David O’Connor, the state Department of Public Instruction’s American Indian Studies Consultant, received national recognition last month when the National Indian Education Association (NIEA) named him Educator of the Year.
“I was just honored to be nominated” by two DPI colleagues, he said. “I thought that was an honor in itself. I think there’s a lot of great, amazing educators out there, Indigenous educators across the United States. And each of them, every day, the things that they do for their communities, their schools, their state, other aspects, very well deserving.”
NIEA gave O’Connor the award at its 52nd annual convention in Omaha, Nebraska.
O’Connor said the award is a “testament to all the great relationships I’ve developed over time and partnerships because I feel a lot of those folks have helped elevate my work, open up doors for myself, and have been continuously big supporters of myself … This award may have my name, but I feel that it’s a testament to all the good folks I work with every single day.”
O’Connor said his job involves both ensuring that Indigenous children get the education they’re entitled to, but to helping non-Indigenous people learn about Indigenous cultures properly as required by state law. That includes helping school districts “teach culturally” rather than just teaching about cultures, he said.
“Teach(ing) about cultures, that’s like teaching about the food, festivities, heroes and holidays. But when you educate culturally, that’s where you as an educator become a guide with your students, meaning you learn with them, not always teaching them,” he said.
He also said he’s focused on representation in education and popular culture.
“My goal is I want people to see that we as indigenous people, we’ve always shaped our state, historically. We shape our state today, and we’ll shape Wisconsin tomorrow. We have stories, and they should be told,” he said. “I really want to make sure we have a contemporary voice for Indigenous people, First Nation people. I think it’s important to have that historical (perspective) and everything. I think that’s very important, but I really want to make sure we have that contemporary voice … and I also want it to come from us, rather than someone telling our story for us.”
The land that is now Wisconsin is home to 11 sovereign Indigenous nations recognized by the federal government of the United States. O’Connor is a member of the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa and grew up on the reservation.
In his award acceptance speech at the conference, O’Connor said, “This award humbles and lifts my spirit up both personally and professionally. But I must truly share this award with all my family, friends, colleagues, my nation (Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa) and communities who have and continue to provide ongoing support. I also want to say miigwech (Ojibwe, meaning thank you) to my nominators, the NIEA selection committee and others involved in my work, your support has led me to receiving this amazing award.”