The recipient of the Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation’s highest honor is being recognized for her environmental work while serving on the Jasper County Conservation Board and elsewhere. The Newton woman credits her Native American heritage for instilling a love of Mother Earth.
Carol Kramer grew up in the village of Pine Point on the White Earth Indian Reservation in Northwest Minnesota. She’s an enrolled member of the Ojibwe, also known as the Chippewa. But she considers herself part of a larger nation of Native Americans. “I’m very much what's known as the first people, which is what we call ourselves," she says. "We don’t really call ourselves Chippewa or Ojibwe.”
She shared a four room house with her parents, four brothers and a sister. When her great-grandfather first held Carol in his arms and observed her light complexion, he gave her a permanent Indian name – Wabaskunageensch – or unripe blueberry. “Now, I always thought that was a really silly name, and I didn’t really like it for a long time," she says. I wanted to change it, but of course you can’t do that, I love my name now.”
Her family lived off the land. In the spring, they tapped maple trees for syrup. In the summer, they picked berries. In the fall, they harvested wild rice, living by a principle recited over and over by her parents. “We had a sacred duty to protect Mother Earth because Mother Earth sustained us," she says. Mother Earth gave us our beauty, and our sustenance.”
Carol’s parents never took for granted what Mother Earth was providing. When they harvested their crops, they returned some to nature. “My mother always took the first bit of finished wild rice, the first berries, the first anything out of our garden, the first food," she says. "And she always buried just a little bit of it into the earth.”
When her father returned from a successful hunt, he gave his blessings to the wildlife. “When daddy would come home after killing a deer, before we could eat the deer, he always thanked the deer for giving itself for our family, for sustenance and food," she says.
He told Carol, his respect for the creatures he trapped and hunted for the dinner table was all part of a life cycle. “He felt everything was a symbol of the circle," she says. "We were all part of that circle, the birds, all of the animals, were our brothers and sisters.”
Carol left the reservation after graduating college to begin a teaching career. But she passed on the lessons she learned from her forebears to generations of sixth graders in Newton, pushing them to plant trees and preserve parks. “I always taught my students when you walk into an environment, you always leave it cleaner than you found it,” she says.
And despite the passage of time and the distance in miles from Pine Point, Carol has always stayed close to the heritage that shaped her into an environmental conservationist. “I go back to the reservation every year and I dance in the Pow Wow," she says. "And I am now the oldest traditional woman dancer from our village.”
Carol Kramer will receive the Hagie Heritage Award from the Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation for her lifetime efforts to protect Mother Earth.