Since 2008, the Fond du Lac Ojibwe School has incorporated a grant-funded program, the Journey Garden. The overall mission has focused on immersing students in gardening as a means to teach math, science, and wellness, and how it connects with their culture. UMD faculty and administration collaborated with the Ojibwe community to bring students, researchers, teachers, and cultural experts together over the past five years. This summer, the Journey Garden faces its final term. A variety of involved participants are looking at the future and how they might continue this important educational program.
“The program taught kids about gardening, being healthy, looking towards the future and what they could become,” said Maria Defoe, the after-school activities coordinator for the Fond du Lac Ojibwe School. “They could envision themselves as doctors, nurses, X-ray technicians, administrators . . . while staying true to their culture and who they are as American Indian people.”
Through the years, the program has run each summer for six weeks. During that time, middle school students enrolled at the Ojibwe School have been given instructions and free rein to plan, build, plant, and harvest garden plots. In 2013, there were six student gardens that included onions, potatoes, pumpkins, beans, broccoli, and many more vegetables acclimated for northern summers. Garden plots included the three sisters which embraced the American Indian tradition of planting corn, beans, and squash in the same space.
“Students also learned about the four sacred plants: sweet grass, cedar, tobacco, and sage,” said Defoe. “We taught them what we knew to our best ability and students shared their knowledge as well.”
Along with the traditional knowledge of the Ojibwe culture, a variety of researchers and experts taught the students about medical professions available after college and how to incorporate healthy living into their day to day activities. Included in their studies were assignments that relied on math and science skills. For instance, students were expected to build their gardens from the ground up. They had to measure boards, the plot, and how much soil to use; when and how much to water and to what capacity the plants would grow. Students also learned the Latin terms for plants and were challenged throughout the program to recall these lessons from memory.
Anna Wirta Kosobuski, assistant director at the UMD Center of American Indian and Minority Health, worked with the former director of the Center prior to 2008. “We came up with the concept. We thought it was worth a try. We applied for funding and the collaboration with the Fond du Lac Ojibwe School worked so well and we had such a great response, that we continue to work with the grant funds which will conclude after the 2014 summer program.”
Among the many positive attributes, Wirta Kosobuski believes that the peer relationships built among the students was part of the success of the program. “The students were already on good terms, but the Journey Garden deepened their ties with their traditions and culture and with each other. They had to work together, and they had to present together.”
Part of the presentations included an honorary feast that the students brought to the elders of the Ojibwe community. The feast, scheduled at the end of the summer, included the harvest yield from the student gardens.
“They served wild rice, venison, garden salads, lemon-flavored water,” said Defoe. “It was a wonderful way to conclude the summer and the six-week program.”
Although the future of the Journey Garden is uncertain, the valuable lessons learned will continue to influence the students who had the privilege to be a part of the program.
“I’m hoping that we can continue this program with the students,” said Wirta Kosobuski. “I’m hoping we can also expand the experience because this has given students much more to look forward to in the future. The teachings they learned opened their eyes to professions they might not have considered. The sky’s the limit, and I believe it’s our job to show them that there are many opportunities available for them.”