A conversation with Ojibwe Education Park Ranger Peyton Martinson

Peyton Martinson, NPS Ojibwe Educator

December 3, 2023

In August, 2023, Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, in partnership with Red Cliff Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, announced Peyton Martinson as the newly appointed park ranger cultural educator for Apostle Islands National Lakeshore.

“In her new role, Peyton will work with the park’s visitor service and education team to enhance public and staff understanding of Ojibwe culture and help integrate Ojibwe language, traditional knowledge, and Ojibwe perspectives into park operations,” said Apostle Islands National Lakeshore Superintendent Lynne Dominy. “She will continue to work with Ojibwe language programs in local schools and surrounding Tribal communities and will build bridges between Tribal communities and their homelands in and around the Apostle Islands.”

Friends of the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore board member Neil Howk recently sat down with Peyton to get to know her a bit better.

Neil – Where did you grow up?
Peyton – I grew up in Red Cliff (Gaa-Miswaabikaang) and I went to Bayfield school. I graduated in 2017. I had every intention of studying nursing. So, I left the area for a year. I went down to Milwaukee and studied nursing for a semester. I didn’t have the best time. It was very stressful leaving the area and it was an intense program. I changed my major after the semester. I decided that I wanted to help people in a different way. I changed to environmental science. I decided that if I was going to do that, I should just go to my backyard, go to Northland (College). I graduated in 2021 with a degree in Natural Resources. My emphasis was on ecological restoration, and I also had a minor in geology.

Peyton at park headquarters

So, I just finished that up and right after I graduated, I did some service jobs trying to figure out what I was going to do. I had an internship at Beaver Hollow (Nature Preserve). I built some of the boardwalk there, which was really fun. I learned a lot about what I wanted to do. A mixture of education with hard labor was cool for me…a little bit of a change.

Then I got the job at Bayfield School as the AmeriCorps “farm to school” person, working a lot with food sovereignty with kids. I loved that… the education aspect of it. When we lost funding for that job, this (job) came up. I was like, “that sounds pretty cool.” I had applied for maintenance jobs in the past and gotten rejected.

I remember calling and being like, “I just graduated, this is what my degree is in. What is going on? Why am I not getting these jobs?” A couple people told me about the process of applying, and what you need to do. And then this came up and I’m so thankful because a feel like a lot of people have a long history of working in the park until they get that permanent position.

Neil – What kind of experiences inspired your interest in environmental education?
Peyton- Growing up here, obviously it’s a beautiful spot, connected to the land here… But when I was going to Northland and I was doing natural resource policy and that kind of stuff, I was like, “I don’t want to work for the government.” I had this whole internal battle with myself. I was learning all this scientific knowledge and all this stuff about land, and why things are the way they are. But I grew up hearing stories about why things were the way they were from elders in the community and stuff like that. So just looking at it from a different perspective for me… learning about all of it and all of my classes at Northland, but then using that and tying it into the stories I heard growing up.

Neil – Did you have a chance to get out and have experiences in the park when you were growing up?
Peyton- I did do Island School when I was in sixth grade. Everyone who’s done it remembers it forever. It’s such a great experience. Granted it wasn’t… I don’t know, it was still amazing, but it wasn’t as… I know now we’re trying to work with education students (to help teach the sessions) and at that time it was just whatever Northland student wanted to go to Stockton (Island). So, it was different, but I still remember it and still talk about it to this day.

Island School students at old Stockton Presque Isle campfire circle

Yeah, it was hard for me, like, they (the islands) are pretty inaccessible to most people who live around here. I didn’t have a boat (when I was) growing up. I barely even went to Madeline Island growing up, unless it was a field trip at school.

Neil – So camping at Stockton was the first extended experience you had?
Peyton- Yes, and from that point on it was like, “oh my god, this place is so cool. I want to go camping out here…” Actually, what inspired that for me was the year prior, I begged my mom to take us to Yellowstone. So, we went to Yellowstone the year before and I was just like, “oh my gosh, there’s so much out there.” When I was in college we travelled a little bit, but I was still brought back to this place. I also went out to Little Sand Bay as a kid. We had family cookouts there. We always went on school field trips out there.

Visitors at the mainland ice caves

Mainland ice caves

Neil – Ice caves?
Peyton- I actually have never been to the ice caves, and when they were wild in 2014, I was a busser at the Village Inn (in Cornucopia). We were inundated by visitors, so I never got to go out because I was so busy working.

Neil- Now you can be part of the crew that decides whether they open or not. What is your official job title now?
Peyton – It is the Ojibwe Education Park Ranger. There’s been some different iterations, but that is what I’m going with…in the interpretive division.

Neil – Do you have a basic sense of what you’re going to be doing?
Peyton – Yeah. I want to do talks with people in the park, like at Little Sand Bay and at Frog Bay, places like that. 

And also I want to do programming at the (Bayfield) school. I’m thinking right now about doing that with the sixth grade, just to get to know them before Island School. I think that would be more meaningful for them, if they could get to know me a little bit more before we go out there and maybe they will have a better experience being out there.

