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Framing climate change with culture

January 5, 2015

Climate change is touching every community in every country in diverse ways – and yet, the effects can be subtle enough that signs of change are either missed or argued away. To combat this challenge, experts suggest “framing the issue.”

Framing simply means setting boundaries on the scope of a topic to help audiences mentally beeline to the issue at hand. This is the strategy that rests at the heart of G-WOW, a climate change literacy initiative focusing on the environment, people, culture and economy of coastal Lake Superior.

“G-WOW is shorthand for ‘Gikinoo’wizhiwe Onji Waaban,’ which means ‘Guiding for Tomorrow’ in Ojibwe, the name given to the project by a tribal elder,” says Cathy Techtmann, UW-Extension’s environmental outreach state specialist based in Northern Wisconsin.

A visitor investigates the G-WOW Discovery Center exhibit on climate change and culture
A visitor browses the G-WOW exhibit on climate
change and culture. Credit: National Park Service

Techtmann initiated this project four years ago, wanting to understand how to frame climate change in a way that people could make sense of – not just presenting the science, but anchoring it in everyday experiences. Her efforts have created a flexible service-learning model that triangulates climate change with scientific research, real-world evidence and, in this case, Ojibwe traditional ecological knowledge.

In the G-WOW model, Ojibwe traditions provide the cultural perspective. Research from the Wisconsin Initiative on Climate Change Impacts (WICCI) provides the scientific core. A statewide project that grew out of a partnership between the Nelson Institute, Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources and other institutions and agencies, WICCI has been investigating the impacts of climate change in Wisconsin since 2007, supported by the latest findings from scientists in the Nelson Institute Center for Climatic Research.

“Our goal is to use climate impacts on Ojibwe traditional ‘lifeways’ as an indicator to help people of all cultures understand how climate change is affecting their community and economy, and what they can do about it,” says Techtmann.

The sustainability of Lake Superior ecosystems, and the cultures that rely on them, is being challenged by the influx of exotic species, urban encroachment and mining operations, compounded by the superimposition of climate change. Wild ricing, fishing, maple syrup production and birch bark harvesting are central to Ojibwe culture. Rising temperatures and changing rainfall patterns due to climate change are affecting the sustainability of culturally important plants and animals.

Untimely rains can drown wild rice plants; warmer winters can make trees more susceptible to pests; and hotter summers can harm critical wildlife habitats.

The full G-WOW curriculum is online, at, and a concept exhibit and interactive kiosk make up the G-WOW Discovery Center at the Northern Great Lakes Visitor Center in Ashland. Summer teacher institutes also provide professional development training based on the G-WOW model.

Techtmann now envisions adding other culturally important species to expand the curriculum’s place-based and scientific scope.

Connecting our ways of knowing

Another example of integrating indigenous knowledge into teaching and learning is POSOH, a partnership led by the UW-Madison College of Agricultural and Life Sciences (CALS).

Both the Menominee word for “hello” and an acronym for Place-based Opportunities for Sustainable Outcomes and High Hopes, POSOH is being developed in partnership with Oneida and Menominee communities. The program represents a new way of teaching science. Funded by a $4.7 million grant awarded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 2011, it has the mission of helping prepare Native American students for bioenergy and sustainability-related studies and careers.

POSOH aims to offer science education that is both place-based and culturally relevant, attributes that have been shown to improve learning.

CALS biochemistry professor and POSOH project director Rick Amasino notes that for Native American students, sustainability is an obvious fit for science discussion. The Native American concept of thinking in seven generations – how the natural resource management decisions we make today could affect people far into the future – has sustainability at its foundation, and most Native American traditions reflect that value. Learn more about the program.

-Joan Fischer

The seventh-grade curriculum guide for POSOH features a cover illustration, shown here, by Native American artist Anthony Gauthier
The POSOH curriculum guide features a cover illustration, shown here, by Native American artist Anthony Gauthier.