Ojibwe children from the White Earth Circle of Life Academy have been making regular visits to Tamarac National Wildlife Refuge for two years now, and visitor services manager Kelly Blackledge says the educational partnership absolutely resonates in the community:

“Kids are recognizing the refuge and learning about the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as an organization. It has helped bring more families from the White Earth community to other interpretive programs we offer, and it has helped develop relationships.”

Each class, kindergarten through sixth grade, comes three times a year—fall, winter and spring—to the 43,000–acre refuge where Eastern deciduous hardwood forest, Northern coniferous forest and tallgrass prairie habitats converge in western Minnesota.

Staff and volunteers lead activities that address curriculum requirements in science and other subjects. The refuge also is an outdoor classroom to practice the Ojibwe names of wildlife. On woodland hikes children look for the food cache of ajidamoo (squirrels) and write in journals about the amik (beavers). While the partnership connects children with nature and the refuge, it also incorporates the academy’s goal of culturally based education.

“We really felt welcomed and respected,” says Mary Otto, assistant to the tribal education director, who is particularly impressed with the knowledge and skill of volunteers, often members of the Friends of Tamarac.

Otto also appreciates that staff conducted programs at the academy while the refuge visitor center was closed for renovations. Those visits benefited Blackledge as well. Blackledge, who initiated the school partnership with the tribes, now works in the Native American community often enough that it feels “less odd to see the Service uniform on the reservation.”

The refuge and the tribe cooperate on other education projects, too.

Blackledge helped create an interactive wildlife display for younger children. The traveling exhibit was shown in the tribal headquarters, where tribal leaders saw refuge staff and volunteers teaching kids.

The White Earth Tribal and Community College teams up with the local 4H native youth coordinator on a nature technology summer camp in which middle school students learn photography and videography at the refuge. Last summer, they filmed while kayaking through fields of wild rice. Another 4H activity teaches White Earth teens to use iPads and GPS technology to map, photograph and document the condition of refuge signs, kiosks and historical markers. That project was replicated in four states and earned a 2012 Connecting Youth With Nature Through Natural Resources Conservation Education Award.

Environmental education is only one area of collaboration between Tamarac Refuge and the White Earth Nation, a band of the Ojibwe Tribe that refers to itself as Anishinaabe, or “original people.”

Refuge manager Neil Powers says two recent agreements between the Service and the White Earth Nation led to the restoration of a 70–acre wetland site and 25 acres of grassland. The wetland improves water quality by reducing sedimentation in Lower Rice Lake, which is culturally significant to the Ojibwe because of its bountiful wild rice crop. Other projects address aquatic invasive species, wild rice and wolves.

“We have a unique relationship since part of the refuge actually lies on the reservation,” says Powers, who is working with tribe officials on a law enforcement memorandum of understanding. The process of agreeing on details is long and complex, Powers says, but ultimately tribal and Service officers will share information and allow the tribal court system to deal with some cases involving tribal members.

Mike Swan, the White Earth Nation director of natural resources, says an update that respects treaties and improves the partnership is definitely needed because the current agreement has been in effect since 1981.

Karen Leggett is a writer–editor in the Refuge System Branch of Communications.