A phenology project at College of Menominee Nation is monitoring the impact of climate change on the region’s forests.
By Melanie Lenart
If plants could talk, they’d have a lot to say about the ongoing change in climate. As life forms that remain rooted in one spot, they respond to local temperature and rainfall and other climate signals. Even without talking, though, they can still communicate.
At the College of Menominee Nation, researchers and student interns are investigating one of the ways plants communicate by monitoring the timing of the annual cycles of selected plants—such as flowering, fruiting and die-back—also known as their phenology.
“The overarching question of this project is to determine whether there are shifts related to climate change,” explained Rebecca Edler, the principal investigator of the project, which is now in its second three-year cycle of a USDA-National Institute of Food and Agriculture research grant. Edler is also the interim director of what she called the Wisconsin college’s “research arm,” the CMN Sustainable Development Institute.
One preliminary finding is that individual plants that flower earlier tend to produce more fruit when compared to other plants in the same species, she noted. That’s based on the analysis of a couple of years of data of 10 monitored species in the three plots.
Even before Edler became SDI interim director, she had been leading many project activities under then-director Chris Caldwell, whose move to serve as the college’s interim president in 2020 led to her advancement. In fact, she directed from the beginning one aspect of the project: the creation of a public phenology trail on the college’s Keshena campus in northern Wisconsin.
People exploring the trail are encouraged to become “citizen scientists” by recording the stages of the featured plants they encounter in “Nature’s Notebook,” an online data collection site managed by the National Phenology Network. They can learn more about the life cycles being monitored by reading signs posted along the trail about the plants—starting with their name in the Menominee language.
“I think what that points out to people is that we, the Menominee, knew this plant. We had a relationship with this plant. We had an understanding of what that plant could be used for,” Edler said. “We didn’t need to wait until the Europeans came and gave us an English name for it or a Latin name. To me, that’s a strong piece of that phenology work is relaying that message.”
Edler worked closely with the college’s language and cultural department to arrive at the posted names, some of which can be lengthy phrases that include information about the plant or its use. The phenology trail is part of a larger Learning Path on the Keshena campus that includes a soil pit, exercise stations and an outdoor classroom.
The trail serves as that the public face of the college’s phenology project. In addition, researchers from the College of Menominee Nation and its partner, the University of Minnesota, have established three large plots of about 2.5 acres each for scientific analysis. All of the plots include some of the culturally important sugar maple trees, although the monitoring focuses on the life cycles of understory plants, including gooseberry, Indian cucumber, wild leeks and wood nettle.
One plot is on campus while the other two are in mostly hardwood forests managed for timber by the Menominee Indian Tribe of Wisconsin, which is known for its approach to sustainable forestry. Monitoring the plants is expected to help the Menominee Tribe manage the forests through ongoing changes while teaching students and community members about phenology, ecology, culture and language.
Another important aspect of the project involves student empowerment, with two-year CMN students working alongside four-year or even master’s level Menominee students attending the University of Minnesota or other institutions. The interns also give presentations to school groups, community members and professional conferences such as the First Americans Land-grant Consortium.
“It really helps them create that vision in their mind so they can see themselves moving to that next level,” Edler said. “It let our students have the exposure to what research is like, to work alongside other Native students. Many of our students are first generation students, so they have no experience with collecting data and doing research.”
University of Minnesota Professor Rebecca Montgomery agreed, adding that the project builds confidence in students by respecting the cultural knowledge of the tribe.
“I think (CMN) students seeing an undergrad from a four-year institution or a grad student who’s also getting to know the plants with them might make it feel like ‘I can do this,’ ” Montgomery said.
Montgomery said the university aims to support the work of the tribal college. One way the university contributes to the project is by hiring a lead student researcher—often a graduate student—who can mentor student interns and even drive them to travel sites in the vehicle provided by the university. She recalled that in one season, the students dubbed themselves the “PhenoMenom” team because everyone on the phenology project was from the Menominee Nation except her.
