Featuring Deb Smith, Superintendent, Fort Washakie Schools, Fremont County School District #21, WY

Superintendent Deb Smith from Fort Washakie Schools, Fremont County School District #21 in Wyoming

Superintendent Deb Smith meet with Voice4Equity CEO Christina Kishimoto and Superintendent Teresa Chaulk.MARCH 2024 | DR. CHRISTINA KISHIMOTO

Superintendent Teresa Chaulk and Dr. Christina DeJesus Kishimoto caught up via Zoom with Superintendent Deb Smith at the National Association of Impacted Indian Schools (NAIIS), where the policy structure for federal Impact Aid was top of mind, along with other pressing issues impacting students in schools on tribal reservations.  Deb Smith is in her fourth year as Superintendent of the Fort Washakie Schools in the Fremont County School District #21 on the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming and her twelfth year in the district. Her school district has approximately 500 students in Pre-Kindergarten through twelfth grade. Superintendent Smith was featured in the Wyoming Association of School Administrators Women Leaders Series in March of 2023. 

Here is a bit of Deb Smith’s incredible story and journey told in her own words.

Who I Am

I am an enrolled member of the Eastern Shoshone tribe and am also a descendant of the Northern Arapaho tribe as well. Our students are predominantly Eastern Shoshone, but we also have Northern Arapaho students, along with students from other tribes like the Lakota tribe.

I grew up on and off the reservation. My mom is an enrolled member. My grandparents are enrolled members. My grandmother is Northern Arapaho, my grandfather is Eastern Shoshone, so we come from both tribes. We are enrolled under my grandpa because it’s a paternal way in which you are enrolled for our tribe. My husband is Northern Arapaho, and we have three children and they are enrolled as Northern Arapaho, even though they are also Eastern Shoshone from me. 

Growing up, my dad is non-Indian, and we lived on the reservation when I was really young. Then my older siblings, I have two older sisters, started at Fort Washakie Schools. The year I started Kindergarten, we moved to Lander, which is off of the reservation, about fifteen miles away. It’s one of the border towns, as we call it. My dad worked for U.S. Steel Mine, which was about sixty miles away from Lander and so we moved so that he was closer to driving to work every day. My mom worked at the tribal Head Start program.


Education in a Predominantly White Community

I started school in Lander, which is predominantly a White school. Back in the early 70s there were only a small handful of Indian kids that went to Lander. Very few Hispanic children. In the town of Lander, I think there was only one family that was African American at the time, with two kids that were in high school, ‘cause my older sister started high school at the time. She was friends with the other minority students. My cousins all went to Fort Washakie. In my mom’s family, she is one of thirteen kids. And so we had cousins when we were growing up that were really close. We had fifty or more first cousins, and so we all grew up as siblings. They were considered my brothers and sisters. And so there were several that were around my age group, and I always felt like I got the raw end of the deal because I didn’t get to grow up at Fort Washakie with my cousins who are my brothers and sisters, until high school. Many of my cousins came to Lander for high school because, at the time, there wasn’t a high school at Fort Washakie. And so a lot of the reservation kids would go to other districts off of the reservation for high school. I really enjoyed going to school with my family. 


First Exposure to College

Also, growing up, my friends who were non-Indians, their parents went to college, and they went off to school. My parents did not. My mom went to nursing school through Indian Health Services, so she became an LPN. My dad did not go to college. He worked in an oil field, and when we moved from Fort Washakie to Lander, he went to work for U.S. Steel Mill. He was a blue-collar worker. So, when I went to school growing up and got to know a handful of really close friends when I got to high school age, they already knew what they wanted to do. They knew that they wanted to go to college because their parents had gone to college. And so I kinda followed them in some of the classes that they took in order to prepare to go to college. Because I didn’t really know. 


There was a program that I got involved in when I was a freshman in high school called Higher Education Project or HEP, and it was a program that targeted minority students that were first-generation college going. And so, in the Fremont area, it was predominantly for Indian kids and for kids at the reservation schools who were targeted to be involved in this program. And then a few Hispanic kids from the bigger schools in Wyoming. And then a few other kids from poverty that were in the big towns like Cheyanne and Casper that were targeted to go into this program. When I finished my freshman year of high school, between my freshman and sophomore years, that summer, this higher education project invited students to go down to the University of Wyoming campus for five weeks. And so I went, and that was my first college experience. We lived on campus. We lived in the dorms. We were assigned to certain teams, and we went to school, to class, on how to be a better student. We had English, we had Writing class, we had Math, we had Science. It was a way to get us to see what college would be like and also being away from home. And that was the hardest part for me because growing up, even though we had a huge family, we were very close. 


