THEY APPEARED as the last glacier retreated, twelve thousand years ago. It was the end of Earth’s last ice age, the Wisconsin Glaciation, when vast snowy sheets descended over much of the planet. As the ice drew back, it carved the landscape as it is today and made way for humans, who named themselves the Original People. Other tribes, in time, would come to call them the Ancient Ones.
The Menominee, as they are now known, evolved as the land did, moving with the seasons up and down the length of modern-day Wisconsin. As the tundra sprouted a seemingly infinite forest, trees became a cornerstone of life. The Menominee made wigwams from basswood bark and cedar, canoes and containers from birch. The tallest trees were revered as grandfathers, sheltering plants on the forest floor below as they reached high toward the Creator.
Thousands of years into this way of life, early American colonizers invaded from the east. It took them a century to completely dismantle the world as the Menominee knew it; the tribe was forced to cede its territory in one treaty after another, and a booming logging industry grew up on the newly acquired land. The Menominee lost their remaining ancestral lands the year Wisconsin became a state. After refusing to move elsewhere, the tribe fought for a small piece of their homeland back, establishing what is now the Menominee reservation.
After loggers had cleared all but this reservation, the stripped land was sold off to an incoming wave of German immigrant farmers. By 1872, the state dairy association had formed; in 1899, more than 90 percent of Wisconsin farms raised dairy cows. In 1915, the state was producing more butter and cheese than any other in the country. The Germans were Catholics as well as farmers and did their best to impose both identities on the tribe, prying children from their parents for boarding school and attempting to carve the communal reservation into individual farms. But while Catholicism made a lasting mark, the Menominee rejected this new kind of agriculture almost entirely.
Millennia in this place had taught them they could harvest the forest so that, in the words of their famous chief Oshkosh, the “trees will last forever.” Over the following decades, they became renowned for this forest, which remained healthy and fostered old growth even as the tribe supported itself by cutting millions of trees. To this day, the forest is so dense that the reservation’s sharp outline is visible from space—a tiny island of trees in a sea of Holstein-speckled farmland. Trees cover 95 percent of the ground. It isn’t an artificial monoculture, arranged in neat plantation rows, but a lush symbiotic mix of maple and aspen and birch that looks wild and untouched. Though the Menominee have logged off more than 2 billion board feet of lumber since they began logging 160 years ago, there is, remarkably, more tree cover here now than there was in 1854. The marvel of that feat draws researchers from institutions like the Smithsonian and from countries as far away as Germany and South Africa to the forest, all eager to learn the secret.
And yet, after all the Menominee have gone through to lay claim to their ancestral land, the delicate ecosystem they’ve cultivated to survive is now threatened by the biggest climatic change since the time of the glaciers. Temperatures have climbed so high, so quickly, that the forest may be altered forever in a slow moving storm of heavy rain, drought, invasive species, and heat.
The Menominee reservation, like islands around the world in the age of climate change, is in danger of disappearing.
SOME GENERATIONS after colonization, a son of the Menominee Nation married a daughter of German farmers. They raised their five children off the reservation, taking them to Mass each Sunday. One of the children, a girl named Beth, felt increasingly trapped by the customs of her mother’s people. The church’s stiff rituals and the priest’s commands from the altar felt disconnected from her own experience. High school among mostly white kids was rough—drugs and alcohol took such a toll on her life that by age eighteen she resolved to sober up.
But Beth Waukechon found relief on her visits to the Menominee reservation, when she snuck off to traditional sweat lodge ceremonies with her father. There, she saw people who looked like her, who welcomed her without condition and encouraged her self-expression. As an adult, she realized this place was the one spot in the world where she could make a life.
“There’s a sense you get when you cross the reservation line,” Waukechon said in her backyard on the reservation on a June afternoon. “And I don’t know how to explain it completely. Like I’m allowed to breathe.” She paused to take in the air. Her three young children, Waupanukiw, Opehtaw, and Skewnik, shrieked in play at the edge of the forest encircling us. “Like you’re home, you know?” she added. “I’m home.”
Wisconsin may be the land of dairy and beer and football, where you can drive for uninterrupted miles past crop rows and farmhouses and pickups hitched to fishing boats, but when you reach the Menominee, the trees put a stop to all that. They form not only the literal border of the reservation but also a border of ideas, between the Menominee way of life and the American way, that is as tangible and dramatic as the forest itself.