With so much to learn, students often feel overwhelmed when the annual monitoring project starts in May, but they soon get to know the individual plants being monitored and celebrate the changes they see before the monitoring cycle ends in September.
“One of the things that has been really cool from my perspective as an educator has been watching the student interns who come in on the project over the years and seeing them get so excited about following these plants,” she said. “They will talk about plants as relatives and they’re like visiting their relatives over and over and learning about them.”
Kayla Cleveland, a student intern during the 2019 season, wrote about some of her experiences throughout the season in blogs posted on the college website. She reported that the internship helped give her the confidence to plant and grow her own potted flowers, as she began to understand plants more.
“Since learning about phenology, I tend to take a little more time walking outside,” Cleveland noted. “I take more time enjoying the plants, because they are a life all on their own.”
The first lead student researcher hired, Thomas Kenote Jr., finished his master’s degree in 2020 and now works at the College of the Menominee Nation as the Geoscience Project Director. In his master’s thesis, he stated he was an enrolled member of the Menominee Nation and also Lac Courte Oreilles Anishinaabe and described how the work “led to an intimate relationship with the plant relatives.”
His master’s thesis focused on the first year of data collection in 2017 and reported the initial finding that, within a species, the individual plants that flower earlier in the year tend to yield more fruit than individual plants that flower later. Those findings have held with the analysis of the second year of data, Montgomery and Edler said.
Kenote also explored indigenous phenology, including various definitions, and created a model for it.
“Indigenous peoples and native communities have relied on phenological knowledge to inform harvesting and gathering,” he wrote in his thesis. “Phenology is also inherently within tribal nations knowledge and language systems. Tribes have used phenology for resource management, agriculture, hunting, fishing, and other ceremonial activities.”
“The very act of Indigenous folks and allies researching together on Indigenous lands about Indigenous topics itself is an example of Indigenous phenology as a process,” Kenote argued.
The CMN also hosts an annual “Shifting Seasons” conference featuring phenology and other topics relevant to the ongoing climate change, as well as how to monitor it and adapt to it. The 2021 conference ran virtually in April, including an Earth Day event featuring Winona LaDuke, and the talks remain open for viewing by registrants.
Alyssa Rosemartin of the National Phenology Network participated in the conference, including in the session on “Plant Relatives.” During an interview by Zoom, she noted that tribal colleges sometimes use the NPN protocol developed for more than 1,000 plants, but they often choose not to report their monitoring process publicly. Like the College of Menominee Nation, she noted, Haskell Indian Nations University has a phenology trail.
The NPN recently added a fourth goal to its mission in 2019, to “Grow a diverse and equitable network.” The independent Indigenous Phenology Network is highlighted on the website of the National Phenology Network. and Rosemartin said she often attends its monthly meetings to stay abreast of developments and, if requested, to provide support to tribes and tribal colleges.
The College of Menominee Nation encourages participants in the phenology trail to join the NPN to report data, but the researchers maintain their own data for the tribe and for potential publication if approved by the tribal council when it comes to the plants monitored for the phenology analyses.
While the results may prove useful and informative in the long run, the process of collecting phenology data has many immediate benefits. Phenology can be an effective way to engage Native students from a variety of cultures in science, given its hands-on learning opportunities, repeat engagement and a strong connection to place.
“I think a lot of times science is intimidating, because there’s a sense that someone is an expert and has this special knowledge. With phenology, sometimes we’re all learning as we go along,” Montgomery said. “We all are learners. You don’t have to be in a special club to do this work or to go into STEM.”
Link to master’s thesis by Thomas Kenote, Jr., (2020) on Indigenous Phenology:
Link to information on Haskell trail:
National Phenology Network site for Indigenous Phenology Network:
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Melanie Lenart is a former university and tribal college STEM instructor and a regular contributor to Native Science Report.
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