Making the lessons of the forest teachable

Ryan Winn

Thomas R. Kenote Jr. began his remarks at the Indigenous Planning Summer Institute by welcoming “mawaw-new-weyak” — the Menominee word for everybody. The inclusive language captured the spirit of the four-day conference’s intent; it was a gathering where all were welcome to learn from Menominee wisdom.

Kenote is the director of College of Menominee Nation’s Sustainable Development Institute. His remarks echoed his letter in the conference program, which noted that the IPSI’s August gathering was a “symposium where the current and future generations of Indigenous leaders, scientists, students and collaborators come together to address and prepare for the complex issues we face in climate change.” He continued, “It is through the Menominee’s relationship with the forest that we are able to define sustainability, as shown through SDI’s Menominee Theoretical Model of Sustainability.”

Around four dozen people traveled from as far away as the Indigenous Sami community in Norway and the Iñupiaq land of Utqiagvik, Alaska, joining CMN students, staff and community members in the partaking of activities grounded in the six dimensions of the model — land and sovereignty, natural resources, institutions, technology, economics and human perceptions, activities and behaviors.

Beginning “in a good way” at Whispering Pines in Shawano, the conference included an invocation by respected elder and Vietnam-era veteran Apec-Pemōhnaew (Dennis Kenote). Next, Menominee Chairman Ronald Corn Sr. spoke of the need to use the teachings of Menominee people to diversify the tribe’s enterprises. Then, CMN President Christopher Caldwell explained that the site was on the former lands of the Menominee Nation, and that it was part of “the 10 million acres the Creator gave us to care for.”

When it was his turn to speak, Kenote Jr. stated, “Our goal is to help make the lessons of the forest teachable.” He conveyed that the gathering’s agenda would touch on all aspects of the model, creating an experiential learning environment for the participants.

Throughout IPSI, attendees learned in sessions including: “Nepēw (water) is Life” with Nazwin (Dolly Potts), “Fireside Music” led by Wade Fernandez, “Mental Health and Wellness” with Michael Waupoose, “Pākahatwan (LaCrosse) Skills” presented by Kenote Jr., “Economic Growth and Community Dreaming” by CMN’s business faculty member Quasan Shaw and “Crafting and Tea” with Wāwīyāēnōtinūkiw (Bonnie Mckiernan).

Further, they were treated to meals prepared by Menominee tribal members. Wāqsecewan (Lizette Bailey) prepared pre-contact Indigenous foods, while Francisco Alegria showcased cuisine grounded in his Menominee and Mexican ancestry. The upshot being that IPSI shared a multitude of lessons centered in Indigenous ways of being.

Understandably, the largest portion of the gathering was spent on a Menominee forest tour with Cultural Resource Protection Forester Jeffrey Grignon. Grignon has over 45 years of experience working with forested cultural sites, spending more than 30 of those years with Menominee Tribal Enterprises.

Grignon explained that glaciers created the soil that fertilizes the ecosystem. He described each gathering of vegetation as “an elder plant community,” adding that these “deep-rooted trees contain knowledge, direct plants around them and create communities that work together to share medicine.”

Grignon continued to speak about the ancient trees: “Elders direct integration, not competition. The elder does not act independently. It takes information from the greater community around it.”

Grignon then emphasized, “Menominee are fortunate to integrate into these elder tree communities.” He noted that in many cases, clear-cutting has destroyed the rich biodiversity that grows organically in a forest. He stressed that due to tribal timber harvesting practices, “the Menominee Reservation is one big elder plant community.”

Reflecting back on the IPSI conference, it’s not difficult to recognize the connections amongst the trees, the learning sessions and the food produced by the chefs. They all were inspired by the community and the medicine that the Menominee Reservation produces. IPSI both highlighted that connectivity and created a space for conference attendees to discuss and learn from it.

As the conference closed, participants expressed their gratitude for the teachings. Some hoped to reciprocate with invitations to Norway or Utqiagvik. Under the canopy of the Menominee forest, IPSI delivered on its promise to be an inclusive space for mawaw-new-weyak.

Ryan Winn teaches courses in communications, English and theater at College of Menominee Nation. For information about the school, visit