JACKSON, Wyo.— The kids stand in a circle, zipping up jackets and clutching blankets they’d hauled off the school bus that brought them to Grand Teton National Park from the Wind River Reservation.
They’re admittedly having a hard time concentrating and have already been warned once by their principal, Mrs. Elberta Monroe, to behave. She repeats the command in Arapaho, “Teitoonhehi.”
It’s an overcast and rainy September morning, but energy buzzes among the 33 11- and 12-year-olds, most of the sixth-grade class from Arapahoe Middle School. For many it was the first time they had taken the three-hour ride to Jackson, a field trip arranged in part to connect the Northern Arapaho students to the cultural and historical heritage of the park.
Park Ranger Sarin LoMascolo holds up a small display of tools, some made of a glassy black rock, and asks the students if they know what she’s holding.
“They’re arrowheads!” a few say in unison.
Their first assignment of the three-day trip is to hunt for some of the same in the park, and they split into groups. Teachers are given guides that explain the rocks and shapes the kids hope to discover. They set off on a hunt, plopping down to examine rocks, occasionally shouting out, “Sarin! Mrs. Park Ranger Lady!” when they think they’ve found something.
Many are disappointed to find they’ve unearthed broken river rocks. Emily Petty, one of the teachers on the trip, discovers she’s picked up a piece of dried scat eliciting giggles from her students and an eye roll from her.
A few, like 11-year-old Shawn Bell, find artifacts and show the flakes of obsidian to their classmates.
“It was quite an experience for these young kids,” teacher Ron Oldman says. “I don’t think they’d ever been to a national park before.
“This place has a lot of significance to us.”
The trip was a step forward in a burgeoning relationship between the Northern Arapaho tribe and Jackson, a connection the tribe and Jackson Hole Wild have been fostering for the past several years.
Jackson Hole Wild helped arrange a field trip last year as well, welcoming nearly 250 kindergartners through fifth-graders to ScienceFest, a one-day science festival hosted at the Center for the Arts.
“When you start to think about all the opportunities that all the kids in Jackson have it becomes really evident that with a little additional work you can expand that circle to really, really make a difference on a broader level,” Executive Director Lisa Samford said.
Based largely on interest from the students, the programming expanded this year to a three-day, two-night field trip for the sixth-grade class at Arapahoe Middle School. The excursion corresponded with the Jackson Hole Wildlife Film Festival, bringing students into a few screenings, again opening the doors to ScienceFest, but also adding tours of the recycling centre and Vertical Harvest.
The program, Samford said, is a community effort not only to connect the tribe to the resources and learning opportunities in Jackson Hole, but to cultivate enrichment and an connection between Jackson students and the Arapaho students.
“What we’re really trying to build together is something that has some staying power over time, and has immense potential for mutual enrichment,” she said. “We want to create opportunities for continued relationships that will be built over time, are really built on this notion of mutual respect and engagement. We are all the same.”
Thus far the partnership has brought Arapaho students to Jackson twice, but Samford envisions Jackson students making the trip to the reservation one day. She also sees potential for exchanged storytelling or otherwise interacting through the arts, be it dance or theatre.
For many of the students most, the teachers said the trip to Jackson was the farthest they had travelled from the reservation.
“Many of them haven’t even been past 20 miles,” Petty said. “It’s nice for them to see their history spans farther than Arapahoe and that town.”
While LoMascolo led the discussion about arrowheads and tipi rings in the park, tribe elder Mary Ann Duran and Oldman, the Arapaho language and culture teacher, identified animals and geological features in Arapaho, a language both said has been largely lost on the younger generation.
“I’ve been giving them language classes,” Oldman said.
Moose: hinen’ehii. Elk: hiiwox’uhuuu. Grizzly: nonookuneseet.
The students know a few words, some phrases, but none speaks it fluently. Outside of school, few speak it regularly.
“That’s why I’m on this trip,” Duran said. “(The language) is gone.
“We’ve taught almost 40 years and we have not even produced a speaker,” she said. “Not one speaker at all. We can teach it and teach it and talk it in the schools, but when they get home, their parents don’t know it.”
But she saw a spark of hope as she watched the kids explore Grand Teton.
“Some of them will be interested,” she said.
The teachers work on whipping up a batch of Indian tacos in the kitchen at St. John’s Episcopal Church, while Duran waits for the group to calm so she can tell an Arapaho tale she learned as a child.
Despite a 4-mile hike on the National Elk Refuge, the sixth-graders still have a lot of energy.
Eventually the students settle in and listen. She tells them the story of the “Star People.”
“A long time ago, storytelling was something that I would really look forward to. That was the only entertainment we had,” she says. “I don’t want our history to get lost. I don’t want our stories to get lost.”
They listen intently.
The story and the trip to Grand Teton are some of the most poignant parts of the trip, even if the students can’t quite put that into words.
“You get to learn new things about how people lived here and how people survived,” says Jordan Black, 11, about Grand Teton National Park, a place he had visited before. “It’s nice how people want us to come. Some schools don’t do things like we do.”
“I think a lot of them connected with that,” says Keith Spoonhunter Sr., a parent who was on the trip with his daughter, Kylaya. “That’s where they seemed to be paying the most attention.”
The long-term impact, however, is unlikely to come for years yet.
“I like that there’s a connection between the reservation and Jackson,” he says. “But for a lot of them, this is their first time here.”