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Focusing on Earth, not drugs

Fifth-grader, Menominee Indian Tribe form Earth Club

KESHENA, Wis. - Menominee Tribal School fifth-grader La-Rie Corn is already well-versed in the dangers of drug gangs, protecting the environment and learning her tribe;s heritage, including keeping alive its Native language.

The affable 11-year-old has proposed an Earth Club that's being formed at the Menominee Indian Tribe of Wisconsin in Keshena.

Students defied gangs in April by whitewashing graffiti at a popular skateboard park near the tribal school and replacing negative symbols with traditional American Indian art. Students dipped their hands in paint to make beautiful wall designs.

''We went down to the community park and painted over the graffiti and we put up Native American applique designs,'' said Corn, profoundly aware of the message sent by the simple act of removing the gang symbols. ''It was important because instead of showing the gang graffiti the kids could get to know and see the pictures of their culture.''

''We picked up trash during gym class because it was Earth Week,'' she said. ''We got lots of bags full. We acted like the trash was sturgeon food.''

Teacher Beth Waukechon said the tribal school teaches students about the ''disconnection that occurs between humans and Mother Earth.''

''The children have exposure to current environmental issues and solutions. Eventually, these practices will be a part of who the child is and not something separate from themselves.''

During the Earth Week ''Clean up the Rez Day,'' more than 180 tribal school students and others picked up garbage across the reservation, including the Menominee Teen Court Panel, said Claudette Hewson, MITW restorative justice coordinator.

Comprised of teens ages 14 to 17, the panel is a peer review for youthful offenders sentenced in tribal court, Hewson said.

Saying ''no'' to gangs was recently expanded when the panel and teens sentenced in tribal juvenile court for minor crimes removed graffiti from road signs in the Middle Village housing area.

''Both the panel and the offenders did not realize how hard it was to remove the graffiti; and after it was done, they looked back and said, 'It looks normal again.' There was a realization of what a mess the rez was becoming.''

MITW projects were included in the EPA Great Lakes 2008 Earth Day Challenge, which involved more than 100 projects in hundreds of cities across eight states along the Great Lakes basin.

In curbside collections and a student project at the College of Menominee Nation, MITW members turned in more than four tons of electronics.

College students collected more than 23 pounds of pharmaceutical waste, including 100 bottles of pills; more than 25 computers and dozens of related components like hard drives, printers, keyboards and speakers; televisions; radios; DVD players; 12 cell phones; and more than 100 batteries.

The class participated in the 10-week Recycle Mania project two years in a row. Among the activities it took on was weighing collected recyclables.

With eight pounds of recyclables per student, the college ranked 136 out of 200 others in 2008, beating out Ohio State and Georgetown, said professor William Van Lopik, adding that his class practices ''active learning.''

''It's learning by actually doing something, and not things you get out of a textbook. It's participation in real-life situations, not just head knowledge.''

MITW expanded the challenge to teaching tribal school students about their culture and the sturgeon, a vital part of Menominee heritage.

Named the ''People of the Wild Rice,'' MITW legends declare the sturgeon ''the protector'' of the grain that grows in water.

Tribal school teachers focus-ed all Earth Week 2008 classes on the sturgeon, said language arts instructor Joe Awonohopay.

From math to history and science, students learned about sturgeon, including the effects of pollution on their life cycle, habitat, biology, anatomy and physiology.

Students lobbied lawmakers to fund fish ladders at two downstream dams that prevent sturgeon from returning to ancestral spawning grounds on the reservation.

''The sturgeon guard the wild rice - one of the three gifts that the Menominee people have received from the Creator,'' said Corn, whose ''distant cousins'' harvest the giant fish. ''The sturgeon holds a really high place in our culture.

''In Menominee language, we got to see a video about sturgeon and how they hunt them and how big they get to grow.''

Students learned sturgeon migration, traditional spawning grounds, routes and geography, plus practical values like uses for the thick hide and its value as a nutritional food source, including being smoked for long winters, he said.

The sturgeon is a lanky slow-growing fish that can reach 12 to 16 feet, known for a rubbery mouth shaped like a sucker. The method of catching sturgeon and bag limits have led to heated disagreements between Natives and white fishermen.

''The legends of the sturgeon'' are ''passed down from one generation to another,'' allowing the youth to ''hang on to their spiritual and cultural heritage that is so rich,'' Awonohopay said.

The tribal school students have a vast reservoir of sturgeon knowledge passed to them by elders.

''We are so fortunate to have so many elders that we still work with that are able to give us this knowledge and pass it from one generation to the next,'' he continued.

The students learn the history of their tribe ''despite all of the forced assimilation,'' he said, noting that they ''are trying to make their way in modern society yet integrate the traditions with the technology in today's world.''

Students learned a lot about the Earth, their heritage and language, Corn said.

''I think it was really good experience for my class and other classes because we got to know what was happening to our community and how our culture is dying. Telling [students] about sturgeon and picking up the trash got them to learn more about their culture than we would have.''

MITW Earth project sponsors included the tribe's Community Resource Center, Menominee Tribal Police, Tribal Clinic, Maehnowesekiyah Wellness Center, Probation and Parole, Recreation Department, Community Recycling Project, the Menominee County Sheriff's Department, the Interfaith Earth Healing Initiative and Keshena U.S. Post Office.