Students Learning Native American Past Through Board Games

- JACKSON, Wyo. (AP/Jackson Hole News And Guide) -

Tensions run high when treaties are broken and gold booms turn to busts.

Journeys School fourth- and fifth-graders got a taste of 1800s Wyoming life as they tested The Bozeman Trail, a new game that could teach students about Native American history and the socio-economic forces that led to change on the Northern Plains during the second half of the 19th century.

The Bozeman Trail was an illegal shortcut off the Oregon Trail that miners used to access gold fields. A number of its sections are on the National Register of Historic Places.

Gov. Matt Mead signed Wyoming House Bill 76 - the American Indian Education for All Act - in March 2017. It requires Wyoming schools to teach Native American history. But curriculum doesn’t just appear when standards are passed. So a Social Studies Standards Review Committee was created in October, working from November to January to meet the new requirements.

The State Board of Education voted April 20 to put out rules to implement the revised standards. The next move is for Mead to review the board’s rationale for adopting the standards and decide whether to permit the process to move forward. After governor’s approval, state law gives schools up to three full school years for curriculum to be developed and implemented, so the lessons may hit classrooms by the 2022-23 school year.

Several nonprofits, like Wyoming PBS, - a project of the Wyoming State Historical Society, the Wyoming Humanities Council and the Buffalo Bill Center for the West - are working to build potential curriculum.

The Bozeman Trail game is in the early research and development phase, in which data is analyzed to determine the game’s feasibility. Play tests are being done around the state, including at Journeys School, where private school teachers often implement state standards in their curriculum. Data from the tests are sent to a professor, who will write performance metrics based on federal and state standards.

Then the game can be piloted and, eventually, marketed for teachers to use when teaching the curriculum.

The game is already hitting home for students like fifth-grader Coco Ramkowsky, who played on the Native American side.

“It just wasn’t nice how they treated us,” she said. “It felt really realistic. I got so sad when people killed our bison. It felt so real. I knew that it actually happened, which made it even more sad.”

Jackson Hole's mom Tory Sanders had the idea for a game centered around scientific principles more than two decades ago when she was working as a high school paraprofessional with English as a Second Language students.
“I saw an opportunity to bring language learners into the classroom discussion,” Sanders said.

She went on to earn a master’s degree in peace and conflict studies, an expertise incorporated into the game.

“I always loved history,” Sanders said. “I knew that there are so many sides to a story and that every perspective doesn’t change any other perspective. Rather, it just brings a more nuanced understanding to reality. If we aren’t honoring all these other perspectives then we aren’t understanding that we are working in relationship with one another and with the environment.”

She wanted to find a scientific way to teach history, something that incorporated game theory, but didn’t find it in her studies. That’s when she knew she needed to do it herself.

“Everyone just has their perspective,” Sanders said. “But what I was looking for was a method to make sure that every voice is heard. Why is that important? Because I feel like if we have those skills to listen and we have all the content, then we would have the knowledge-based skills to create sustainable policy moving forward, and so we could capitalize on errors we’ve made and remedy current conflicts.”

Now, she’s pitching the game to educators and raising money to develop the game through crowdfunding.

“There are so many hats I have to wear when I’m doing this,” Sanders said. “Entrepreneur, researcher, game developer, teacher.”


Coco Ramkowsky, 11, Sam Vatter, 10, and Wyatt Overholser play the Bozeman Trail Board Game. The Game Allows Them To Play on four teams- Railroad, Cavalry, Natives, and Pioneers

The Bozeman Trail isn’t a re-enactment of just pioneer life. Students play on four teams - railroad, cavalry, Native American tribes and pioneers. Journeys School students said it reminded them of the games Monopoly and Life.

The variety of perspectives, Northern Arapaho tribal member Dodie White Eagle said, is essential.

“The victors write history,” she said. “There’s a lot that’s being left out. We are still oppressed.”

The game relies on primary and secondary sources to include the required historical components. Each team begins the game by doing a situational analysis, including their bias. A packet with maps, artwork, photographs and more provides the information needed to play.

“They’re stepping into their historical context so they have something to attach the content to because they’re experiencing it,” Sanders said.

Cards that represent the microeconomic forces of the time dictate each team’s actions. Instructions and choices are given to teams - for example, to build forts or secure them.

“It was a really fun board game and a cool way to learn about history,” said fourth-grader Ann-Dallas Confer, 10.

Teachers echoed the sentiment that the game was interactive and enjoyable.

“Education is so much more than a series of skills and standards, and gaming is one way of accessing that,” Journeys School teacher Rachael Karns said.

Pioneers buy covered wagons and horses and grain, while the railroad team trades bonds at historically accurate prices. Sometimes, bison are taken off the map for a railroad to be built.

“It was very stressful,” said fifth-grader Valeria Morales, 10. “Being a pioneer was stressful. It was very hard. I get the pioneers’ perspective.”

The information is all on the board that Sanders made.

“So these kids, no matter what language they speak or what their reading level is, they can see the content,” she said.

Journeys School teacher Garrett Austen liked the game’s visual nature.

“I was most excited to see some of the students who aren’t usually as engaged, super engaged,” he said.

As described in the American Indian Education For All Act, the game touches on events leading up to and surrounding treaties like the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1851 and 1868, the Treaty of Fort Bridger in 1863 and other key aspects of the history and culture of the Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapaho.

