Wisconsin teachers learn to teach about American Indians amid pandemic


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Green Bay Press-Gazette

If one positive has come out of the pandemic lockdown for David O’Connor, it’s the large increase in educators he’s been training in Wisconsin as a result of online learning.

O’Connor serves as American Indian Studies consultant for the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction. His job includes providing training workshops that show educators best methods to teach about Indigenous people in schools.

The initiative was borne out of Act 31, the state’s requirement to educate children about Indigenous treaty rights, history and culture.

David O’Connor (Photo: David O’Connor)

The legislation was passed as a response to the frequent violent and racist harassment of Ojibwe spearfishers who were practicing their treaty rights in the 1980s in northern Wisconsin and is meant as an effort to combat ignorance through education.

Pre-pandemic, O’Connor would hold his training sessions in person and would see up to 40 educators attending each one when he first started in 2012. Eventually, he said attendance grew to up to 75.

Now, since many people — especially teachers — have adapted to learning online, O’Connor’s workshops have drawn several hundred attendees each.

With more than 100 sessions a year, his workshops have the potential to reach more than six times more teachers than pre-pandemic.

O’Connor is ecstatic, because he knows there’s a lot more work to be done for the state to live up to the promise of Act 31.

“I start by helping folks unlearn what they know, their biases, their stereotypes,” O’Connor said.

For example, he said there is no single Native American culture, but many cultures. In Wisconsin, there are 12 Indigenous nations, and each one has unique histories.

O’Connor is a citizen of one of those nations, the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa (Ojibwe), in northern Wisconsin, and he sees his work as a way to make a better world for his family and for all Wisconsin students.

His Ojibwe name is Bwaakoningwiid, which translates to BrokenWing, but also means “Spirit Never Gives Up.”

By law, American Indian studies has to be taught in Wisconsin schools as part of the social studies curriculum, but O’Connor would like to see the subject taught more often than in one class at a certain time of year and be included in multiple subject areas.

“It should be interwoven in the curriculum, from the beginning of the year to the end,” he said.

O’Connor said education about Indigenous people also tends to be focused on as a people and culture of the past when, in fact, Indigenous nations are still here and part of the overall communities.

“It’s always about our history, rather than who we are today,” he said.

O’Connor points to Indigenous nation business operations as being one of the largest, if not the largest, employer of non-Natives in several Wisconsin counties.

He said he wants people to understand Indigenous people are neighbors, co-workers, judges, educators and others in the community today.

“We shaped Wisconsin’s history, are shaping Wisconsin today and will continue to shape Wisconsin into the future,” O’Connor said.

This past fall, O’Connor was presented the National Center for American Indian Enterprise Development 40 Under 40 award for his work. The award recognizes emerging Indigenous leaders from across Indian Country who have exemplified leadership, initiative and resiliency, especially during the pandemic.

As a follow-up to that recognition, O’Connor was later presented with a Wisconsin legislative citation and a certificate of commendation from Gov. Tony Evers.

He said he his very humbled and honored by the accolades, but credits what he does as an extension to everyone in his life, especially his wife Kathryn and their children Ava Marie and Ellie Ann.

O’Connor said the plan is to continue with online training workshops post-pandemic to continue to reach more people, but he does still plan to hold in-person sessions as well.

Frank Vaisvilas is a Report For America corps member based at the Green Bay Press-Gazette covering Native American issues in Wisconsin. He can be reached at 920-228-0437 or [email protected], or on Twitter at @vaisvilas_frank. Please consider supporting journalism that informs our democracy with a tax-deductible gift to this reporting effort at GreenBayPressGazette.com/RFA.


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Wednesday November 2, 2022