David O’Connor, the state Department of Public Instruction’s American Indian Studies Consultant, has added two awards to his mantlepiece in the past month.
At the National Education Association conference in July, O’Connor was honored with the Leo Reano Memorial Award, which recognizes someone “whose activities in American Indian/Alaska Native affairs significantly impact education and the achievement of equal opportunity for American Indians/Alaska Natives,” according to the NEA website.
“O’Connor diligently promotes the education and empowerment of all students and educators throughout Wisconsin,” the website says.
The award is named for Leo Reano, a member of the Santo Domingo Indian Pueblo who served on the All Indian Pueblo Council and the NEA Council on Human Relations, and dedicated his life to securing educational opportunities for American Indian/Alaska Native children.
Earlier this month, he was additionally honored with a 2022 Forward Award from the Wisconsin Foundation and Alumni Association.
WFAA specifically cited his work with PBS Wisconsin to create WisconsinFirstNations.org, a collection of resources about the 12 American Indian Nations present in the state.
In an interview Friday, O’Connor said he is “humbled” by the recognitions.
“There’s so many amazing people that I work with, and so many amazing other folks who are very deserving of these awards … for me to receive this, I’m extremely honored,” he said. “I always dedicate this work, these accomplishments to my two daughters, first and foremost, and to my family, to my community, as well as my Nation.”
O’Connor is a member of the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Ojibwe, where is traditional name is Bwaakoningwiid, which translates to “Broken Wing” and connotes someone who overcomes obstacles.
“Being a first generation college student, I didn’t know what college was about,” he said. “When I came to UW Madison, I really didn’t know it was,” he said. “To me, coming from the reservation where I grew up, to come to Madison, it was like New York City. It was so big and so overwhelming.”
He said other students made him very aware of his “reservation accent.”
“It wasn’t like they were making me feel like I was bad or anything, but they let me know I was different, though,” he said.
Still, he was able to cultivate a small community of fellow Indigenous students and ultimately thrive, earning a bachelor’s degree in 2005 and master’s in education leadership policy analysis in 2013. He is also working toward a doctoral degree at Edgewood.
He said his journey into education leadership started very early: he specifically cited Joyce Newman, a second-grade teacher in Ashland, where he attended school.
“She made me feel like, every time I walked in that door, she saw me as David. She didn’t make me feel like that kid from the reservation. She didn’t make me feel like that kid from so-and-so’s family. She always made me feel like I was that special. She always made me feel like I could do anything,” he said.
O’Connor has said that he believes educators should “teach culturally” rather than teaching about cultures. Helping schools and teachers infuse Indigenous history and culture throughout the curriculum is one of his primary aims.
“Learning about Indigenous people shouldn’t be just seen as an add-on, it should be seen as an integral part of your curriculum,” he said. “If we’re learning about governments in Wisconsin, tribal government should be part of that conversation just as equally as federal, state, local, county, all the way through … to me, learning about our First Nations peoples and communities and nations is a huge part of understanding who Wisconsin is, or what Wisconsin is.”