David O’Connor, a consultant in Native American studies for the state Department of Public Instruction, added two awards to his mantle in the past month.
At the National Education Association conference in July, O’Connor received the Leo Reano Memorial Award, which recognizes an individual “whose activities in Native American/Alaska Native affairs have a significant impact on 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 Wisconsin students and educators,” the website reads.
The award is named after 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 has dedicated his life to ensuring educational opportunities for Native American/Indigenous children in the Alaska.
Earlier this month, he also received a 2022 Forward Award from the Wisconsin Foundation and Alumni Association.
WFAA specifically cited its work with PBS Wisconsin to create WisconsinFirstNations.orga collection of resources on the 12 Native American nations present in the state.
In an interview on Friday, O’Connor said he was “humbled” by the recognitions.
“There are so many amazing people I work with, and so many other amazing people who truly deserve these awards…to receive this, I’m extremely honoured,” he said. “I always dedicate this work, these achievements to my two daughters, first and foremost, and to my family, to my community, as well as to my Nation.”
O’Connor is a member of the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Ojibwe, whose traditional name is Bwaakoningwiid, which translates to “Broken Wing” and refers to someone who overcomes obstacles.
“Being a first-generation college student, I didn’t know what college was,” he said. “When I came to UW Madison, I really had no idea that was the case,” he said. “For me, coming from the reservation where I grew up, coming to Madison was like New York. It was so big and so overwhelming.
He said other students had made him aware of his “reserved accent”.
“It wasn’t like they made me feel bad or anything, but they let me know I was different,” he said.
Yet he was able to cultivate a small community of Indigenous students and ultimately thrive, earning a bachelor’s degree in 2005 and a master’s degree in educational leadership policy analysis in 2013. He is also pursuing a doctorate at Edgewood.
He said his journey into education leadership started early: he specifically cited Joyce Newman, a second-grade teacher at Ashland, where he attended school.
“She made me feel like every time I walked through 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 this kid from so and so’s family. She always made me feel like I was so special. She always made me feel like I could do anything,” he said.
O’Connor said he believes educators should “teach culturally” rather than teach about cultures. Helping schools and teachers incorporate Indigenous history and culture into the curriculum is one of its main goals.
“Learning about indigenous peoples shouldn’t be seen as just an add-on, it should be seen as an integral part of your curriculum,” he said. “If we get to know the governments of Wisconsin, tribal government should be part of that conversation just as well as federal, state, local, county, all the way…for me, learning about our First Nations peoples, communities and nations is a big part of understanding who Wisconsin is or what Wisconsin is.