The Land Is a Teacher: A Conversation with Jeff Grignon

Still water reflecting trees with yellowing leaves on the Wolf River

This is the third piece in a series on Indigenous lands and waters in the Americas, inspired in part by the 2019 place-based workshop Changing Landscapes of Indigeneity organized by the Center for Culture, History, and Environment in Wisconsin. The series shares work that addresses Indigenous movements for sovereignty and self-determination as well as issues of environmental and social justice.

Menominee People are Indigenous to and have lived in present-day Wisconsin for thousands of years. Through cultural ways of understanding, keen environmental observation, and intergenerational knowledge shared via oral tradition, they live in balance with the environment and its natural cycles. Although disrupted by colonization, including a period of tribal status termination at the hands of the federal government from 1954 to 1973, the tribe has maintained their stories, language, and traditions. Jeff Grignon, Menominee forester and community knowledge holder, carries these teachings in his work to connect the Menominee way to contemporary land and forest management.

We met for a conversation at the College of Menominee Nation’s Sustainable Development Institute, where Menominee culture and values are integrated into a variety of sustainability projects. In our October 2019 conversation, Jeff explained his current project of researching ancient archeological sites located on the reservation and the related trail system that stretched far beyond the reservation, and even the Wisconsin border. Guided by Menominee teachings, Jeff has been a consultant in developing the local phenology trail and other environmental projects. Rebecca Edler, Menominee Sustainability Coordinator at the Sustainable Development Institute, also joined our conversation to explain the phenology trail and educational opportunities it has offered the community.

Stream or download our conversation here. Interview highlights, edited for clarity, follow.

Interview highlights:

These highlights have been edited for length and clarity

Becca Dower: To start off, could you tell us about the work you do for the Menominee Nation?

Jeff Grignon: I’m formerly a Forest Regeneration Forester for Menominee Reservation. I was in that position for over 20 years, and I worked for the forestry for over 31 years. Part of my job description is cultural resource protection, which means finding archaeological sites, identifying, inventorying, and mapping them, and then protecting them from any harvest operations on the forest. I’ve been doing that in and around these sites for 48 years now. It was kind of a calling. Being a Menominee tribal member, I was connecting with the cultural past and drawn to it. I’ve also had 20 years of western and southern fire experience on different reservations, including in Canada and Alaska.

BD: What are some of those archaeological sites, and how has mapping them impacted how forestry is conducted on the reservation?

JG: From the evidence that I’ve seen and my own personal experience, the sites date back to 16,000 to 20,000 years ago, up through the present. I’ve mapped over 1,200 sites on the reservation that run the gamut of that timespan.

A black and white map of Wisconsin glacial movements

Map of Wisconsin glacial movements. Created by T. C. Chamberlain in 1878. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

In order to understand the sites, you have to understand the geological activity and glacial action that happened during the last glacial episode, roughly 30,000 to 12,000 years ago. Everything we do in forestry and in finding these sites is directly tied with what happened with the movement of ice long ago. Roughly 30,000 years ago, glacial ice came down from the north through what is now Lake Michigan and moved westward, expanded over the reservation completely to the western side of the reservation, then receded back, and then re-advanced to a point roughly three-quarters of the way through the reservation. Then it backed off in steps, advancing and retreating back and forth, and exited on the east side of the reservation before it readvanced and formed the Legend Lake area. And then it was gone.

I always try to orient people about that glacial action because that’s where all the sites are located, that’s where different habitat types exist on the reservation. It gives the reservation the diversity that makes it special. The sites where there’s a lot of glacial action are where most of the older prehistoric areas were, because roughly 16,000 years ago they were actively managing the land. It wasn’t a pristine natural setting. It was actively managed in a way where my Menominee ancestors were able to integrate themselves with the communities of plants and soil communities, and become an active member of those communities. They were able to integrate themselves the way nature would want humans to integrate, because they were listening to nature and learning from the land.

The land is a teacher and we are students, yet as a species right now we don’t quite know how to integrate ourselves like my ancestors did. We need to learn how to redevelop that sensitivity we had long ago to the environment and our place within it.

BD: What can the archaeological sites teach us about getting back to those ways?

