Spring 2023

Natural Selections

Guest lecturer Jon Greendeer (at lower right), a tribal member and former president of the Ho-Chunk Nation, speaks with students in a Horticulture 380 Indigenous Foodways: Food and Seed Sovereignty class as they gather around a campfire outside Dejope Residence Hall. Photo by Jeff Miller


On a frigid February afternoon, around 60 UW students gather near Dejope Residence Hall on the west end of campus. Their modern gear protects them from the elements, but they’re here to learn how Indigenous people survived Wisconsin’s harsh winters long before present-day amenities.

“Let’s pretend we’re in precolonial times,” says Jon Greendeer (Ho-Chunk and Oneida), a diabetes educator and former president of the Ho-Chunk Nation. “If we have to survive out here, how are we going to do this? What are we going to eat tonight?”

Sixty heads swivel, scan the frozen landscape, then turn back to Greendeer with expressions of uncertainty and consternation.

“You look around; there’s nothing to eat. You guys are going to starve, aren’t you?” Greendeer banters. “To survive, [our people had] to draw upon our wisdom, a wisdom that comes from generations.”

Students help construct a temporary lodge as a class project for Horticulture 380. Photo by Jeff Miller

It’s a wisdom that was almost forgotten, Greendeer explains to the rapt crowd — and it’s a wisdom he’s working to revitalize.

After being forced off their lands in the 1800s, many tribes lost their traditional foodways. To help restore this knowledge, Greendeer leads classes and workshops for tribal community members to teach them how to hunt, gather, preserve, and cook traditional foods — from bison, deer, and fish to corn and wild rice. And on this February day, he’s serving as a guest speaker for a CALS course called Horticulture 380 Indigenous Foodways: Food and Seed Sovereignty. It’s a role he has embraced enthusiastically for the last three years.

Greendeer is just one of several powerful guest speakers for Hort 380, which introduces students to the foods and foodways of the Indigenous peoples of the Upper Great Lakes area through multiple perspectives — historical, legal, biological, and social. Students learn how settler colonialism and subsequent agricultural practices and policies damaged tribal foodways, and they explore current efforts by tribes to reclaim their agricultural traditions and food sovereignty (the control of one’s own food production and distribution).

“It was really cool to hear from [Greendeer] while we were all standing around the fire and the bison meat cooked in front of us,” says senior Emma Mechelke BS’22, who graduated last December with a double major in horticulture and plant pathology. “He works to bring back these culturally appropriate foods and ways of cooking them and serving them to his community. His visit brought together a lot of what we were talking about in class.”

The course features fun, experiential learning opportunities, such as cooking with Indigenous foods, tapping maple trees for syrup, and spearfish- ing methods. Perhaps the most popular class activity is the trip to the UW Arboretum, where students learn about the Native American traditions of tree tapping and boiling sap to make syrup. The visit includes opportunities to sample saps and syrups.

Standing at center in a temporary lodge, guest lecturer Jon Greendeer speaks with students in a Horticulture 380 Indigenous Foodways: Food and Seed Sovereignty class. Photo by Jeff Miller

“I remember going maple syruping as a kid, so it was impactful to actually study syruping and hear from experts about it, including the cultural significance that maple syruping has for Indigenous communities,” says Ryan Meeker, a senior majoring in computer science who grew up hunting and fishing in northern Wisconsin. “Tribal members would get together at the sugar bush and collect maple syrup together and celebrate the end of the winter. They worked really hard to collect enough of this important food source to last another full year.”

Hort 380 is co-taught by Irwin Goldman PhD’91, a professor in the Department of Horticulture, and Dan Cornelius (Oneida), an outreach program manager with positions in the Department of Plant Pathology and the UW Law School’s Great Lakes Indigenous Law Center.

“Having Irwin’s scientific perspective and having Dan’s Indigenous tribal law knowledge was really helpful in framing our conversations,” says Mechelke.

“Dan always seemed to have personal experiences that he’d connect to what he was teaching, so we could see how it is actually happening in real life and not just what the textbook says,” says Meeker. “We were talking about things that are going on today, how the tribes are working with the federal government — and each other — to try to support their local farmers, and how they’re trying to bring back a lot of their food sovereignty.”

The course was designed to teach students about Indigenous approaches to and perspectives on agriculture, which have been largely absent from college curriculum options. Its creation was funded by the Ira and Ineva Reilly Baldwin Wisconsin Idea Endowment, a competitive grant program designed to help the university contribute knowledge and resources across the state. It’s open to all UW–Madison students and fulfills a social science breadth credit.

“The class instilled a lot of compassion and awareness,” says Mechelke. “It was a really heartening experience.”

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