“The trees aren’t just trees, and the water isn’t just water,” Waukechon told me. “We have a relationship with our world. The world doesn’t think that way off the res. Here, I’m not being questioned, ‘Why are you talking to that tree?'”
The reservation is a three-hour drive from the capital city of Madison, the progressive haven that incubated modern environmental movement godfathers like Aldo Leopold and John Muir. It’s just seven miles up the road from Shawano, a city of nine thousand and the seat of Shawano County, which is roughly one-third farmland, 90 percent white, and the former home of Senator Joe McCarthy, whose enormous portrait still hangs in the courthouse. But both places feel equally distant from the reservation.
Shawano’s Main Street is lined with old-fashioned street lamps, cobblestone crosswalks, and nineteenth-century brick facades. I spent much of my childhood on this stretch, walking after school to my mom’s secondhand clothing store between Bult’s Bakery and Pop’s Diner. In high school, I’d drive up this same road until it faded into State Highway 47, past a few red barns and through a wall of trees, to take classes at the tribal college. My stepdad taught English part-time there after retiring from Shawano Community High School, where he had taught Waukechon and just about everyone else in town.
I made the trip back home in November, the month the Menominee call Freezing Moon, though the weather was mild enough to get by without a jacket. Making the familiar drive north, the differences at the border were starker than I remembered them. Keshena is the reservation’s largest village, home to the tribal college and the casino. Street signs are written in long strings of the Menominee language. Soaring murals of wolves and eagles and brown faces peer down at cars passing through. Eighty percent of the reservation’s residents are American Indian, but a housing shortage means that less than half of the tribe’s nine thousand members can actually live here. The reservation—which essentially doubles as Menominee County, one of the state’s smallest—has virtually no private sector business aside from a few gas stations and a cafe/gift shop called the War Bonnet. The percentage of people there who live below the poverty line is more than twice the statewide figure.
Map after color-coded map illustrates Menominee County’s islandlike isolation. By turns, it’s a conspicuous spot of blue among Wisconsin’s overwhelmingly red county-by-county results in the 2006 presidential election; a deep indigo dot signifying the highest unemployment rate in the state; a deep brown bruise marking the highest rate of suicide. It’s also the southernmost yellow square on a mostly green state map of cropland—the gateway to what Wisconsinites call “the Northwoods.”
Since 1871, the tribe has steadily harvested the volume of its entire reservation, twice—a fact that keeps outsiders pouring in to ask questions. When I dropped by the forestry office of the tribe’s business arm, Menominee Tribal Enterprises (MTE), an interdisciplinary team of scientists from Pennsylvania State University was meeting with the forest manager, Marshall Pecore, and some of his top staff. “A lot of people come here looking for a magic bullet,” Pecore said to the group seated around the conference room table, his arms crossed in his lumberjack flannel. “Menominees believe generally that man is part of the land,” he added. “The rest of society believes man owns the land.”
The scientists scribbled furiously in their notebooks. Their work⏤to run climate models that will estimate, as closely as possible, what may unfold in the tribe’s forest⏤is funded by a five-year grant from the National Science Foundation. “One of our hypotheses is that climate change may stress this interaction between human systems and natural systems,” said Erica Smithwick, a geographer who heads the group. “What keeps you awake at night…in terms of keeping the mill going?” she asked the foresters.
The mood was tense. For the Menominee, this question is one of survival: as climate change escalates in Wisconsin, it may irreversibly alter their forest, affecting which tree species can grow in the region and whether or not trees can even grow at all.
Pecore deflected the question. Many of the foresters’ concerns are caused by globalization as much as by climate change, he said. But after the meeting, I cornered Tony Waupochick, the tribe’s lead silviculturist, and asked him point-blank: did climate change worry him? “Oh, definitely,” he admitted. “When I first started here, twenty years ago, we used to mostly deal with each year’s timber harvesting, timber planting, just the annual thinning of the forest. Now we have to change our strategies a lot because of the health threats that are bombarding the forest combinations of drought, wind storms, and invasive species.”
Huge white pines loomed just outside the window of the conference room in MTE’s forestry center, an unassuming building situated in a tight clearing on Highway 47. Waupochick turned to a couple of the lingering scientists. MTE has experimented with growing new species in limited plots, he told them. He’s surprised that shagbark hickory, common in places like Tennessee, has taken root this far north; it’s still growing in its second year. “Hickory doesn’t grow here,” he said.