JG: What it’s taught me is to redevelop that sensitivity with the land. Each of us had that sensitivity as children, that sense of wonder as you’re exploring the world. Our formal schooling steers us away from growing outward into nature. We recede back into ourselves as we become more educated to the system, and the living reality of the world is no longer within us. Take learning the scientific name or the common name of a plant. Once you learn that common name, you shut off and stop learning about that plant, while a child will continue to learn and develop a sensitivity with the plant. Each one of us has that young version within us that can come back out. It’s finding ways to help people recognize that they do have that ability to go back to those childhood thoughts and processes.

Listening to the sites, what they were trying to tell me is: you need to track the trail system in order to truly understand what these sites are about.

I like to talk about that sensitivity as being a library of feelings. You have your basic feelings—mad, glad, sad, happy. But there are other shades of feelings within those, and communicating with the environment develops those different shades of senses or feelings. As you become more sensitive to the environment, what it’s trying to teach you, you develop a library of those feelings.

There was an ordinance passed roughly twenty years ago that we were required to protect these sites. There had to be a buffer zone put around each cultural site, and it had to be avoided during harvest operations here on the reservation. At the time, I had about 700 sites archaeological sites all over the reservation from different time periods: 16,000 years ago up to 1950, roughly. I’d seen bits and pieces of old trail in these sites. Listening to the sites, what they were trying to tell me is: you need to track the trail system in order to truly understand what these sites are about.

A black and white map showing trail systems on Menominee Reservation

Understanding the trail system on the Menominee Reservation helps other stories and histories come into focus. Image courtesy of Jeff Grignon.

I actively started tracking the trail system 10 years ago. There’s a main trail system that runs from south of Chicago through Green Bay, Wisconsin up through the reservation up to the west side of Lake Superior. Then it meets up with another trail system north of Lake Superior. There’s a second trail system that runs on the east side of the reservation, runs up through the Saint Lawrence, enters Canada, and then hooks into that main trail system. So, we have two main trail systems on the reservation, and there’s a third one now that I’m tracking that runs west through a lot of the archeological sites, up to the northwest corner of the reservation, and most likely heads towards the Dakotas.

Once I had that main trail system, I laid it down on the map with all the cultural sites on the reservation and lo and behold, the context or the story of every site came into focus. The trail system on the west side of Lake Superior is the oldest, because if you follow it all the way up Lake Superior it doesn’t go to the present shoreline of Lake Superior, it goes to the shoreline of the glacial Lake Duluth and then it turns and goes up into Canada. Glacial Lake Duluth existed roughly 16,000 years ago, so put two and two together and you know that trail system is most likely at least 16,000 years old.

BD: It’s so important to understand places in geological time. Were these trail systems were used to connect different nations to each other?

JG: Definitely. We have areas on the reservation that were recognized as stopping points on the trail system through the stories of the elders. These stopping points are underground storage pits, like a refrigerator. Imagine an hourglass shaped hole in the ground, lined and stored with food. It was a stopping point not only for the Menominee but for other tribes that traveled through the area. These storage pits were like a convenience store on the highway, but it was provided as goodwill from the local people to those traveling through. If the Menominee are providing food for travelers, the travelers are most likely providing knowledge back—it’s a give-and-take trade system—trading seeds, trading knowledge, trading stories, trading news.

Every time a person lives in a site they leave their imprint on that site. If you develop that sensitivity, the sites will teach you. Every time I go back to a site, I learn something new.

A crowd of people gathers around Jeff Grignon in a leafy clearing

Jeff Grignon speaks to participants in a National Workshop hosted by College of Menominee Nation, Sustainable Development Institute in the summer of 2016. Photo courtesy of the College of Menominee Nation Sustainable Development Institute.

The stories of the elders talk about the layout of the land, where the different types of trees are laid out for a purpose because of what the entire ecosystem needs in the area. You have heavy maple trees on the west side of the reservation—sugar maple and their plant communities. The east side of the reservation is mostly white pine. As I said earlier, long ago the glaciers came from the east and moved onto the reservation, to the west side, and then back. The white pines that are on the east side are culturally significant to the Menominee. We are identified with the white pine as well as the wild rice. The reason we identify with the white pine is that the stories talk about how the Menominee were right on the leading edge as the ice advanced from the east to the west. We were right in front of it, trying to slow it down and stop it. I have archaeological sites with stone platforms on hilltops, with one single burial amount associated with that platform. The only way I can interpret that is, because it’s on the edges of north-facing hills, they were praying to the north where the ice came from to slow the ice down. And apparently in that area they did the job, because the ice did stop just before it got to the burial mounds, and then receded.

