“Thrival Tools” showcases Indigenous ways of knowing and unique winter wisdom

“The more I talk about winter survival, the less I talk about winter,” said Ho-Chunk Nation Health and Wellness Coordinator Jon-Jon Greendeer. “Winter survival, ironically enough, begins after winter is over.” Greendeer was one of four speakers who shared their skills, knowledge, and stories at “Thrival Tools: on Indigenous winter survival and brilliance,” which took place at Madison Public Library-Central on Saturday, February 26.

“Thrival Tools” is the first of three library takeover events the library will host this year. Organized by members of the indigenous community of the Madison nipinet (Anishinaabe, Michif), Aabaabikaawikwe (Anishinaabe) and nibiiwakamigkwe (Onyota’a:ka, Anishinaabe, Métis) region, “Thrival Tools” was an evening of storytelling, sharing recipes, music, and a song celebrating the wisdom rooted in Indigenous ways of life. The event, which began and ended with performances by the MadTown Native Singers Drum Group and featured speakers from various Wisconsin tribes, gave his audience crucial skills to weather the winter with strength and gratitude.

Jon-Jon Greendeer, Ho-Chunk Nation Health and Wellness Coordinator. (Photo by Nate Clark for Madison Public Library)

When planning this event, organizers wanted to shed light on what is often overlooked in mainstream and colonial narratives of survivalism. They noticed that survival guides and books on what it takes to get through a Wisconsin winter typically leave out Indigenous perspectives. To counter this erasure, they have invited speakers whose work and stories shed light on what is needed not just to survive, but to thrive.

“I think the main difference between survival and thriving is that survival involves you’re just trying to get through the day and the only thing you’re focused on is staying alive. To call it successful is to really underline that we have always done so much more than that,” explained co-organizer nipinet.

“Thrival Tools” is the first of three library takeover events the library will host this year.
(Photo by Nate Clark for Madison Public Library)

“It’s not just about moving from day to day, it’s about what we can do and the communities we have and the art we create,” they continued. “Joy is really important and often overlooked in Indigenous stories.”

According to Greendeer, there are four elements of survival: food, water, shelter and wisdom.

This fourth element, intrinsic to the Ho-Chunk language, can also be channeled by being more grounded. As things begin to wake up with the arrival of spring, Greendeer stressed the importance of sustainable food practices: tapping into maple trees, harvesting your own garden and slaughtering your own deer.

Chicana community organizer and activist Shadayra Kilfoy-Flores also spoke about the importance of taking care of your physical health. Kilfoy-Flores shared recipes for fire cider, an Indigenous home remedy she learned to make while volunteering with doctors at Standing Rock, and champurrado, a Mexican sweet drink of Mayan origin. For Kilfoy-Fores, making these recipes is a way to show her love. “Knowing how to keep your loved ones healthy is very empowering,” she shared.

The violence and erasure caused by colonization underpins the stories of the four speakers. Using the metaphor of an age-old fence that has been severed and painted white – a fracture further exacerbated by the institutional violence imposed by residential schools – they spoke at length about the ripple effects of colonization and its impact on the ability of peoples indigenous peoples to carry out thriving practices that have been an integral part of their communities for generations.

Shadayra Kilfoy-Flores
(Photo: Nate Clark for Madison Public Library)

“We need to fill this gap with what little we know. We have to go out and do some research and talk to people who won’t even talk to us about anything,” said Biskakone Johnson, an Ojibwe language and culture educator. “We really have to sacrifice ourselves to get this information. And once we’ve done that, we can move on again. It is only when we have corrected this discrepancy that everything will be fine. »

In addition to practices that nourish the stomach, Johnson also shared stories of Indigenous practices that help nourish the soul. The calm and cold of winter lends itself generously to time to focus on crafts like beadwork and moccasin making, which Johnson has been involved with for years. “[The quiet time] allows us to focus on ourselves and our stories,” Johnson explained. For him, craftsmanship is a way to channel stability, focus and clarity.

Biskakone Johnson (pictured with his daughter)

Demonstrating the power and emotional resonance of beadwork, Johnson invited his daughter to the catwalk, who was carrying a bag he had made for her one winter. The bag, decorated with flowers and leaves, took Johnson three months to complete. “She carries three months of my life,” he explained. “As an Ojibwe, you give your best to the people you love.”

As Greendeer alluded to at the start of his talk, winter prosperity is a year-round intergenerational practice. While building community these days is of the utmost importance, speakers also highlighted the need to work to equip future generations with the tools to thrive. “Everything you do today is for your grandkids. The grandkids you’re not even going to meet yet,” Greendeer said. “That way of life has already been mapped out. The reason I am here is [because] someone did it seven generations ago and did it for our people.

Yup’ik educator and performer Anastasia Adams, who was the final speaker of the evening, performed a series of traditional Inuit throat songs with the help of co-organizer nibiiwakamigkwe. Traditionally performed by two people, throat singing was originally a game that helped women pass the time while waiting for the men to return from hunting. Characterized by play and laughter, throat singing can be used as a game, as a lullaby, and even as a form of competition.

Abandoning the ideals of perfection characteristic of European musical practices, indigenous music and throat singing in particular, the emphasis is on synchronized breathing and corresponding pitch, which are different with each performance. “Nothing in nature stays the same forever,” Adams explained.

In addition to “Love Song,” “Dog Sled Song,” and “The Saw Song,” the duo also performed an original piece commissioned by the Madison New Music Festival in 2021. Seeking help from the audience who hummed two different songs pitches, “Migration Song” celebrated the beauty of different animals and groups of animals affected by colonization and climate change.

“Thrival Tools” not only gave its audience a much-needed alternative perspective on winter survival, but also enhanced the daily and dynamic practices that define Indigenous life and longevity.

“I think it’s really important to remember that we’re still here and we’re still thriving. We’ll be here and we’ll be thriving. It’s not like an ‘Oh, we only have the good times kind of thing. from the past,’” nipinet said. “A lot of the things people were talking about tonight are things they do every day. So I think it’s important to think of ourselves as living peoples with living cultures and not as a historical relic.

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