Bringing Ojibwe ecological knowledge to classrooms


For generations, the Anishinaabe, commonly referred to as Ojibwe, have shared stories about how they learned to process syrup from the sugarbush, a practice known as iskigamizigan. The process involves drilling a hole through the bark of a sugar maple, collecting the sap and boiling it down into maple syrup.

This deeply rooted tradition continues to be a key part of Anishinaabe culture. And while there has been a revival of interest in sugarbushing, the future of the practice is in jeopardy.

Climate change has altered the northland. Michael Waasegiizik Price, the Traditional Ecological Knowledge Specialist for Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission (GLIFWC), has seen firsthand how the sugar maples that have traditionally been used in sugarbushing have thinned out and are becoming more scarce.

But adapting to change, Price notes, is a central part of the tradition.

As the climate warms, he and others have turned to silver and red maples, species that have become more common in the warmer environment. Underlining the tradition is the importance of adaptation, of being aware of one’s surroundings to better care for and maintain one’s relationship with earth.

Price was in conversation with several other Anishinaabe elders as part of a panel discussion on Anishinaabe gikendamawaa or Traditional Anishinaabe Knowledge. The panel was hosted by College of Saint Scholastica and Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness as part of a larger project to bring an authentic Anishinaabe perspective to Friends’ BWCA educational programs.

As the evening progressed and ideas spun off one another,what was striking was that sugarbushing is more than a traditional way to gather sap and produce syrup, it is a way of being, a way of interacting with the world.

One we all need to learn from.

Indigenous Knowledge of the Northlands

For some time, Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness has explored adding a Native American perspective to the curriculum of our No Boundaries to the Boundary Waters education program, which provides BWCA-based materials to classrooms throughout Minnesota to incorporate into their lessons.

Several years ago, Alison Nyenhuis, the Friends’ Education Director, began talking with Jennifer Ehlen-Niemi, Director of Native Studies program at College of Saint Scholastica.

With a master’s degree in environmental education, and whose family is from White Earth Reservation, Ehlen-Niemi is keenly aware how many environmental education programs exclude Native voices.

Together, Nyenhuis and Ehlen-Niemi developed a plan to address this oversight and build a more inclusive curriculum.

To do this, they would begin by creating a program to record oral histories and testaments from Anishinaabe elders, which would serve as a foundation to a “native-based” curriculum that is thoroughly researched and aligned with state-standards for middle and high school students.

To develop this program, Friends hired Dixie Dorman, who has been involved with Waadookodaading, an Anishinaabe Language immersion school near Dorman’s home in Hayward, Wisconsin. Along with her experience developing curriculum for college-level courses in Native American studies, as well has having two daughters who attend Waadookodaading and speak Anishinaabemowin (the Ojibwe language), Dorman knew the positive impact such an expanded curriculum has on Native and non-Native students alike.

Central to Dorman’s work was connecting with the Anishinaabe community, building trust and forming relationships with elders needed to craft the curriculum.

She also worked with an intern to research, ensure curriculum meets state standards and, above all, to “indigenize the curriculum.” That is, to do more than plug in facts and information into a lesson plan, but to teach and tell a story through an Indigenous lens. To create an immersive learning experience.

A Nexus of Practices

The curriculum draws from four traditional Ojibwe practices: sugarbushing, storytelling, wild ricing, and hunting and gathering. These practices roughly correspond to the four seasons. However, as Dorman points out, it’s reductive to see these as divided into “seasonal” practices. It’s more accurate to view each activity, and the time of the year in which they take place, as part of an interconnected system of how people interact with the changing environment.

Each practice is a nexus of cultural activity. For example, with sugarbushing, the maple tree must be tapped when the sap begins to flow, around the time the temperature begins to rise. Harvesters drill a small hole in the tree and collect the sap in a birchbark basket. It’s a labor-intensive activity.

One must collect then boil down about 40 gallons of sap to make one gallon of thick, maple syrup. The physical act of sugarbushing is accompanied by stories, feasts, rituals and celebration. That is, sugarbushing, the wild rice harvest and more, are ways of interacting with the surrounding environment. They are deeply rooted ways of being aware and responding to the changing patterns in nature.

At the heart of many of these practices, Ehlen-Niemi says, is an appreciation of space and place. Being aware of one’s surroundings, both in the moment and in the long term.

In our modern world, it’s easy to switch off, to be absorbed by a phone and fret over what needs to be done today and get bogged down by a to-do list. In contrast, these traditional practices force one to pay attention, to be in the moment and be mindful of one’s relationship to the surrounding environment. They require one to refocus on questions such as how do we look at the world. How do we interact with the environment?

Learning about these activities is a way to see the land through an Indigenous perspective and examine what it means to be a good steward of the environment.

An Ongoing Dialogue

In her teaching experience, Dorman has seen how students from different backgrounds light up when learning about Native culture. It allows Native students to feel more connected to the educational system and for non-Natives to be exposed to a wider culture. For many, it’s an eye-opening experience. They gain insights and perspectives they wish they had learned earlier.

A significant part of developing a curriculum like this is that it opens a dialogue, both in schools and in how we all understand the culturally diverse nature of the Boundary Waters. Such dialogues enrich our relationship with the wilderness and make it easier to cherish this treasure.

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