CMN breaking bread with distant neighbors

Rebecca Edler, sustainability coordinator at the College of Menominee Nation’s Sustainable Development Institute, invites guests to a virtual table to talk about culture. (Contributed)
By: 
Ryan Winn
Columnist

Much can be gained from breaking bread with those half a world away. At the College of Menominee Nation’s Sustainable Development Institute, the meal is metaphorical but the knowledge it fosters is what provides sustenance.

With the goal of sharing global perspectives on Indigenous issues, SDI holds monthly “International Breakfast/Dinner Virtual Meetings” — joining together faculty and students who reside in time zones up to 12 hours apart. The gatherings’ host, SDI’s Sustainability Coordinator Rebecca Edler (Menominee) explained: “When you meet with individuals from an Indigenous community from across the world, the people become real to you. They become your friends. You form a bond with them and learn from their perspectives.”

Sponsored by the United States Department of Agriculture-Native Institute of Food and Agriculture and the United States Department of Education through the National Resource Centers of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, RSVPs for the gatherings are sent to CMN faculty and SDI staff, UW-Madison project collaborators, and academics and activists from Southeast Asia.

This academic year, the meals are held with Indigenous people from Indonesia. Dr. Rahmat Hidayat, a Fulbright Visiting Scholar at UW-Madison, discussed his talk “Exploring Relationship Building Opportunities with Indigenous Communities Around the World,” leading to fruitful conversations about how Native people fight against oppression.

“We discussed how the Menominee retained their voice at the time of treaty making, as well as how we sustained ourselves during termination and how our restoration came to be,” Edler said.

The hope is that the story of Menominee perseverance can fortify others during troubling times.

“Currently, in Indonesia, Indigenous people are losing their resources and not keeping their voice,” Edler said. “The more we share about our story, the more we can become a light that encourages others in their struggle.”

Edler was quick to express that the meetings are about “listening as much as sharing,” with an eye on how this work can benefit CMN students. The Menominee Theoretical Model of Sustainability is an invaluable, adaptable tool that can help any community work through the tensions that occur when developing a project.

“Visitors can learn from the model, but our story isn’t the only story,” Edler said. “Every community has its own culture and language and we wanted to bring their knowledge to CMN.”

Before COVID-19, SDI had in-person meetings to learn from the Menominee Language and Culture Commission, the Menominee chairperson, and the Menīkānaehkem Community Rebuilders group. The exploration of Indigenous knowledge will ideally enable the CMN faculty to expand their classroom pedagogy.

“Learning and sharing with others who are different from you can open individuals’ minds to other possibilities,” Edler said.

Part of CMN’s mission is to prepare students for “advanced studies in a multicultural world.” The school challenges students to think globally, and Edler sees SDI as playing a role, asking rhetorically: “How can you have a global perspective without exploring what other perspectives are out there?”

Continuing to strategize with UW-Madison’s Associate Director of Latin American, Caribbean and Iberian Studies Program, Dr. Alberto M. Vargas, the group hopes to plan future meetings with the Sámi people inhabiting the region of Sápmi, which today encompasses large northern parts of Norway, Sweden, Finland, and of the Murmansk Oblast in Russia.

“They are an Indigenous group whose lives center on following the reindeer,” Edler said.

Much like the Menominee learn from the forest, the Sámi have gleaned wisdom from their natural world. Edler wondered: “What can we learn from them? How can their traditions and ways be used to influence our classrooms?”

Netāēnawemākanak translates to “all my relations” in Menominee, and CMN’s Sustainable Development Institute is showing ways in which wisdom can be shared around an extended family’s virtual table.


Ryan Winn teaches communication, English, and theater at College of Menominee Nation. For more information about the school, visit www.menominee.edu.