These burial mounds must have been generations of medicine people on these platforms, praying through their lifetime as the ice advanced. Once their lifetime is done, they’re buried in that burial mound and the next generation steps up to stop that ice. Because it’s thousands of years for the ice to move. Those sites in front of the ice are probably the oldest sites we have.

BD: Is this trail system that you’ve been working on related to the phenology trail system here on the reservation?

Rebecca Edler: We decided we were going to locate our phenology trail along an existing trail on campus called the Learning Path. We ended up with 12 stations we call phenology stations. Jeff helped us gain a deeper understanding of the Menominee way of thinking about each plant and the knowledge that’s associated with that plant. We have a series of videos that go into detail about the Menominee significance of the plants. The next step was learning how to observe, because this data goes into this nationwide network called Nature’s Notebook.

BD: Can you talk about the Menominee forest and what the forest means to Menominee people?

JG: It’s best to go all the way back to the ancient garden areas. A key part of searching out these cultural sites has been to find these ancient garden areas called the Three Sisters Gardens that are linked to our oral stories collected over the years. The stories talk about how the Menominee observed the ancient garden areas and realized that the corn was the elder of the community. They took that knowledge, and they applied it to the forests and the prairies. They were able to understand what was going on in the forests and the prairies by using that concept of the elder plant that controls the community and determines where and how things grow and what they produce.

A leafy, thriving undergrowth of plants around several trees

One of the elder plant communities Jeff Grignon has been regenerating. Photo courtesy of Jeff Grignon.

The easiest concept is to look at old-growth trees which are the elders of their own plant communities. Probably the greatest teaching I had was one elder who told me to pick out an elder community in the forest when I was very young, and keep going back to it every year, as often as you can, to observe and let it teach you. I’ve been doing that for almost 50 years on this one plant community. I was able to watch the interactions within that community and how over the span of 10-15 years the inner edge plants will shift back and forth depending on the environment disturbance. All these plants are working medicines within the plants of that community and sharing with the other communities. That’s what gives this reservation its strength, because we have these intact elder plant communities that are not only the plants above ground but everything below ground. The forest has these unique characteristics because we haven’t run plows through it and disturbed the soil.

Towards the end of my forest regeneration work, I was replanting those elder plant communities within sites that had to regenerate. I was picking out the elder plant, a climate hardy species, and then direct seeding the herbaceous plants and the grasses, and trying to develop that underground community for that type of elder plant for the future. It wasn’t viewing what I was planting above-ground, it was using that cultural teaching and trying to regenerate the below-ground environment. The elders talked about certain areas having their own type of song, just as a certain plant has a certain song. When you combine plants together, they form a certain song for an area that can be heard if you’re sensitive enough. What I was trying to do in these areas was put it together much like a song, with the plants and the below-ground environments creating their own unique melody, rather than just trying to stick different diverse species together and have them grow. It’s crafting a melody for that one particular area which will add to the melody of the greater ecosystem.

Featured image: Wolf River on the Menominee Reservation. Photo by Chris Ford, November 2009.

Podcast music: “Gloves” by Julian Lynch. Used with permission.

Jeff Grignon is a Menominee tribal member and worked as a Forest Regeneration Forester for Menominee Nation for over 20 years. His work focuses on cultural resource protection, and over the past 50 years he has identified and mapped over 700 archaeological sites on the reservation to protect them from harvest operations on the forest. His current project is to put together a GPS map of archaeological sites along an ancient tribal trail system to use as an educational tool for the public. Contact.

Rebecca Edler is the Sustainability Coordinator at the Sustainable Development Institute at the College of Menominee Nation. Working with recruitment, admissions, and advising at the College for five years before moving into this position, she is familiar with various aspects of higher education, primarily Student Services. Rebecca brings her experience of working in research and development to the Sustainable Development Institute as well as her passion to strengthen American Indian families. Contact.

Becca Dower, Turtle Mountain Ojibwe, is a graduate student in the School of Human Ecology at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. Her research explores First Nations Food Sovereignty initiatives across Turtle Island. Currently she is working with Nations to develop a digital intertribal trade network of foodways, knowledge, and skills as a tool in achieving food sovereignty in Native communities. Contact.