THERE’S A REASON lumberjacks wear flannel: it’s warm, and harvesting trees is best done on frozen ground. At temperatures above freezing, machinery and loggers can get stuck in the soft mud. If trees can be felled, hauling them out by the ton is far easier when there’s snow cover to smooth the way. Wisconsin’s long, snowy winters have been ideal for such work, as its history of logging attests. But the state has warmed by a full two degrees Fahrenheit since 1950, according to University of Wisconsin climatologist Ankur Desai, who has partnered on projects with the Menominee⏤and it hasn’t been because of hotter summers.
“Most of that warming has been unequally distributed,” Desai explained as we sat in his Madison office. “As in, winters have primarily been getting less cold.” Exactly how much warmer, and how quickly, is staggering. Since the time Waukechon’s grandfather worked in the Menominee sawmill, Wisconsin has had thirty fewer winter days per year with temperatures below zero. In that same period, the state experienced an annual loss of up to fifty days on which there was an inch or more of snow on the ground. In short, Wisconsin is losing its winter. This means that logging operations are increasingly limited. And the Menominee, who cut up to 8o percent of their annual harvest volume in the time between Thanksgiving and the middle of March, are among those with the most to lose.
In conjunction with warmer temperatures, invasive species like emerald ash borer and pathogens like Dutch elm disease and beech scale, which strip trees of bark or eat them from the inside out, have encroached on or entered Menominee territory. “Just about every species of tree has got an invasive after it,” Pecore admitted at the meeting with the Penn State scientists.
Historically, harsh winters have also served as a key population control for deer, killing off the weakest that weren’t taken down by Wisconsin’s hunters each November. But warmer winters help more deer survive into spring, when they feast on hemlock saplings that grow in the forest understory. Because hemlock can take centuries to mature, the Menominee forest is thus slowly losing them from its mix.
If these changes continue apace, as the University of Wisconsin’s Wisconsin Initiative on Climate Change Impacts suggests, Menominee County might look less like the dense forest it is now and more like Missouri, with its open, parklike oak and pine woodlands. The area could even eventually transform into an open, grassy savannah, Smithwick told me over the phone. “If you lose your northern hardwoods and you have more pine and oak species, then you are more prone to fire, and arguably there will be changes in productivity as well as in carbon storage,” she explained. “That transition is not going to happen overnight, but it could happen quickly.”
It might happen this way: As winters continue to warm, maple and aspen and other trees the Menominee have tended for generations will cease to thrive. They’ll inch farther and farther north, beyond the reservation’s boundaries, to where it’s colder. Species from the south will find a newly friendly environment in their place and begin to take root. With the ecological balance disturbed and the land unstable from these changes, even more destructive invasive species will be able to flourish. New stands of trees that take decades, even centuries, to mature for harvest will have to do so in a climate where extreme weather events are common.
“If you keep hitting it with invasives and fire and drought, those three things together might make the system go past the tipping point [or] … collapse,” Smithwick said. “You’re going to have to proactively plan and manage for that future forest, or you’re going to have to consider living in a system that isn’t a forest anymore. That obviously would be devastating for the Menominee.”
Generations of clearcutting and conventional agricultural practices, while contributing substantially to climate change, have in some ways trapped the tribe inside the reservation. “For the Menominee, it’s more of an issue because we have a limited, finite land base now,” said Chris Caldwell, who directs the Sustainable Development Institute (SDI) at the College of Menominee Nation, the reservation tribal college where I used to take classes. “We don’t have access to those ancestral territories. It’s more pressure on a smaller piece of land.”
Environmental historian William Cronon has observed that in the past, native tribes’ impact on the land was reduced by their mobility, which allowed them a natural abundance of places to find food and make their homes. But the settlers, with their farms and brick buildings and street lamps, imposed permanence, fixing both themselves and American Indian peoples into place. One 1931 report on Wisconsin’s dairy industry mentioned the local tribes’ refusal to be “tied to a cow.”
