Jon Greendeer (foreground, on right) shares stories with students in Hort 380 – Indigenous Foodways: Food and Seed Sovereignty in February 2022. Photo by Jeff Miller / UW–Madison.

On a frigid February afternoon, around 60 UW–Madison students in Horticulture 380 – Indigenous Foodways: Food and Seed Sovereignty gathered around a campfire near campus’ Dejope Residence Hall. They were there to learn about ice fishing, game hunting and the traditional foodways that enabled Wisconsin’s Indigenous people to survive the winter.

“Let’s pretend we’re in pre-colonial times. If we have to survive out here, how are we going to do this? What are we going to eat tonight?” asked Jon Greendeer (Ho-Chunk and Oneida), a diabetes educator and former president of the Ho-Chunk nation, who has been an enthusiastic guest speaker for Hort 380 for the past three years.

Sixty heads swiveled, scanning the frozen landscape, then turned back to Greendeer with looks of uncertainty and consternation.

Greendeer speaks to students in Hort 380 in February 2022. Photo by Jeff Miller / UW–Madison.

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

It’s a wisdom that was almost lost, Greendeer explained to the rapt crowd – and that he is involved in revitalizing. After being moved off of their lands in the 1800s, many tribes lost their traditional foodways. To help bring these ways back, 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.

Greendeer leads a spearfishing demo on frozen Lake Mendota in February 2022. Photo by Jeff Miller / UW–Madison.

Greendeer is one of several powerful guest speakers for Hort 380, a course that introduces students to the foods and foodways of the Indigenous peoples of the Upper Great Lakes area from multiple perspectives—historical, legal, biological and social. Students learn how settler colonialism and subsequent agricultural practices and policies impacted tribal foodways, and they also explore current efforts by tribes to re-claim 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 Emma Mechelke, 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 a spearfishing demonstration. It is open to all UW–Madison students and serves a social science breadth credit.

The UW Arboretum’s David Stevens explains to students how maple sap is cooked down into syrup, at the UW Arboretum in March 2022. Photo by Nicole Miller / UW–Madison CALS.

Perhaps the most popular class activity involved going to the university’s Arboretum and learning about the Native American tradition of tapping trees and then boiling the tree sap to make syrup. During the visit, students sampled numerous saps and syrups and had the opportunity to drink sap directly from a tree, as it dripped out of a tap.

“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, fishing and syruping 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, a professor in the Department of Horticulture, and Dan Cornelius (Oneida), an outreach program manager with two campus appointments – one in the Department of Plant Pathology and a second with 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 Cornelius speaks with students inside a temporary lodge, which students helped erect for class in February 2022. Photo by Jeff Miller / UW–Madison.

“Dan always seemed to have personal experiences that he’d connect what he was teaching to, [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 developed to expand agricultural education opportunities, giving students the opportunity to learn about Indigenous approaches and perspectives, which have been largely absent from college curriculum options. The development of the course 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.

During the course, students complete an independent research project on a particular plant- or animal-based food and then create that food as part of their final project and paper. The project includes tracing any issues related to sovereignty of the food, such as control and appropriation of the food by others.

A student samples sap straight from a tree, while Irwin Goldman holds the sap collection container, at the UW Arboretum in March 2022. Photo by Nicole Miller / UW–Madison CALS.

Meeker’s research project was about maple syruping, and for his final project and paper, he made maple candies.

“That was something that I had always heard about as a kid when we were maple syruping – that you could make maple candies if you want. I’d never done it, and so I was curious,” says Meeker. “As soon as I made it, we were eating them.”

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

“It was the original protein bar, essentially,” she says. “I added some cranberries to mine to help with flavor, but it wasn’t my favorite.”

But the course fed her in a more important way.

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