Restoration told by those who lived through it

Ryan Winn

Last week, a friend from graduate school pinged my phone with a simple question: “Any books I should read for Indigenous Heritage Month?”

Since next month marks the 50th anniversary of the Menominee people winning the restoration of their federal trust status, my mind immediately went to the stories of this resilient nation. Although there are wonderful collections of Menominee stories written since the time of first contact with Europeans, the writings of people who lived through the tribe’s termination period makes for especially timely reading. Perhaps even more so now that some of those gifted storytellers left for the spirit world this year.

The Menominee Nation succumbed to the disastrous federal policy in 1954, with termination going into effect in 1961. This ongoing attack on their sovereignty was ultimately overturned on Dec. 22, 1973. To add insult to injury, the story of the Menominee people told during this era didn’t come from the nation itself.

Nearly a century ago, the book “Exploring Wisconsin” was required reading for the school children educated in the Badger State. Unlike many nations in Wisconsin, the text does mention Menominee people by name, albeit problematically. The 1958 printing of the book offers readers a chance to learn about “Wisconsin’s Early People,” as told through the story of “Little Hawk … an Indian about your age.”

Little Hawk’s narrative is intended to inspire a sense of connection to “the tribe of Woodland Indians called the Menominees,” and he does so by sharing food stories. Readers are treated to stories about ricing in the waters and “sugar making” from maple trees, but the tragedy is that these stories are all written in the past tense. The authors claim that the Menominee people “did” these things as thought they had case to be, rather than sharing that they still do. Fortunately, modern readers have much richer and more accurate stories to consume.

S. Verna Fowler, who passed in August, was not only the founding president of College of Menominee Nation, she was the author of the young readers’ text “The Menominee.” Fowler’s text is the antithesis of the aforementioned problematic book, “Exploring Wisconsin,” as it shows how the ways of the Menominee people endure through their rich culture and tenacious diplomacy.

Historians interested in learning recent Menominee history will do well to read Ada Deer’s “Making a Difference: My Fight For Native Rights and Social Justice.” Deer also left us in August, but she is survived by the narrative of her tenacious ascent from being a gifted student raised in the community to a tribal leader who orchestrated change in Washington, D.C. With Deer as the face of the nation, Menominee people went from being the first tribe terminated to the first one restored.

Yet, perhaps the most talented writer of the bunch is Thomas Pecore Weso. Weso journeyed to the spirit world this past summer, but his 2016 book “Good Seeds: A Menominee Indian Food Memoir” has become a canonical work for Native foodies since its publication. A mixture of research, family stories and recipes, the text reflects upon his youth growing up on and around the land of the Menominee reservation.

This month witnessed the publication of Weso’s follow-up text, “Survival Food: North Woods Stories by a Menominee Cook.” Billed by the author as “a personal food map of the Menominee Reservation and neighboring towns, with guest appearances by significant relatives and friends,” the book takes place during what Weso called “the more complicated time period of my tween and teen years.” Of course, the time Weso is referring to is the era of Menominee termination. Still, readers will again find Weso to be an engaging narrator, treating them to a feast of words and remembrances.

November is a month for intentional gratitude, and one of the many things we all can be grateful for is the wealth of storytellers who have freely shared their stories. Whether or not you pinged my phone asking for recommendations, I hope you spend part of Indigenous Heritage Month between the covers of one of the books I recommended. The books in this column help to capture the reliance, brilliance and tenacity of the Menominee Nation, offering all readers a look into the lives and experiences as only the Menominee people themselves can convey them.

Ryan Winn teaches communications, English and theater at the College of Menominee Nation. Visit for more information about the school.