Widening the Circle Symposium has its roots with the coming together of Native and Hmong students in La Crosse, bringing together Ho-Chunk, Hmoob, and Ojibwe elders to discuss issues of cultural survival and how to implement Wisconsin state statutes on American Indian Studies also known as Act 31.
In 1989, Wisconsin passed Act 31 mandating K-12 educators teach about Native American history, sovereignty and treaty rights in Wisconsin. This legislation originated in response to the racial conflicts over treaty rights that emerged from widespread educational failure and a lack of understanding of Native peoples, sovereignty and culture.
Today Hmoob communities face many of the same issues. In response to the continuing racism and recent violence against Hmong communities, the state has tried to pass another bill; which would mandate teaching about Hmoob history, culture and the role in the Vietnam War.
For a variety of reasons many teachers feel unable or unprepared to meet these needs so Indigenous and non-Indigenous elders, educators and students from across Wisconsin have come together to create this unique cross cultural Conference.
In 2002 the Native American Student Association (NASA) began the Act 31 Teacher Education Conferences, helping teachers to teach about Wisconsin Native history, sovereignty, and treaty rights. This conference ran for approximately four years, growing each year and eventually including Hmong issues on education. They began to include Hmong issues as our communities began to work together more closely and began to recognize deep parallels in spirituality, community, culture, history, and shared concerns with education and assimilation. Our focus began to shift to a greater understanding of indigenous educational issues, culture, and policy.
In 2010 we began to include additional workshops and formally became a broader symposium. In addition, Widening the Circle has moved from simply being a one-time-a-year event to having year-round outreach programs including the Native American and Hmong traditional organic gardens, our wild rice and cultural camps, and youth programs. We also do educational outreach including visiting organizations, schools, and institutions to help develop curriculum and do trainings.