Indigenous Foods Highlight Course

Nicole Miller University of Wisconsin

MADISON, Wis. — On a freezing February afternoon, about 60 students gathered around a campfire near the University of Wisconsin-Dejope residence hall on the Madison campus. They were part of the course Horticulture 380 – Indigenous Foodways: Food and Seed Sovereignty. They were there to learn about ice fishing, game hunting, and the eating habits that traditionally helped Wisconsin’s native peoples survive the winter.

Jon Greendeer – Ho-Chunk and Oneida – is a diabetes educator and former president of the Ho-Chunk Nation. He has been an enthusiastic guest speaker for Horticulture 380 for the past three years.

“Let’s pretend we’re in pre-colonial times,” he told the students. “If we are to survive here, how are we going to do it? What are we going to eat tonight?”

Sixty heads spun around, scanning the frozen landscape, then turned back to Greendeer with looks of uncertainty and dismay.

“You look around you; there is nothing to eat,” he said. “You’re going to starve, aren’t you?” To survive, (our people needed) to tap into our wisdom, a wisdom that comes from generations.

It’s a wisdom that has been nearly lost, Greendeer explained to the delighted crowd. It is a wisdom that he participates in revitalizing. After being driven from their lands in the 1800s, many tribes lost their traditional eating habits. To help restore these pathways, he leads classes and workshops for members of the tribal community to teach them how to hunt, gather, preserve and cook traditional foods – from bison, deer and fish to corn and rice. savage.

Greendeer is one of many powerful guest speakers for Horticulture 380, a course that introduces students to the foods and lifestyles of Indigenous peoples of the upper Great Lakes region. He teaches from multiple perspectives – historical, legal, biological and social. Students learn how settler colonialism and subsequent agricultural practices and policies impacted tribal dietary habits. They explore current tribal efforts to reclaim their agricultural traditions and food sovereignty – control over their own food production and distribution.

“It was really cool to hear from (Greendeer) as we were all standing around the fire and the buffalo meat was cooking in front of us,” said Emma Mechelke, a double major in horticulture and plant pathology. “He strives to bring these culturally appropriate foods and the ways of cooking and serving them back to his community. Her visit brought together a lot of things we were talking about in class.

The course offers fun experiential learning opportunities such as cooking with native foods, tapping maple trees for syrup, and a spearfishing demonstration. It is open to all UW-Madison students and offers extended social science credit.

Perhaps the most popular class activity was going to the college arboretum to learn about the Native American tradition of tapping trees and then boiling tree sap to make syrup. The students tasted many saps and syrups during the visit. They had the option of drinking the sap directly from a tree, as it flowed from a tap.

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“I remember going maple syrup as a kid,” said Ryan Meeker, a senior computer specialist who grew up hunting, fishing and syruping in northern Wisconsin. “So it was important to actually study syrup and hear from experts about it, including the cultural significance that maple syrup has for Indigenous communities. The members of the tribe gathered at the maple grove, collected maple syrup together and celebrated the end of winter. They worked very hard to collect enough of this important food source to last another full year.

Horticulture 380 is co-taught by UW-Department of Horticulture professor Irwin Goldman; and Dan Cornelius, Oneida, who is an Outreach Program Manager with two on-campus appointments – one in the UW Department of Plant Pathology and a second at the Great Lakes Indigenous Law Center at UW-Law School.

“Irwin’s scholarly perspective and Dan’s knowledge of Indigenous tribal law were very helpful in framing our conversations,” Mechelke said.

Meeker said, “Dan always seemed to have personal experiences that he connected to what he was teaching; (we could) see how it actually happens in real life and not just what the manual says. We were talking about what’s happening today, how tribes are working with the federal government — and each other — to try to support their local farmers, and how they’re trying to reclaim much of their food sovereignty.

The course has been designed to expand opportunities for agricultural education. It aims to provide students with the opportunity to learn more about Indigenous approaches and perspectives, which have been largely absent from college curriculum options. Development of the course was funded by Ira and Ineva Reilly Baldwin Wisconsin Idea Endowment, a competitive grant program designed to help the university bring knowledge and resources across the state.

During the course, each student completes an independent research project on a particular plant or animal-based food; she or he then creates this food as part of a final project and article. The project includes tracing all issues related to food sovereignty – such as control and appropriation of food by others.

Meeker’s research project focused on maple syrup production. For his final project and article, he made maple candies.

“It’s something I always heard about as a kid when we made maple syrup — that you could make maple candy if you wanted to,” he said. “I had never done it, so I was curious. As soon as I did, we ate them.

Mechelke made pemmican, a mixture of dried meat and fat.

“It was the original protein bar, basically,” she said. “I added cranberries to mine to enhance the taste, but it wasn’t my favorite. »

But the course nurtured her in a bigger way.

“The course instilled a lot of compassion and awareness,” she said. “It was a really encouraging experience.”

Nicole Miller is an information officer at the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. Visit for more information.

Nohemi M. Moore