Now, permanent colonial infrastructure is clashing with rapidly unfolding climate impacts, says David Wrathall, an Oregon State University professor who studies climate and migration. “If you look at the geologic record, sea levels have gone up and down and up and down dramatically over the last few million years,” he explained, using the example of coastal communities to illustrate his point. “They usually take place in timespans where the ecological community can adapt. The entire wetland will migrate. The plant species, the animal species, will just move up the shore, and then they’ll move back down the shore as the sea level changes. But what we’ve done with human societies is constrain all of that.”
But even as they face an uncertain future, the Menominee see no real alternative to adapting to the land as it changes, as they’ve always done.
TRIBAL LEGISLATOR and former chairman Gary Besaw met with me at the tribe’s offices⏤in the very building where he was born, back when it was St. Joseph’s Hospital. He told me he gets lots of suggestions from those on the outside on how to handle poverty on the reservation: ‘”Why don’t you just build factories here? And you can have some tax breaks, get some pretty decent skilled labor, and you could probably get them at a cheaper rate. There’s a whole lot of incentives the government can give if you do it here on your land.”‘ But, he added, these suggestions “run into that ethical question of, ‘Do we want to turn this into a mining town? Do we want to turn this into some village of smoke-spewing factories?’ No, we don’t, and we cannot.”
When the Menominee set out into the forest in hard hats and blaze-orange vests, they’re working from a plan that looks a century and a half into the future. Teams of foresters visit in waves, determining how many and which trees should be harvested and when that should happen. Only those ten inches in diameter or larger can be cut. Clearcutting is very limited and is used mostly to encourage species that require full sunlight to grow. Instead, the Menominee selectively harvest old, sick, or fallen trees, leaving the healthiest stock behind. Only when the tribe knows how much of which species will be harvested is the sawmill’s marketing staff informed, so that they can arrange to sell it. “You always fit the sawmill to the resource,” Pecore is fond of saying. “You never fit the resource to the mill.”
This method has many admirers. A group from the Society of American Foresters, which was holding a conference in Madison the week I arrived back home, arranged a bus to drive the three hours north for a forest tour with Pecore. One of these out-of-town foresters, Bob Williams, who came from the famed Pine Barrens of New Jersey, decided to do his own tour and rented an SUV to make the trip up north. I hopped in the passenger seat and before long, we passed by the MTE sawmill. “It’s stunning that there’s a mill there,” he said, pointing, “and a forest like that across the street.”
Williams is well known in forestry circles as a bit of a rogue, railing against those he blankets as “environmentalists” who would like to see forests remain pristinely untouched⏤a practice, he said, that has led to unruly growth and an overwhelming threat of catastrophic wildfire in his home forest. But he also believes that mainstream forestry has not fully embraced the wisdom in the Menominee approach. “As far as I’m concerned,” he said of his colleagues at the conference, “they don’t get it.”
In the meeting with the Penn State scientists, Waupochick had spoken at length about the tribe’s holistic approach, pointing occasionally to a sustainability model diagram that helps MTE make decisions that consider cultural and environmental health as being equal to economic prosperity. But I wanted to know: what does an individual tribal member receive in income or benefits from the forest? After some prodding, he explained that excess profits from the sawmill are routed to the tribal legislature, which disburses it among members. But mostly, Waupochick added, “I think a lot of people would say you can’t put a value on the land. There have been tribes that, historically, if their lands were taken or sold, their tribal identities were lost. The people, they have nothing to believe in.”
The Menominee won a key victory in 1908 that allowed for the construction of their sawmill and more definitively enshrined their sustainable forestry practices in federal law. But they still wrestled for control of their own forest from federal agents for decades after. When they eventually gained self-sufficiency through their forestry, the federal government used their success as justification to terminate their tribal status in I954· The reservation became a county; benefits administered to the tribe were cut off. Battle-ready after years of struggle, the Menominee mounted a fierce campaign and saw their status restored just shy of twenty years later. Finally, a I975 agreement with the federal government granted “maximum self-determination to the tribe.”
“One of the things I wrote down was the word ‘agency,”‘ Smithwick told me over the phone, in reference to the Penn State meeting with MTE. “Are they going to be able to have the power to collectively decide, ‘This is what we want to do if the mill is under threat,’ or ‘If we’re going to shift to a different species, … we’re going to use a different economic model’? When that agency has been usurped by federal legislation or state legislation or through environmental strife, that’s when the system becomes less sustainable.”