First Generation Challenges

During the holidays, my grandparents’ house was the place where everybody came. I remember my mom and my aunts and uncles going to my grandmother’s house, even after my grandfather died. My grandmother was the matriarch of the family. And they would all go there for lunch every day. I remember going there and seeing everyone for lunch when I was sick and had to stay home from school. I would go to my grandma’s house, and then at lunchtime, all of my aunts and uncles would come for lunch. And my grandma would cook. It was always nice to see everybody there and how they would talk and support each other, and just have that closeness. You don’t see that very often in other families. In other minority families, you do, but not in non-minority families, you generally don’t see that. So when I got to be involved in high school in that HEP project, it was really hard to be away for even five weeks during the summer because we do a lot of stuff as a family. I knew that if I wanted to go to college, it was going to be a challenge. So I survived that! And kept my grades up in high school and earned some scholarships. Then, I went on to the University of Wyoming and followed my friends. And I just had no clue. I had no clue that you had to go to the bookstore and buy all of your materials or how to pay for your tuition, what scholarships you get, and the financial aid office. I was like a fish out of water. It took me a while to get adjusted to that change. It also took my family time to get adjusted. It was interesting. 


Strong Women

I remember leaving for college, and I had forgotten something, so I went back to my house to get it. And I remember my mom was sitting at the kitchen table, and she was just crying. She just had tears on her face, and I asked her, ‘mom, are you ok?’ because my mom is a very strong person. The only times that I’ve seen her cry are at funerals. So she was crying, and I thought, ‘Oh God, did somebody pass away?’ And so I thought I can’t go. But she said, ‘No, I’m fine. Nobody died. I’m just sad because I’ve already missed you. And you are going to go to school, and I am very proud.’ And so that just kinda hit me, because I didn’t expect that. My mom and my grandma, in fact, and all of the women in my family I look up to because they are all very strong women. 


A lot of my aunts and uncles went to boarding school when they were in high school. And so, I always asked my mom why didn’t I go off to boarding school in high school. She said she didn’t want that for her kids because she wanted to be able to watch us play sports and to be involved, because she missed out on that with my grandma and grandpa when they were away. And that day when she was crying, she said that it felt like it was like that. She said, ‘it feels like I’m not going to see you as much because I know what it is when you are away from home. I don’t want you to feel that loneliness.’ That always stuck with me. But I didn’t want to let my mom down, either. I didn’t want to go to college and then end up dropping out and coming back because I knew that it was a sacrifice for my mom and dad and my siblings for me to be where I was. So I stuck it out. It took me a little longer than my friends to finish college, which was ok. But I learned a lot, and I was glad that I stuck with it. It was definitely an adjustment.


Mentorship and Family

When I went down to Laramie, there was an Indian club down there called Keepers of the Fire, and so I was involved in that. And I would try to mentor other Native students who would come to campus because I didn’t want them to feel like they were alone either. We were a pretty tight group. They became the family for me down there when I was away from my family. A few of my cousins were in Laramie with me, and that made it easier too. 


When I finished my Bachelor’s degree, I went back home and got a job working for the tribe. My degree was in Early childhood education, and I went to work for our Tribal Head Start program, in fact where my mom worked. My mom was the health educator there for thirty-five years. It was kinda cool to work with my mom and learn from her.  


I started back in the Master’s program the second year I was done with my Bachelor’s degree. I decided to get a Master’s degree in Early Childhood Special Ed because the need on our reservation was really great for school age children and also in preschool and infants and toddlers. They have a program there called the Early Intervention Program, and it’s also associated with the Developmental PreSchool Centers of Wyoming. So after Head Start, I got a job at Early Intervention and completed my Master’s degree in Early Childhood Special Ed. 


From there, I started doing more work advocating for children on the reservation. I was asked to be on a few Councils, appointed through some of the governors. One was on an advisory council for children with disabilities. Ironically, my mom had served on one of the Councils in previous years when I was going to college. It was so cool that I got asked to be on the same advisory group, except fifteen years later. 


On Discovering Her Calling and Coming Back Home

There was a job opportunity that came up at the Wyoming Department of Education in the Specials Program Unit. I applied for the job out of curiosity, not really knowing if I would get the job or not, but I applied. ‘Lo and behold, I got a callback and was hired. I actually qualified for the supervisor job, which surprised me! I was there for three years, and I learned a lot. I traveled a lot. I learned a lot about the public school system, not just the early childhood part. The whole Kindergarten through twelfth grade and college system in the WDE and it was incredible. I got to know a lot of district superintendents and a lot of special education directors at that time. And so I decided that was the work I wanted to do, on the local level instead of at the state level. I advocated a lot for the reservation schools and helped to start the Indian Conference through the Department of Education while I was there. Now, it has really grown and provides a lot of professional development to not only our teachers and staff on the reservation schools but to teachers and staff throughout the whole state. 


But I felt like my heart was back at serving my kids on my reservation. And so, I took a job in Fremont County at Arapaho School as a Special Ed Director. While I was there, the Special Education Director job at Fort Washakie School District opened up, which is my home community, and so I got that job. I’ve been there ever since. 


