Community Partnership: White Earth Nation

The White Earth Math and Science Summer Academy, now in its 19th year, is a collaboration between the University of Minnesota and the White Earth Nation. Professors Stephan Carlson and Charlie Blinn, both faculty in Forest Resources with Extension appointments, have been teaching classes at the Summer Academy for most of the last 19 years. When it was formed, tribal elders, teachers and University faculty partnered to address issues of high dropout rates and erosion of cultural knowledge among youth on the White Earth Indian Reservation. They sought to boost tribal students’ interest and knowledge in math and science and ground the teachings within Ojibwe culture and tradition. The place-based curriculum has blended Ojibwe language, history, nutrition and crafts, content that is taught by tribal educators and elders, with forestry, soil science, water ecology, fisheries, wildlife biology and management, and horticulture, taught by University of Minnesota faculty. In some families, the second generation of students are now going through the program. Parents are glad that their children get to have the same kind of hands-on learning experiences that they did as kids. White Earth students in Climate Chaser trailer

More recently, the curriculum has incorporated STEM principles and technology like GPS. As an example of a lesson, elders discuss how traditional navigation techniques were used to help their ancestors seasonally move across landscapes and how they would prepare and hide food in caches for their journey. The students learn about food caches, select examples of foods which may have been hidden, go to locations where they hide their food caches and store a GPS waypoint. They then trade GPS receivers with another group to locate the other group’s food cache. White Earth students with tribal elder in front of Climate Chaser trailer

As in most years, in 2017, 45 youth in grades four through eight participated in the three-week program which was based at the school, Circle of Life Academy. In many years, the program is built around a theme. This summer focused on how phenology, the study of seasonal changes over time for plants, insects and animals, helped participants develop skills to observe the natural world. They learned to listen and observe plants and animals while journaling, recording observations on a phenology website and connecting Ojibwe language to their observations. 

“Indigenous people have always used phenology, to survive and live,” said Tribal Language and Culture teacher, Rob Tibbitts. “We don’t call it that, but it is what our culture is all about - when to rice, collect maple sap, trap or hunt and when to harvest birch bark.” “The study of phenology is all tied to our native ways of knowing,” said Tribal Wildlife Biologist, Doug McArthur. “My hope is that this hands-on discovery becomes second nature for our kids.” As part of the phenology theme, youth interviewed elders about climate change for later production into a podcast. Tribal elders’ most common observations included lack or the loss of the moose, winters with less snowfall, earlier ice out on lakes and the early return of geese and loons.

In a report prepared by Stephan Carlson and his collaborators, program outcomes have shown an increase in students’ math and science scores on standardized tests as well as increases in high school graduation rates. Relationships built between University faculty and staff from the White Earth Nation’s Natural Resources Department have helped summer interns in that Department seek four-year college degrees at the University of Minnesota. Through the connection, tribal resource managers enrich University curriculum by bringing indigenous perspectives to classes. A member of the White Earth Nation’s Natural Resources Department annually provides guest lectures in University courses about perspectives of tribal members and management of natural resources on the Reservation.