“Many of the older Menominees, they’re too smart to know that just because we are in this era of self-determination, the government won’t ever try to do something like that again,” Caldwell put it. “A changing climate will probably add to the complexity. But the question is always, ‘What is the next assimilation policy going to look like?”‘
LIKE MTE, the tribal college’s Sustainable Development Institute has created a sustainability model diagram, the center of which says “autochthony”⏤the Greek roots for which are auto, “self,” and chthon, “earth.” To be “autochthonous,” Merriam-Webster says, is to be “formed or originated in the place where found.”
“I always thought autochthony was a Menominee word,” Caldwell told me during a visit to his office at SDI, which has become the climate program hub on the reservation. He stood up and pulled down a calendar from the wall behind me. Flipping it open to April, or Sugar-Making Moon, he explained that throughout its history, the tribe has tapped the sap from sugar maple trees in April. Now, Caldwell says, with the warmer weather, sugar-making season is almost over by then.
The tribe has witnessed climate change in other ways, too: Bridal bush blooms earlier. Ice fishing starts later. The river looks different. Invasive species are everywhere. Conversations about these phenomena are common and ongoing on the reservation, even though a few miles down the road, in Shawano, the same issues often go unaddressed. “We really try to shy away from saying ‘vulnerable,”‘ Caldwell said. “We feel that there are impacts that indigenous communities will notice more readily or sooner than other communities because of their ties to the land.”
Perhaps more than anything else, it’s this sense of belonging to this specific piece of Earth, and the Menominee’s urgency about their own sense of autonomy, that have colored their unique response to the problem of climate change. Just about everyone, from tribal leaders to schoolkids, understands the daily impact of warmer and more extreme weather. But many of these changes still seem gradual, and come rendered on a twelve-thousand-year history. “Everybody has some idea that something is happening,” Pecore told the Penn State scientists. “But it seems to me these are problems that the Menominee have always had.”
I heard this sentiment from others, too, including Waukechon. “This land is going to be okay,” she said as we foraged for edible plants in her yard together. “It’s always changed. And the people that have lived here have always adapted.”
“Our forest is an excellent source of understanding climate change,” Waukechon’s partner, Guy “Anakwet” Reiter, added. “If you live in a forest, you pay attention to things. You live within that forest, that’s better than any paper or research that’s ever been done anywhere. That’s the ultimate truth: nature itself. You’ve just got to watch it. You’ve got to be a part of it.”
So the Menominee have mounted a multifaceted response to the climate threats they face. Since 2011, the tribe has worked with the University of Wisconsin and Michigan State University to develop a culturally relevant science curriculum for middle and high school students called POSOH⏤an acronym that spells the Menominee word for “hello.” Together with partners including the Smithsonian Institution and Michigan State University, students at the College of Menominee Nation monitor climate impacts on plant life across several forest plots, with the goal of helping MTE adapt the forest. SDI has installed a “phenology trail” along a nature path behind the college campus, where citizen scientists can observe stages of plant development and help record data so that changes might be observed over time. The tribe is also a key member of the Network for Sustainable Climate Risk Management, a collection of universities and institutions around the globe that seek safe ways to manage for the risks presented by climate change, and the Northeast Climate Adaptation Science Center, a consortium of academic institutions that gathers climate science expertise. Additionally, Menominee Tribal Enterprises has test-planted various tree species that could give them more forestry options as climate conditions continue to change.
And the grant-funded project Smithwick and her Penn State colleagues are undertaking is directly incorporating Menominee indigenous knowledge into its focus. This summer, interns from SDI interviewed tribal elders on the use of fire in traditional practices. The wisdom they provided will guide the construction of climate models the team will create. The plan is to eventually install virtual reality hubs at the library and in other community spaces, so that Menominee can throw on goggles and see what their reservation might look like one day. Another idea they’ve floated, Smithwick added, is a virtual reality experience in a “museum of the future,” calling into question which species and artifacts of modern life might soon be history.
As an elementary school teacher, Waukechon wishes that skills like growing food and fishing were taught in schools. As it is, she and Reiter, a community organizer, are showing their children how to identity different plants, where to find them, and what is safe to eat while foraging in the forest⏤as their ancestors did. Together with a group of other tribal members, they’re leasing eighty acres of land on the reservation as a space to learn about planting, build traditional tribal lodges, and hold celebrations.