While historical events like railroad progress, the Panic of 1873 and the discovery of gold in Virginia City, Montana, are played out, violence is not. The cavalry team will cross into Lakota land and build forts on the Crow land, resulting in battles like Fetterman Fight, but the events are discussed, not re-enacted.

“I always keep violence outside the game,” Sanders said.

This is purposeful, as is the fact that all the students “win” at the end and finish by talking about the future.

But students like Coco still grasped how tribes like the Northern Arapaho were treated or how the Wind River Indian Reservation came to be.

“I thought people left them alone,” she said. “I didn’t realize they treated them so badly. They’re just normal people; they should just live normal lives, not be trapped on a reservation.”

Comments like Coco’s help Austen rethink his teaching. Journeys School has a diversity equity inclusion committee, he said, that looks at those issues.

“It reminds me as a teacher that there are so many things we take for granted as adults and don’t explicitly teach,” Austen said. “But we’re trying to make sure that all stories are heard, not just the dominant stories.”


Setting classroom norms, reminding students that they aren’t responsible for what happened over 100 years ago, and starting and ending each game with a handshake help keep the game’s tensions from spilling over. But it’s impossible to teach Western history without addressing conflict and the colonization of indigenous people. That’s something Sanders has taken into account as she’s developed the game.

“I quickly realized that in order to work in a way that brought this story to light, I needed to develop honest, trusting relationships with scholars on the reservation and people in Riverton, so I started there,” Sanders said. “I think that what I’m discovering is that it’s very important for people’s self-esteem and for their sense of worth for their story to be brought to light on their terms.”

She worked with a variety of groups, like the Wind River Native Advocacy Center and the Wyoming Humanities Council, as well as several scholars, to fact-check material for historical context and cultural sensitivities.

Sherry Smith, a Western historian who sits on the board of the Jackson Hole Historical Society and Museum, spent time along the Bozeman Trail decades ago when it was in the process of getting on the National Register of Historic Places amid interest from the oil and gas industries. She helped Sanders with historical accuracy.

“The most important thing about this game is that it makes it really clear to students and anybody who plays this game that history is not just one story,” Smith said. “It is a multiplicity of narratives and explanations and points of view. It’s a chance to understand how complicated history always is.

“That dynamism is what history is really all about, and too often books and history teachers reduce those to one. It oversimplifies and makes it boring.”


One of Sanders’ key sources is White Eagle, a member of the Northern Arapaho Tribe. She’s heard stories passed through generations about events like the Battle of the Little Bighorn, which her great-grandmother survived, and said intergenerational trauma has real effects on her and others today.

“I’m hoping that this is one of the many ways we can begin to open up dialogue and information out there to everyone,” White Eagle said. “It does align with our histories and our cultures because Tory has done a wonderful job connecting with our community and talking to elders. She’s been really sensitive to the need of all tribes involved.”

The game, White Eagle said, avoids stereotypical portrayals of Native American tribes, which can contribute to misinformation about reservation life.

“We’re always in the past. It’s romanticized very stereotypically,” she said. “What Tory’s game is doing is bringing in awareness of the true history of what happened in regards to the Bozeman Trail and how it affected the nation.”
White Eagle hopes the game, and other educational programs that accurately depict Native American history, can facilitate a sort of healing.

“In this day and age there’s still some misunderstandings,” she said. “There’s still a lot of stereotyping and mistrust. So I’m hoping this game will allow the kids to realize what all has happened, all the injustices that have happened to our people, and that they can have empathy for all walks of life.”

White Eagle is aware firsthand of the implications of not understanding tribal government relationships. While writing her doctoral dissertation at the University of Wyoming, a committee asked her to obtain permission from one tribe to study a different tribe, though both are sovereign nations.

“That’s like asking Canada for permission to study the U.S.,” she said.

Smith said that as a historian, she, too, feels people don’t understand those parts of history.

“It’s incredibly important that people understand these treaties - not only the origins but that they still carry the weight of a treaty, forever,” she said. “They are still the highest law of the land. These are not historical artifacts. They are living, breathing documents that convey power and tribal sovereignty.”


One issue with the game is that it’s mostly reflective of the Lakota people’s perspective. The Lakota, Arapaho and Cheyenne nations are traditional enemies of the Crow Nation, somewhat due to what’s depicted in the game.

“Ultimately, I think we have to code it in an electronic format,” Sanders said, acknowledging the shortcomings.

She wants Crow children to be able to play the game, too.

“Ultimately we have to have an electronic game that serves as a repository for every Northern Plains tribe’s perspective,” she said.

But the online game could result in a compromise.

“The purpose of the tactile game is that I want kids to think critically and I want kids to think collaboratively,” Sanders said. “Their thinking is enriched because they are talking to these other teams and seeing what these other teams are doing. An electronic game would make them think critically and collaboratively - within their own mind. So both would be cool.”

Whatever medium The Bozeman Trail game eventually embodies, White Eagle hopes it and other innovative ways of teaching history help students be aware of the past, present and future.

“I think that it’s important we continue to be seen in a contemporary light, because so many times we are portrayed as these `stoic, noble, land-loving, Indian people,”’ White Eagle said. “Just like any culture, we’ve changed and we’ve evolved, however, we are still Arapaho people who live by and still believe in our traditional way of life.”

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