KEEPING CULTURE ALIVE

Grignon, MIHS traditional arts teacher, gets Kohl fellowship
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Leader Photo by Lee Pulaski Benjamin Grignon, who teaches traditional arts at Menominee Indian High School, works with students on their projects in the advanced beadwork class. Grignon’s work teaching students about Menominee art forms, language and culture earned him a fellowship from the Herb Kohl Educational Foundation.

Benjamin Grignon grew up in a traditional Menominee household. He knew the native tongue, and he practiced the traditional arts.

Now, Grignon spends most of his days teaching what he knows to students at Menominee Indian High School as the traditional arts teacher. Besides teaching, Grignon also heads up the school’s gardening and language clubs, and he works with the community to run summer culture camps.

His hard work to keep the Menominee culture alive has not gone unnoticed. Grignon will be receiving a fellowship from the Herb Kohl Educational Foundation on April 28 at Denmark High School, one of 100 in the state and one of only three in CESA 8 so recognized.

Grignon started his career at MIHS 10 years ago as the school’s librarian. About five years ago, the position for the traditional arts teacher opened up, and he got the job.

Grignon teaches beadwork — he has beginning, intermediate and advanced classes. A new class he introduced this year is described as “wood, stone and bone.”

“We look at some of the traditional artifacts or artifacts in museums, and we try to recreate them,” Grignon said. “It’s more of an experimental archaeology, where we try to figure out how it was done.”

There is also a traditional pottery class, and Grignon shows students how to make the clay the way their ancestors did it, using pit firing to harden the clay. He also teaches about basketry and weaving, and he shows how to use plant materials to recreate the textiles needed for the baskets.

Grignon has a film class at the school where he showcases films of indigenous peoples and discusses how accurately they’re portrayed. The course does not limit itself to American tribes; Grignon delves into the cultures of all First Peoples in the world.

Grignon also co-sponsors a language club at the school with Jennifer Gauthier, Menominee County University of Wisconsin-Extension community, natural resources and economic development coordinator. Although the club incorporates 4-H traditions, it mainly immerses students in the Menominee language.

“We use the language to teach about healthy foods, and a lot of times it’s bringing back some of our traditional foods like wild rice,” Grignon said.

Grignon’s work to teach and preserve the Menominee Culture extends beyond the classroom. He sits on the tribe’s cultural preservation commission and works to keep the Menominee language classes going in all schools on the reservation.

“Part of what I do in my classroom is incorporate language into our day-to-day activities,” Grignon said. “It’s not necessarily a language course, but we use language heavily in my classroom. All of the teachings and cultural practices are incorporated into everything we do.”

It’s easy enough for students who weren’t taught the traditional language at home, according to Grignon. He starts off with simple things at the start of the school year and eases them into more complex words and sentences as time goes on.

“We not only use the words, we incorporate them into the classroom,” Grignon said. “I think that’s very effective for maintaining language.”

Grignon noted that are some students that he describes as “squirrely” in other classrooms, but when they come into his classroom and are contending with the language intertwined with the art form, they tend to pay more attention.

“They realize that we have a strong background in math and science, and they’re more comfortable doing things that maybe our ancestors have done,” Grignon said. “Kids are working, and they’re working independently. I teach a lot of creative problem solving, so I don’t have them walk through their projects. It’s kind of like discovery learning.

“It works really well for what I’m doing, and I think it could be incorporated into other classrooms.”

There are only about five elders in the tribe that still speak Menominee fluently, Grignon said. The tribe is trying to counter the language’s slow demise by starting a language immersion at the preschool level.

“These young ones are starting in the language, both English and Menominee,” Grignon said. “What we’re going to be focusing on in the future is creating a space for them to grow within the language. We need to pull out the math, the science and the history that’s already embedded in the things we do as a Menominee people.”

Grignon’s fellowship includes $6,000 for himself and $6,000 for the school. He plans to use his personal award to go back to school at University of Wisconsin-Green Bay and pursue his doctorate. He hopes that the school will put its award toward improving the art room, noting that the tables have been at the school since the 1980s.

“It’s really humbling,” Grignon said about getting the fellowship. “I’m really grateful to be a part of this school district and to be able to share the arts that I’ve grown up learning. I think that’s important for our people. I tell my students all the time that you need to go out and learn these things and bring them back to share what you’re learned. That’s vital to keeping our community strong and resilient.”