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Members of Wisconsin's Ho-Chunk Nation are training naturalists and nature lovers


Many people love to learn about the world's plants and animals without being scientists or academics. You can call them nature lovers, citizen scientists, or even master naturalists. In Wisconsin, members of the Ho-Chunk Nation are trying to widen the circle of professionals and volunteers who tend to the earth and pass the love of it onto others. Susan Bence of member station WUWM reports.

SUSAN BENCE, BYLINE: On a drizzly morning, it was Master Naturalist class day. Some folks stood in knee-high boots.


RANDY POELMA: Usually when we do water quality, we get people out in the stream.

BENCE: Environmental manager Randy Poelma passed around sheets to fill out.

POELMA: When we plug in all our data, that's how we get that numeric value.

BENCE: Monitoring water quality and helping restore natural areas is all part of what master naturalists do, and also part of the 40-hour immersion program run by the UW-Madison Office of Extension.

TINA BROWN: I had a goal to infuse Ho-Chunk culture into that.

BENCE: Tina Brown is a recent graduate of the Master Naturalist program and member of the Ho-Chunk Nation. She wanted to expose a bevy of budding naturalists to lands sacred to and tended by her ancestors. And she wanted more - to inspire fellow tribal members to engage, too. So she came up with a plan.

BROWN: It's going to include language, sustainability, and we're going to do some foraging.

BENCE: Foraging with an aim of exploring facets of the natural world through an Indigenous lens one day a month. Twenty people, including a handful of tribal members, immediately signed on. Lesson one, how to identify native plants. Ho-Chunk member Diane Rave spotted maahic, or milkweed.

DIANE RAVE: I used to bring them to my grandma. You know, anytime I ever seen them - make me soup.

BENCE: Rave learned to pick milkweed before it's flower turn purple and not to disturb monarch caterpillars that might be feeding on the plant.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Steve Stewart, you're doing...

BENCE: As the group waded through a prairie, Ho-Chunk forestry technician Kjetil Garvin, pointed out ground cherries.


KJETIL GARVIN: In Ho-Chunk, we call them haapok hisjasu. They're not considered ripe until they fall on the ground. That's when you're supposed to eat them, when they fall on the ground.

BENCE: She turned and looked up at a majestic hemlock towering over the group.

GARVIN: The needles are wonderful for tea. Just simmer them. So it's just real simple to collect, too, very high in vitamin C.

BENCE: At another rainy session, Ho-Chunk staffer Randy Poelma explained the nation's efforts to breathe life back into ancestral land that had morphed into a massive 20th-century Army ammunition plant.


POELMA: Our main focus is to make sure we maintain that cultural integrity, but then we want to restore about 1,200 acres to tallgrass prairie. What you see here now, although it looks kind of like fallow field and overgrown, it looks very different than it even did back in December of '14 when the tribe took the parcel.

BENCE: Tribal elder Janice Rice told the group stewardship has passed on one generation to the next, including things like harvest only what you need and give thanks for what you do harvest.

JANICE RICE: Being a part of everything, that's what I learned from my family without them saying, this is what I'm teaching you.


BENCE: That's just one of the lessons trainee Tricia Gorby appreciated about the Ho-Chunk-focused experience.


TRICIA GORBY: We often call - or I, you know, call our - natural resources are living beings. And getting to know the living beings of our environment in Wisconsin in different ways has been really fascinating.

BENCE: That's exactly what the Master Naturalist team had been hoping for as they watched Indigenous sensibility take root in a program designed to conserve the natural world.

For NPR News, I'm Susan Bence in Milwaukee.

(SOUNDBITE OF SEAN ANGUS WATSON'S "I'M HAPPY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Susan Bence entered broadcasting in an untraditional way. After years of avid public radio listening, Susan returned to school and earned a bachelor's degree in Journalism from the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee. She interned for WUWM News and worked with the Lake Effect team, before being hired full-time as a WUWM News reporter / producer.