POPLAR — Starting next week, after she retires on May 1, Vina Smith intends to slow down. Those who know her well will believe it when they see it.
For 18 years, as the environmental educator for the Fort Peck Tribes, she has been a tireless teacher, role model and activist. She has helped plant thousands of trees, organized annual cleanup days, started recycling programs and made presentations at conferences across the country.
More than anything, though, she has touched the lives of thousands of schoolchildren from all over the northeast corner of Montana, planting the seeds of environmental awareness and teaching them the importance of clean air, water and soil.
John Miller, a retired biology teacher at West High in Billings and a former president of the Montana Environmental Educators Association, used the word “tenacity” several times while speaking of Smith.
“There’s just something about a personality like that,” he said. “Nothing’s going to stop her from doing what she needs to do.”
Cat Lynch, formerly the director of education at ZooMontana in Billings, calls Smith “an army of one” and “one of those amazing lifelong learners.”
Lynch was one of nine presenters on hand Tuesday for an Earth Day event that Smith founded 16 years ago. As in the past, the event was offered Tuesday in the Poplar High School gym, with a similar event scheduled for Wednesday in Wolf Point.
Smith invites schools from all over the Fort Peck Indian Reservation to send their students to the event, but she also welcomes schools from Plentywood, Culbertson, Bainville, Nashua and other communities. The event generally draws 500 to 800 students in preschool through 12th grade, and during at least one year, more than 1,000.
“I just love the kids,” Smith said. “They’re innocent, full of wonder.”
“The kids call me ‘the bug lady,’” she added, and on Tuesday she was wearing her dragonfly earrings and a necklace with a dragonfly pendant.
This year, at different stations in the high school gym, the young visitors received hands-on lessons about weather, trees, biocontrol of weeds and insect pests, natural insect repellents, Montana fish and more. Presenters were from the Bureau of Land Management, Fish, Wildlife and Parks, the Department of Agriculture and other agencies.
As Smith said to one teacher asking about what was on tap Tuesday, “We’ve got weeds, we’ve got weather, we’ve got fish in the foyer.”
When she was a student in Poplar herself, Smith, 66, had dreams of becoming a fashion designer. She earned a degree in home economics with a minor in fashion design from the University of Nevada, Reno, and she worked in Nevada briefly before deciding to go back home.
Jobs were scarce on the Fort Peck Indian Reservation, as they still are. Smith managed to find a few odd jobs before being hired 22 years ago by the Fort Peck Office of Environmental Protection as a researcher in the minerals office.
Then, 18 years ago, Deb Madison, the environmental program manager, decided to establish the environmental educator position, and she hired Smith to fill it. Smith said she was the first tribal environmental educator in the country, and to this day no other tribe in Montana has a full-time position like hers.
She said she had to develop the program on the fly, by trial and error. She learned early on that it was difficult to instill her message of environmental awareness in adults.
“There’s so many people not right in their minds, so many people in survival mode that they just don’t care,” she said. “Litter is the least of their problems.” But she figured if she could get through to the children, they would take their lessons home with them.
Another thing she learned, she said, was that “words were really important. I found out, you call it ‘workshop’ and nobody comes. Call it ‘festival’ and everybody turns out.”
The Earth Day program, in fact, was known as the Water Festival when Smith started offering it in 2000. Clean water has always been one of her passions.
“I would like my grandchildren to be able to drink the water out of the river like I did as a child,” she said. “I want my great-grandchildren to remember me for my fight to save their water.”
In addition to her Earth Day activities, she regularly takes schoolchildren on outdoor adventures, where they look for bugs, trees, birds, flowers, plants and wetlands. She has taken them fishing, camping, swimming and star-gazing. And everything she teaches them is fact-based, grounded solidly in science.
“I don’t talk religion,” she said. “I don’t talk politics. The only political thing I say is, ‘when you turn 18, vote.’”
Kari Gunderson, a retired wilderness ranger now teaching in the Forestry Department at the University of Montana in Missoula, knew Smith well through their membership in the Montana Environmental Education Association.
“What really touches me most is what a powerful role model she is for school-age children,” Gunderson said.
She also remembers Smith for her beautiful star quilts. Smith always attended the annual conferences of the MEEA, and many times she donated one of her handmade quilts for the association’s silent auction.
“When and where she finds time to do that on top of everything else, I don’t know,” Gunderson said.
Gunderson and Miller both spoke of the time Smith persuaded the MEEA leadership to hold its annual conference in Wolf Point. The conferences were usually in western Montana, and if they went east at all, it wasn’t any farther than Billings. But who was going to say no to Vina Smith?
“She really tried hard to bring both sides of the state together,” Gunderson said.
Miller remembers how Smith took a caravan of fellow educators for a tour of the reservation. Smith said she drove them to the badlands near Brockton, then north to a spot on the Poplar River, where they did some water-quality testing and some sampling to see what species lived in the river.
“It was the first time I was able to see into that culture, to see it through her eyes,” Miller said.
As she nears retirement, Smith is looking forward to writing children’s books with an environmental theme. She already has the first book nearly done and has plans for others. She also wants to get back to making quilts and sewing fancy clothes like prom dresses and wedding dresses. She said she was burnt-out on sewing and hasn’t done any of it for two years.
She also has four daughters, 14 grandchildren and one great-granddaughter to keep her busy.
Shirley Marchwick, a first-grade teacher in the Poplar school system for 16 years, has been bringing her young pupils to Smith’s Earth Day events since the first one, and she was there again Tuesday morning. She said her kids look forward to it every year.
“She’s so good,” Marchwick said. “I’m really, really going to miss her.”