Extension SNAP-Ed Educator Kristina Kaml partners with Native communities in northern Minnesota to bring nature engagement to Indigenous youth.
Nurtured by nature
Born and raised on the edge of the Canadian border in Roseau, Minnesota, University of Minnesota Extension SNAP-Ed* Educator Kristina Kaml recalls what it was like growing up in rural northern Minnesota. With her childhood home just two miles from Hayes Lake State Park, Kaml holds a deep appreciation for both the beauty and bounty of nature. "I come from a family of hunters and gatherers. We grew up eating venison, moose, rabbit and fish. We picked berries my whole life," she says.
To Kaml, these foods were staples in her home.
This is why when Kaml sat down for lunch at the Seeds of Native Health Conference in 2019, she was surprised to be the only one at her table who was familiar with the Indigenous foods being served, like walleye, venison, bison and rabbit.
With the conference focusing on the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community’s commitment to improving nutrition for all Native Americans, Kaml asked herself, as a white woman who grew up in a rural, mostly white, English-speaking community, "Why am I the only one at the table who has experienced these traditional foods?"
When Kaml was approached by Extension Educator Kelly Kunkel and Program Leader Trina Adler about a partnership with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources to bring communities back to state parks and trails, Kaml's question began to shape into an opportunity.
Listening, learning and cultivating cultural connections
Reflecting on the role of the great outdoors in her upbringing, Kaml pictured a way to meet the needs of Native communities in her region by cultivating cultural connections through nature. "I expressed a vision that focused on Native youth, nature engagement, physical activity, cultural foods, language and games," Kaml shared.
Kaml was reminded of the importance of listening and learning while navigating her vision. "I needed to see what they want," Kaml explained.
Collaborating with American Indian Education coordinators and Native parents and youth, Kaml and her team asked, "How would you like to see this happen?"
This long-sustaining partnership through the years resulted in Bimaadiziwin: Living a good life - Native trails to wellness, a project using guidance from the 13 Moons curriculum that connects Native youth to the land, language and traditions through seasonal outdoor nature engagement activities.
Receiving funding from Extension’s Northwest Regional Sustainable Development Partnership, the group was able to turn a vision into reality. With support from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and International Water Institute, the project offered outdoor activities like paddling, fishing, archery, compass reading and geocaching. Crafting partnerships with the Warroad Indian Education and the Minnesota Horticultural society, the project was able to grow and serve traditional foods like wild rice, bison and walleye, and integrate the Ojibwe language, culture and games at each event.
Taking youth paddling at Hayes Lake and Zippel Bay state parks this past fall, Kaml is reminded of fond childhood memories and the restorative power of nature.
"It's been a great project getting kids outdoors and seeing youth get back to some of their traditions and language," says Kaml.
But the project goes beyond restoring relationships with nature.
"It's about recovering knowledge of and access to healthy Indigenous foods, medicines and lifeways."
Led and coordinated by Indigenous adults and youth leaders, the project allows youth to engage with intergenerational learning as they receive traditional teachings, connect with Elders and foster community.
Sustaining future impacts
"The end result has turned into a series of programs with Native American communities and everything we are trying to emulate in Extension about culturally sustaining practices," says Adler.
Preparing for the winter and spring seasons, Kaml is excited to bring snowshoeing and outdoor winter games to youth with the Bimaadiziwin project. Taking her creativity and enthusiasm for the outdoors, Kaml continues to lead her SNAP-Ed work in the northern Minnesota region by listening to Indigenous voices and embracing nature as a guide to community wellness.
* Supplemental Nutrition Program Education
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