The Shoshone Business Council recently celebrated the 20-plus years of employment of Caroline Mills, director of the Fort Washakie Learning Center. Effective August 1, Mills retired from a job she’s held since 1999 with the Eastern Shoshone Tribe. That’s when the doors of the Learning Center opened to the community.
Her employment for the tribe dates back to December 1996 when she was the director of Shoshone Higher Education for two years. From 1998-1999, the Learning Center was created just as the new post office was built. The tribe renovated the old post office building and many programs wanted the space. Clinton Glick at the time requested that the building be used for and by college students. That’s what was decided and a director was needed to help run the program.
Mills’ knowledge and experience made her a perfect candidate for the Learning Center.
She was an educator and had previously worked as a high school social studies teacher at St. Stephen’s Indian High School from 1984 to 1989. Mills had also worked for the Nisqually Indian Tribe in Olympia, Wash., for five years as an at-risk liaison. In addition, she tutored at the Thurston County Jail, a Washington State Prison, and for students at-home, in school and after school.
Mills received her AA in liberal arts from Haskell Indian Jr. College in Lawrence, Kan., where she met her husband Leroy Mills and earned a BA in Indian Studies from Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash. She then got her teacher’s certificate from the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma, Wash. She received her Master’s degree in Educational Leadership from the University of Wyoming.
“I wanted to teach about Indian studies and tribal government,” Mills said. “And around that time, my kids graduated and I did too.”
Mills has three children – Raye, Rose and Sokai. The Learning Center allowed Mills to continue tutoring students, guiding them through obtaining their GED or high school equivalency diploma.
When asked about her good memories as director, she recalled two students who worked tirelessly towards their GED for 10 years.
“They would get discouraged, leave and then return … but never give up,” she said. “When one passed the math test, we both had tears of joy.”
The other student eventually passed the tests as well and both got hired by the Shoshone Tribe. One is now a director for the tribe and these stories are proof of what hard work and persistence can bring to a determined mind, she explained.
When she worked at St. Stephen’s, the textbooks did little to mention tribal history and government. She adapted the curriculum to better teach her students on those topics. She also invited local people who had the expertise in tribal government to talk to her students and offer new perspectives.
Today, Mills feels she wouldn’t go back to teaching.
“It’s so different now, than it was back then.” Mills said. “It’s all virtual now.”
Virtual learning has replaced a lot of the teacher to student education, and to Mills that human transfer of information is a necessity. Regardless, the Learning Center has done its best to keep up with the changes in technology, Mills said.
Visitors to the center can now print from their phones and also use them to do virtual meetings. The center offers printing services, and computers equipped with software and devices to have virtual meetings, take tests, browse the internet, create documents and share information. Others stop by to use their social media or make a phone call.
“And if people ask us for something and we don’t have it, we try to get it,” she said.
Mills served two, four-year terms on the Central Wyoming College Board of Trustees, and on the Wyoming Humanities Council also for two, four-year terms. She served on the International Partners in Mission, based out of Cleveland, Ohio, for two terms. She also served as chair for these organizations for one year. Mills was also a key organizer for the 150th anniversary commemoration in 2018 of the Fort Bridger Treaty.
Mills has also made an effort to teach people outside the classroom setting or while working toward their GED. At one point, she said the center employed two assistants who at the same time worked toward their AA degree from CWC. Most recently, someone asked her for money to pay for their post office box, and Mills agreed to help in exchange for a much needed service.
“I help some out if they help me by pulling weeds in front of the post office,” she said.
The number of students who try for their GED has been different over the years but ever since the center opened a total of 120 students have received their GED through the center. The reasons vary for those who won’t do it, Mills said, but oftentimes the obstacles prevent people from having the motivation.
“It has to be a priority in their life,” she explained. “If it was my goal, I would ride my bike or wait for a ride.”
For some, the lack of transportation is reason enough, while others depend on their family members for a ride or to borrow a vehicle. There’s the occasional pregnancy that delays the process, she added, or they simply don’t want to do it. Since COVID started, Mills said people may be less driven to pursue a job and also less people are graduating high school.
“I think many programs give assistance so they think there is no need for an education or job,” she said.
While the least favorite part of her job is the paperwork, she adds that her favorite part is being an educator and helping students.
“It changes their lives and it opens the doors to more opportunities,” she said. “But we do have drawers of student files that never finished.”
They can always try again, and some components of the testing have gotten easier, she explained. For instance, students can now use a calculator for the entire home math test – not just for half of it. Mills understands that students learn differently and she gives more help to those who struggle more than others. If she can do a little bit more for that student that’s struggling, she’ll help.
And if there’s doubt about Mills’ knowledge – it should be noted that she is a “fraction blaster.”
“I love fractions,” she said with a smile. “I can race you with fractions.”
If she were to give any advice to the next director, she would recommend that the center stay open during the lunch hour. It’s important to be available during those hours, she explained, and she would also encourage them to be helpful in any way possible.
“Be here for the people, for the community,” she said. “Because we have people that need a letter typed, need to do a resume, or are looking for a job.”
She shared stories of people who used the Learning Center when other schools, much closer to them, wouldn’t help them.
“We help any color, and tribe,” she added. “And we honor our graduates every year.”
Currently, she is very passionate about the Restoring Shoshone Ancestral Food group that she’s a part of. Through this group, she’s able to explore, learn and teach about the ways in which the Shoshone gathered plants for food and medicinal purposes on Shoshone ancestral lands.
Through a grant and collaborative efforts, a photo and recipe book was created to document the group’s efforts and create a traditional foods database. As described in the book, “Despite great loss in gathering and consumption of traditional foods among Indigenous communities, there is great hope for reclaiming and preserving knowledge. The Restoring Shoshone Ancestral Food Gathering (RSAFG) is a community group leading grassroots efforts on the Wind River reservation to reclaim Shoshone ancestral foods and promote food sovereignty. The story of the RSAFG promotes equitable, decolonized, and community empowered methods of reclaiming Indigenous foods by sharing three of RSAFG’s acts of decolonization: 1) enacting treaty rights through gathering traditional plants, 2) demanding equitable partnerships in community-based research, and 3) sharing the story through radical authorship via layered narratives.”
Mills plans to stay active in the group and continue her joy of picking berries. She also plans to do more sewing especially now that she purchased a new sewing machine. Once she retires she plans to read and bead more often. She also plans on visiting local friends and continuing helping elders with getting around town and running errands.
The Eastern Shoshone Tribe congratulates Caroline on her retirement and her time serving the people of the Eastern Shoshone Tribe.