Accessing the Superintendent Seat

A year before COVID hit, our Superintendent, who had been there for six years, announced that he was going to retire in a year. So I approached him and asked if taking some classes to get my Superintendent’s certification would be a good idea because I wanted to know more about the position in case we were hiring someone who didn’t know our community or didn’t know how to be a superintendent. And he thought that was a good idea so I enrolled in the Superintendent certification program and completed it. When I was almost done with that program, I was approached by my professor to see if I was interested in pursuing a doctoral program. At the time, I wasn’t sure, but now that is something that I am doing. Part of it is because of the work that I have done with Voice4Equity and this WSPLA cohort. It has inspired me to really go for it, to try to get my doctorate! Where I am from, there aren’t that many Native women who have a Ph.D or Ed.D. In fact, I think my younger cousin, Dr. Diaz, is the only Shoshone woman that I know who has a Ph.D. And I think there are four Arapaho women that have a Ph.D. So I guess I would be in very close company, I guess you would say. 


The Wind River Indian Reservation

For us, we are very proud of who we are and where we come from. We live on one of the most beautiful reservations in the nation. Our Chief at the time the reservation was established was Chief Washakie. He really advocated on behalf of our people to be on the land base that we currently have, as well as the water surrounding resources. We are fortunate that our tribes both advocate for tribal sovereignty and really honor the path of getting an education. We have three main reservation schools. We are seven districts in Fremont County, and the reservation winds through all of those schools and there are three main reservation schools that serve our students. There is our district, Fremont #21, on Fort Washakie. There is Fremont #14, and then there is Arapaho Fremont #38. There is also St. Stevens. These are the main schools that serve the majority of Indian students. 


One of the benefits of working on the reservations, having a public education system there, is providing our students with the resources and knowledge and culture and traditions of each tribe and instilling those oral traditions, dances, and cultural practices within our curriculum and within our activities that we provide to our families and to our community members. We try to involve as many cultural things when we are planning activities when we are having conversations, and when we are teaching kids. For us, as Eastern Shoshone people, we have twelve core values and we celebrate one each month, from family, humility, courage, and so forth. We go through them every month, and we try to teach our kids the attributes and characteristics of that core value. We recognize them at our board meetings and we recognize staff that are embracing those core values. All of our students K through 12 have the Shoshone language as a class, and we incorporate our culture through our art classes and music, such as learning how to drum and sing. Then we have our traditional clubs where students dance and sing. We go out to other agencies and districts to try to bridge that gap to bring understanding of Indian tribes in Wyoming. We do cultural exchanges and things like that. For our students, we try to instill that sense of pride in who they are and where they come from, and who their family is. We honor that cultural piece in a lot of different ways. 


My Identity

I always identify myself as my tribe, my family, and where we are from. I am not just from Wyoming, I am from Winter Vert, I am Eastern Shoshone, I am Northern Arapaho, these are my grandparents, and these are my parents. When you introduce yourself, that is who you are, that is part of you. I am really proud that I work where I work. I am very, very proud to be a community member and to be in the position that I am. I am not only advocating for our kids, but I am also advocating for our tribe, for our people, for our language, for our identity. That’s something that I never take for granted. 


Policy and Voice

I think some of the pressing policy issues…there’s a lot! For our state, from a tribal perspective, we are a people who honor gender identity, and we are very welcoming to men and women, boys and girls, regardless of whether you were born whatever gender. So, some of the policies that are going out now for student-athletes in Wyoming, I know it’s nationwide, but Wyoming has had some controversy in deciding whether students who are going through a gender change or are transgender have certain rights and certain roles regarding sports or bathroom use. For me, that is a huge, important policy push for equity. Also, Critical Race Theory is going to be a huge discussion, and I just want to make sure that the voice for our students and our equity is there and is not overshadowed by the dominating voices because I feel that everybody has a right to be heard. And I am learning to use my voice more. I am typically a shy person, and I don’t like to talk that much, but I’ve grown over the years. I’ve learned that other people are not going to talk, and so I had to grow out of my discomfort and out of my shell because I need to speak up. Sometimes, it’s earth-shattering to hear myself talking on such an important piece. But I know that if I don’t speak up, I am letting a lot of people down because they look for me to bridge that gap. Other policies that are critical are anything having to do with equity, whether gender, race, or special needs. Anything like that is going to hit a special note in my heart. I will be an advocate to make sure that people get equal access regardless of what the issue is. 


The Power of Networking With Other Women Leaders

I was very fortunate to participate in the national Women Superintendents’ Policy Leadership Academy and I thank Teresa for giving me that information. I thank you as well, Christina, for inviting me to be a part of that group. I was very nervous because I wondered where I would fit in, being from rural Wyoming, being from a reservation, and not really knowing what I was getting myself into. But it was very eye-opening and very inspiring to see powerful, strong women leaders and the topics that we talked about that I could relate to. And the common knowledge that we all brought and how that made me feel like my voice counted and that I did have a right to be there. That I had a voice that could be heard and that people would value that voice. That really resonated with me and gave me the confidence to step out of my comfort zone. To have conversations I probably would not have had and to apply for other things that I would not have applied for. One, being going on to pursue a doctorate. I was also involved with another women’s leadership group back home. It was in Lander, and I was the only Indian woman in that group as well. I wouldn’t have signed up had I not had this positive experience. And so it was interesting to see women that I infrequently see in Lander in the community there, and now I know them at a different level. I’ve been able to educate them on the reservation, which wouldn’t have happened. So, I am really grateful for this opportunity that opened a lot of doors for me.