“We still have to have some sovereignty, we still have to practice our tree rights, we still have to learn how to grow our own food,” Waukechon said. “We can’t be dependent on the government. We can’t be dependent on anything other than each other.”
In that spirit, the Menominee Department of Language and Culture has in recent years ramped up language instruction considerably, training more instructors as more first-language speakers have died. Now, they’re teaming with SDI to adapt the language to climate change, the department’s executive director Joey Awonohopay told me. Extreme weather and distorted seasons have caused dissonance in the language, which relates everything to the rhythms of nature: Sugar-Making Moon is just one example of this. “If you do not allow your language to evolve into today’s world, it’s going to become stagnant. It’s going to die,”Awonohopay said. “It has to evolve.”
FOR THE MENOMINEE, the world has ended before. And not just through colonization, Reiter reminded me. “We’ve been through climate change already, here, on this land, and survived and thrived,” he said as we sipped coffee at a local “green” cafe in Shawano, where they set out uncooked pasta noodles for customers to use in place of plastic stirrers. “For five hundred years, the colonizing dominant society has never listened, and even now they’re almost incapable of listening. Even today it’s hard for them to hear. They want answers. They want to be the ones to determine and figure it out. Yet we’ve done it for thousands of years.”
Now, it’s just a matter of doing it on a shorter timescale.
In mid-February, a month after I’d left Wisconsin, I called Pecore to check in. I caught him at the end of the logging day, just after he’d returned to his office from the forest. He was characteristically even-keeled when he told me, almost as an afterthought, that he may soon have some more time on his hands. “We’re shutting down logging because of the warm weather,” he said.
At the tail end of winter every year, he explained, when the weather warms enough to thaw the soil, the county issues weight limits for the soggy roads that prohibit the enormous trucks required to haul trees out of the woods. This is part of MTE’s typical rhythm, which always pauses logging until the ground dries out in late spring. They call this time “break up,” and have come to expect it around mid-March, or Crusted Snow Moon, when all that’s left of Wisconsin’s massive snowdrifts are the hard, icy edges. But after a spate of fifty-and sixty-degree days, break up was happening a full month ahead of schedule. The loggers rushed to collect what had already been harvested, Pecore told me, in case they would have to wait until the ground was frozen again the following winter.
“February is usually a really big month for us for logging,” he said, for the first time sounding shaken.
With threats such as this to their way of life, to their last island of ancestral land, the Menominee remain resolved to address climate change on their own terms⏤to turn to the history, the knowledge, and the wisdom formed right here, in the place where found. Which is why, over the last couple of years, they’ve rejected a proposal for a carbon credit scheme that might have brought in much needed funds but would have put them in business with companies like BP and Chevron. This is also why, when Wisconsin’s conservative governor Scott Walker stopped at the reservation on a tour of the state, they refused to cozy up.
It was the bitter-cold second day of December when Walker visited for a closed-door meeting with select officials in a rented tribal college building. A small group of protesters gathered outside after being asked to leave the building; this included Reiter and two of his children, Opehtaw and Skewnik, who were bundled up for the weather.
As my feet grew numb in my boots, I commented that the kids hadn’t made so much as a peep. “They’re used to it,” said someone in the crowd. I started chatting with another protester, Justin Gauthier, a former intern at SDI, who had been on the committee charged with writing the tribe’s climate change curriculum. They had hoped it could teach young students the science in a way that meshed with their culture.
Gauthier explained how the team attempted to create another diagram, as the tribe is fond of doing, this time a Venn diagram with Western science in one circle and indigenous wisdom in the other. The committee struggled for a long time to find the connection, the piece that could fill the space where the circles met. “We invested a lot of meetings, a lot of hours,” he said. “The conclusion that we eventually came to was, they don’t meet.”
As we talked and waited for Walker to emerge, Skewnik played silently in the patch of grass in front of us. Her name in Menominee, her parents would later tell me, means “the western direction”⏤the way in which the sun sets. I watched as she squatted down to the earth and scooped it up in her palms. Pink coat bobbing against the gray Night Moon sky, she carried handfuls of dirt scoop by scoop from the grass to the parking lot’s edge, patting it into the concrete with her tiny bare hands, back where she knew it belonged. O
This article was produced in collaboration with CultureStrike.