If you are reading this, chances are you are aware of Jim Lowenstine's role in creating Conserve School; that the school was built on his land and that it was his vision that made Conserve School possible. But a story we often forget to tell is that of the people who occupied this land before the Lowenstines. Conserve School is built on Anishnaabe territory. This semester, we tapped and collected sap from maple trees that are probably ancestors of trees that were traditionally tapped by the Ojibwe. In the late spring and fall, we paddle lakes that were first navigated by the Ojibwe. In order to learn more from the Ojibwe people, who still live in the upper Great Lakes region today, students were invited to attend a conference hosted by the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community. Twenty students, a third of our student body, spent a weekend preparing for, attending, and processing their experience at this conference.
An icy wind greeted us as we braced ourselves for the oncoming April snowstorm, traveling to Baraga, Michigan for the first ever Anishinaabe Racial Justice Conference. As we arrived, we received a warm welcome from a roomful of elders greeting us with a customary "Boozho" (hello). We were each given a hand-sewn bag of unique gifts, including a poster, a sampling of wild rice, a book of poetry, a prayer pouch, and a journal. The intentionality and thought that went into planning this conference was apparent in everything from these small details to the larger themes that were addressed throughout the day.
During the morning and afternoon, students attended workshops covering topics such as law and policy, water and land rights, cultural appropriation, indigenous food, Anishinaabe language, holistic health, and decolonization. These themes were also woven into other aspects of the conference, one notable area being meal times. A "decolonized diet" of traditional Anishinaabe foods such as venison, wild rice, cranberries, maple syrup, beans and squash were prepared to share with everyone at breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
One of the most moving experiences for me, as well as for many of the students, was the evening spent listening to the wisdom shared by participants in three different panels. The first was an elders panel, where elders were asked about issues impacting their communities and where they continue to find hope in their lives. The second was a youth panel consisting of three young women, who bravely shared their experiences encountering racism, addressing lateral violence* in their communities, and attending the Hannahville Indian School. Lastly there was a black and brown solidarity panel, where participants were asked about how they are working to address issues such as racism, oppression, lateral violence, and much more that affect all people of color. Hearing personal stories, anecdotes and reflections from each of the panelists was both moving and inspiring. I left the panel sessions feeling the need to do something more in my own life to address these issues as a white ally, and to find more space for these important voices in my teaching and learning at Conserve School.
As I began processing this experience with students at the conference, I was deeply moved by their maturity and earnestness to let this conference be the beginning rather than the end of their learning about these difficult topics. It is my hope that this experience motivates the students to learn more about the stories of the places where they each come from as they return home in the next month. Here is a helpful link to get started learning about the native origins of your area just by entering a zip code: https://native-land.ca/
This quote from one of my trip co-leaders at Conserve School, Rachael Button, summarizes our experiences well.
"For me this conference was special because of the opportunity to not only connect to place but to connect with people. The students set intentions before leaving--and many of our students were excited to learn, to be humble, and to really think about the role racial justice plays in their own environmental activism. At the conference we got to attend an elder panel and a youth panel. We got to eat decolonized food and have conversations with Anishinaabe elders who shared wisdom and stories. We got to dance and laugh with and listen to activists and artists from across the Great Lakes region. It was a formative weekend for me as both an educator and an activist and I felt so grateful to share the experience with such an openhearted thoughtful group of students."
*Lateral violence is a new term that I learned at this conference; it is " a term that describes the way people in positions of powerlessness, covertly or overtly direct their dissatisfaction inward toward each other, toward themselves, and toward those less powerful than themselves." A simple example of this behavior that often impacts indigenous youth is bullying or gossiping about each other.