getting back to their roots. It's the only public school system in the state where Shoshone and Arapaho languages and culture are part of the curriculum. Their strategy appears to be paying off-- test scores show Native American students at the Indian Schools achieve more academically than those at schools where their culture is not a part of everyday studies.

Of the more than 300 languages spoken in the United States at the time the Europeans first made contact on American soil, only 175 remain, according to the Indigenous Language Institute. That number will go down to 20 by 2050, unless new generations pick them up.

Fortunately, with the passage of the Native American Languages Act of 1990 and the Esther Martinez Native American Languages Preservation Act of 2006, there's been a resurgence of Native studies at reservation schools across the country. It's not only saving languages from extinction, it's instilling a sense of pride and purpose among Native children.

"Our people hold our children sacred," says Dodie White, a longtime social studies teacher at Wyoming Indian Middle School and member of the Arapaho tribe. "They are our greatest asset, and we work to connect them with our cultural heritage, so they know who they are, so they have purpose."

According to research, cultural context is essential for American Indian students to succeed in school and go on to college. White says the approach has taken off. "At the University of Wyoming, for example, there's now a course for student teachers called 'Teachers of American Indian Children,'" she says. "And it's really working. Data from 2005 showed that Natives had the highest dropout rate in the country, but the graduation rate has risen every year since. The key is adding the culture."

White grew up on the Wind River Reservation, which is home to more than 5,000 members of the Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapaho tribes. It's the third-largest reservation in the country, sitting on more than 2 million acres of the windswept Wind River Basin, a desert plain dotted by sagebrush and ringed by the snow-capped peaks of the Wind River Range and Owl Creek Mountains on the horizon.

She graduated from Wyoming Indian High School in 1991. "Like my students today, I was a child with goals and dreams, but I had to overcome obstacles," she says. White was a teenage mother who dealt with alcoholism and abuse among those close to her. "I see and I know what these kids are going through," she says, her eyes welling with tears as she recalls a student who struggled to stay awake in class. He apologetically explained that he was tired because the night before, his drunk uncle had fought with the family until dawn. "As a people," says White, "we've always had to overcome obstacles."

She knew early on she wanted to become an educator -- she had worked alongside her own teachers in high school as a tutor to her classmates. She eventually earned a tribal scholarship and studied full-time at the University of Wyoming while feeding her two young daughters with food stamps. "It was a struggle," she says.

She also knew she'd come back to the reservation to teach, not only to help preserve the heritage of the tribe but also to serve as a role model. "When they look at me they think, 'If she can do it, I can, too,'" White says.

White isn't the only tribal role model. At every level of school, White says Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapaho tribe members work alongside core curriculum educators to preserve "the old ways."

One of them, Cora Willow, teaches Arapaho language and culture at Wyoming Indian Middle School.

On the school's annual Heritage Day, Willow greets a class of seventh-graders filing into her classroom, asking them in Arapaho to settle down and take their seats. "Ho'hou," she says. Thank you.

She's teaching the students an ancient hand game called koxouhtiit, played with red willow sticks gathered by the river, sanded down, and adorned with beads and feathers. There's a guessing stick, hiding sticks, and point sticks, and as the children play, Willow puts on a CD of traditional Arapaho songs. Willow plays the game at home with her children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren. It's a social game, she says, traditionally played during wintertime where everyone would gather together to catch up on the news. "They'd play all night, and then feast," Willow says.

A quiet woman, with graying black hair parted in the middle and falling nearly to her waist, Willow was at first shy about teaching. But she wanted to help preserve the ways of her people -- after all, she remembers when the ancient traditions were being stamped out.

After American Indians were moved to reservations, their children were sent to mission and government boarding schools in the late 1800s. The goal was complete assimilation, or, as Dodie White says, to "kill the Indian, save the child."

The schools, which operated until the mid-20th century, punished children for speaking their native language, isolated them from their parents and grandparents, and forced them to speak English. In 2000, Assistant Secretary of the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), Kevin Gover, apologized publicly for the U.S. government's treatment of American Indians -- which he likened to ethnic cleansing --including the brutalization carried out at the boarding schools.

A group of elders on the reservation who remember the boarding schools were determined to build an institution that would bring quality education and cultural dignity to reservation children. The Wyoming Indian School opened as a BIA school in 1972. In 1983 it became a public K–12 school system.

The elders chose to call the school Wyoming Indian Schools after their state and because tribal veterans said they went into wars to fight as "Indians" rather than as "Native Americans." The school's mascot -- the Chiefs -- was named just as purposefully.

Young men traditionally went out to earn valor as hunters and warriors. "Now those days are gone," says Wyoming Indian Middle School cultural advisor Jenny Runsclosetolodge. "Today the way our young men and women bring honor is through education." Those who hold the highest honor are the tribal chiefs.

The students are proud to be Chiefs and are consistently recognized for good sportsmanship. "They know they represent their community and their tribe when they go off the reservation to play," says Runsclosetolodge. "They carry themselves with respect, and they treat others respectfully."

They're not always treated with the same regard. The Chiefs are best known for their boys' high school basketball team, portrayed in the 2000 documentary titled Chiefs. Over the years, the basketball team has been a repeated target of hostility. Once they found a dead deer inside their travel bus. At another game, a police officer checked the team's water to make sure they hadn't spiked it with liquor. They've been greeted by opposing team fans' racist "Indian war cry" whoops, threats that they'd be scalped, and hollers of "Go back to the rez!"

Runsclosetolodge was a cheerleader when she went to Wyoming Indian High School and remembers being called a "stupid squaw" by an opposing team's fan.

But the games went on, and the Chiefs kept winning -- they accrued five state championships under Coach Al Redman. Understanding and tolerance have increased in the mostly White area of Wyoming that surrounds the reservation, and the Wyoming Indian students continue to maintain their self-respect. Today the halls are filled with students showing Chief pride by wearing their team's T-shirts, as well as shirts that say "Native for Life,"'"The Future is Ours," and "Quitting is Not an Option."

John Soundingsides is the younger brother of Brian Soundingsides, the gifted athlete immortalized in Chiefs. The younger Soundingsides plans to follow his brother onto the high school varsity basketball team, and then go to college—his pick is Kansas State. After that, maybe the NBA, or maybe to work on rockets.

Right now, he's content to work on cars on the reservation and continue his studies at Wyoming Indian Schools. One of his best subjects is the Arapaho language class, which he says is important to him and his family so "we can hold on to our traditional ways." His favorite word is one that will serve him well in school, in college, and beyond. It's "Tous," or hello.

Send comments on this story to

Photos: Michael McClure


Where We Teach - Wind River Indian Reservation

Where We Teach - Wind River Indian Reservation

Published in:

Published In