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Partnership between culture and education

Students learn from tribal educators on ancestral lands of the Bridger-Teton National Forest

Marshall Thompson
Intermountain Region 
November 8, 2023

Tucked among the pines and sagebrush meadows, along the banks of the Buffalo Fork River in Wyoming, students from multiple Wind River Reservation schools traveled west of the continental divide to the Blackrock District administration site on the Bridger-Teton National Forest. The purpose of the visit was to take part in an educational and cultural experience known as the Blackrock Field Camp.

About 20 students and teachers watching a demonstration of the crosscut saw they will use as part of a field station set up to teach outdoor skills.
Tribal students and teachers watch a demonstration of the crosscut saw during the Blackrock Field Camp on the Bridger-Teton National Forest. (USDA Forest Service photo by Marshall Thompson

“This is land is sacred to the local Tribes,” said Todd Stiles, Jackson District Ranger.  “Providing the students an opportunity to learn about their culture and the outdoors on their ancestral lands is a huge benefit.”  

The Blackrock Field Camp began in 2016 as an idea for children from the Wind River Reservation to experience the outdoors, in an area that holds cultural significance to the local Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapaho Tribes.

Cultural connections

What began as a one-day field camp for fourth graders, has grown into a two-day cultural engagement, involving several hundred students. “After the first-year camp, we were asked what it would take to add an additional day, focused more on cultural engagement,” said Stiles. The next year an additional day was added, for fifth graders to learn more about the local culture.  

A kid in a green shirt that says Blackrock Field Camp and has a mountain and a crosscut saw with partner logos
A student wears the green Blackrock Field Camp t-shirt, which shows the mountains over a crosscut saw with the partner logos beneath. (USDA Forest Service photo by Marshall Thompson)

The focus on day two of the camp provides Tribal educators an opportunity to engage with the students from a direct cultural perspective.  “We all felt that having members of the Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapaho Tribes leading the 2nd day of education would be more meaningful to the students,” said Stiles.

The partners and Tribal liaisons saw an opportunity for the 2nd day to be a deeper learning experience for the students. “Many of these children have grown up in a generation that has lost touch with our culture,” said Mike Redman, a teacher at St. Stephens Indian School and Tribal Educator at the Blackrock Field Camp.  “The Blackrock Field Camp provides a great opportunity, surrounded by our ancestral lands, to teach the younger generation about our culture.”

Iva Moss-Redman, Adjunct professor at Central Wyoming College, and Research Assistant and Ph.D. candidate at the University of Idaho discussed the aspects of mathematics in Tribal culture.  

An animal skull with horns lies on a white plastic picnic table in front of a tepee that has painted handprints on it.
Instructors taught students how the teepees are not primitive technology, but rather second-nature understanding of mathematics by their ancestors. (USDA Forest Service photo by Marshall Thompson

“We can show that the process of constructing a teepee is not primitive technology, but rather an epistemological knowledge of geometry,” said Moss-Redman. “This is what we’re developing in educational instruction for Tribal students, an understanding of how mathematics was second nature to our ancestors’ everyday lives.”  

Moss-Redman led the session about storytelling and Arapaho Symbolism, in which students learned the culture of storytelling through the use of symbols.  The students then had the opportunity to create their own stories.

Partnerships in education

The camp was originally designed to provide a one-day event for 4th grade students focusing on aspects of outdoor engagement.  

Three students aiming and spraying bear mace at a stationery bear model while a field instructor watched their technique.
Students learn how to safely use bear mace to protect themselves from an aggressive bear approaching them in the wild. The bear in the image is a statue. (USDA Forest Service photo by Marshall Thompson

“I had based the design of the field camp, off a similar camp that I was involved in on the Gallatin National Forest,” said Stiles.  “However, I wanted to focus this camp as an opportunity for students from the Wind River Reservation.”

The process to design a camp of this size was going to take more support than what the Forest Service alone could offer, so a request for assistance went out to numerous organizations, and the request was answered.  

“This year we had numerous agencies and organizations that assisted in teaching or by providing logistical support,” responded Jason Wilmot, Blackrock District Ranger. “Without the help of organizations like the Friends of the Bridger-Teton, Teton Science Schools Mountain Academy, and the schools and Tribes from the Wind River Reservation, we’d never be able to make the field camp work,” Wilmot added.

Collaboration for the field camp comes at many different levels, with some organizations contributing financial support while others lead instructional sessions on bear safety and the seasonal migration patterns of wildlife.

The Jackson Lions Club assisted with serving lunch to the students and field camp participants. “A tradition that we’ve brought back every year is the bison burger lunch,” said Stiles.  

What the future holds

There’s no rest for the weary when organizing an event like the Blackrock Field Camp.  

Students search though a large plastic Tupperware tub with tweezers on a white plastic table.
Students use tweezers to search for insects, plants, and other life from a stream dirt sample. (USDA Forest Service photo by Marshall Thompson

“We’ll gather shortly after the camp ends and discuss how things went for the 2023 camp, and begin planning for the 2024 field camp,” said Hannah Jacobsen, Partnership Coordinator for the Bridger-Teton National Forest, and upcoming camp organizer.  “Working with all the partners, and planning for a multi-day event takes time, so we’ll get started right away.”

For more information about the Blackrock Field Camp and how you may be able to contribute, contact the Blackrock District Office on the Bridger-Teton National Forest or visit the Friends of the Bridger-Teton website.