Social studies teacher Vincent Patton and his students at Minneapolis South High learned a valuable lesson recently when they took on the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board, after being told by park officials to refrain from tapping the boulevard trees around their school for a class project.
The Park Board took notice last spring that students had been tapping the trees, a violation of city ordinance. Maple syruping, a cultural ritual, has long been a tradition for American Indian students in the All Nations program at South High School. They've been drilling the trees to make syrup for many years as a way to learn about and stay connected to their culture and history.
"If I can bring these cultural teachings to our youth then I'm honoring our ancestors," said Patton, a member of the Oglala Sioux tribe. "Maple syrup has always been an essential component of our culture, and we're the ones that introduced it to the European settlers that came here."
After talking with Patton and his students, Park Board officials decided to allow the students to continue tapping the trees and recently formed a partnership with the school, leaving signs near the trees to explain the ongoing educational activity. And for the first time, the Park Board will hire a forestry outreach coordinator, who will act as a liaison between the agency and schools, among other duties.
"It seemed like something that was beneficial to the school and to what they were trying to accomplish," said Ralph Sievert, the Park Board's director of forestry. "In a way, we're making an exception here because of the educational part."
The length of the Park Board and South High's partnership, however, depends on the longevity of the fragile maple trees. The Park Board has a moratorium on planting maple trees, which make up about 23 percent of boulevard trees in Minneapolis. And as they die out, park officials said they will be replacing the species with something different. The Park Board has urged Patton and his students to plant sugar maple trees on their school property to avoid that.
Patton's U.S. history class, a graduation requirement, draws lessons from cultural teachings and science. Patton and his students said they were inspired to challenge the Park Board following a program started by attorney Jessica Intermill and her colleagues. Intermill has been working with South High's All Nations students and started an Indian law moot court program at the school four years ago. In the program, Intermill said, students learn how to solve problems around Indian law, ranging from treaty rights to how federal statutes apply. The goal is to teach students the importance of Indian law and treaty rights, Intermill said. But none of the past "pretend legal cases" have been about maple trees.
"This is so important because these are students who have been told so many times in so many ways by so many of our institutions that their history and traditions don't matter," said Intermill, a treaty litigator for Hogen Adams law firm in St. Paul. "They advocated for their rights authentically and taught the Park Board in the process. They were able to show the Park Board what they already know: A tree can be much more than a trunk with leaves. It can be a life source and a connection to people who have tapped the same tree in the past and will tap the same tree in the future."
Mary Al Balber, an attorney who has been mentoring All Nations students, said she's proud of the students for applying the legal lessons they learned in a real-life situation.
"It's always inspiring to see our young Native people be part of a civic process and use those skills to figure out how to accomplish what they need," said Balber, an assistant general counsel for the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities and a member of the Red Cliff Band of Lake Superior Ojibwe.
On a recent afternoon, student Jojo Johnson and his classmates set out to fetch the sap while Patton remained in the classroom to prepare the bottles of maple syrup that would be shared with the whole school. Johnson said he grew up not knowing much about his Ojibwe heritage. But Patton's U.S. history class, he said, is helping fill that void.
"This hands-on stuff teaches me a lot about my culture that I didn't have before," Johnson said.