I’ve also been working with the middle school Alt-Ed (class) doing some stuff with Sarah Gorden-Altiman. She is a really great resource for traditional ecological knowledge, so I’ve been picking her brain a lot, it’s been fun.

Bayfield teacher Mark O'Neill with students at Stockton Island

Bayfield teacher Mark O’Neill with students at Stockton Island

Another big project would be that we are working with the Apostle Islands Cruises to work on their script (for their narrated tours), just to be a little more inclusive. It’s a way most people see the park because it’s easy, you just hop on a boat, get out there, learn a little bit, hopefully. So, hoping that the message is more concise and meaningful.

Neil – Have they been receptive to that?
Peyton – Yes. We’re in a lot of meetings right now about it. But I’ve been working on a potential new script. Pretty cool.

What else? As well as external messaging about indigenous people in the area, also doing some messaging with staff, getting us all on the same page. People have a lot of questions and if we can work on being on the same page and sharing that knowledge, I think that would be great.

Neil – So, the Friends have four pillars that we work on. That includes accessibility, education, stewardship, and service. Obviously, education would be a logical place for you to fit in. How do you think your efforts will support any, or all, of those pillars?
Peyton – I’m a really big advocate for stewardship. I think spending time with youth last year in Bayfield School (was helpful), like I was able to go on field trips with them and do traditional harvesting of things like wild rice and spearing (fish) and things like that.

Gathering wild rice with Bayfield School students

But getting kids to develop that relationship with the land that I think has been lost through generational trauma, basically. But just getting kids comfortable with being outside and just having an appreciation and understanding why it’s so important to take care of it…  and Junior Ranger programs. It’s also a lot of fun. I got to badge my first Junior Ranger at Apple Fest actually. It was very cute.

I think that’s my biggest thing…adults too, obviously. Getting visitors on the same page about this area and why it’s important. The youth are going to be the caretakers after us.

Neil – Do you have some specific goals for your programming and education programs?
Peyton – When I started, we went out on an island hop day and I got to see Rocky Island for the first time, where the life leases are. I remember being like, “what is going on out here?” I really want to develop a program where we work with community members to build seasonal structures, like wigwams or long houses, to show them how it was done traditionally and to show visitors what was going on here seasonally. Especially because most of our visitors are here in the summer. But, like, building those summer homes that people would have been using to go fishing or ones that were near the beach because a lot of the work they were doing was harvesting on the landscape there. I think that would be really cool.

Neil – Would you do that in places where it would have happened traditionally?
Peyton – Yeah, and Little Sand Bay would be a great place, but maybe not next summer because they will be doing a lot of construction out there.

And we also just learned the old, new name for Little Sand Bay, which is “Zhegashkiigadaawangaag,” which means “flat, sandy area” in Ojibwe. I want to do some programming out there, for sure.

Neil – How did you learn the name?
Peyton – THPO (tribal historic preservation officer) released that, and they actually sent us a video. They just made it and sent it to us, and it’s got the park logo on it.

Neil – Has anything surprised you about working for the National Park Service?
Peyton – When I was at Northland, I thought, “there’s no way I’m going to work for the park service. It’s (the national lakeshore) all on stolen land, and dadadadada…you know, college things…” Now I want to be a part of the positive conversation about how we can develop the relationship with the tribes, not just Red Cliff but also Bad River.

Neil – What do you think you can do to encourage tribal use of the park and involvement in the park?
Peyton – I feel so lucky that I got this job, but I also think that it helps to be an active member in the community around here. A lot of people are so happy that I got the job, so that opens a lot of doors so I can talk to people and be a little more approachable, I guess, especially when you are wearing the green and grey. (Giggles) You can sometimes look not as approachable to people (when in uniform). I think being an active community member helps that.

Neil – It can work both ways. People will often come up to you in the grocery store and ask questions.
Peyton – Yeah, when the season was still busy… I started the week before Labor Day weekend and I remember that Monday I went into Wonder State (coffee house) and I had my uniform on and I was 15 minutes late to work because I started talking to a visitor.

Neil – When you were at Bayfield School, did you have any favorite teachers?
Peyton – I loved that when I started working there, there were some teachers that have been there forever, and one of them is (science teacher) Mark O’Neill. I loved his classes in high school, but what was funny is that he gets so weird when he said, “you’re like an adult, and you’re here, and you have to be, like, my colleague.” It was really funny for me. Especially this year when I showed up, he came on one of the ricing field trips and he said, “all of the adults here are people that I taught, and that’s so weird!”

Laura Bohn…she’s great. I don’t even think that I actually had her as a teacher, but when I worked in the garden with her last year, she was one of those teachers that was always, “all right, what are we doing, let’s make time for garden time.”

Neil – Thanks Peyton for taking some time to help us get to know you a bit better. Good luck with your new job.

Neil Howk began working as a park ranger/interpreter for the National Park Service in 1978. He worked at a number of different parks over the years and served as the assistant chief of interpretation at Apostle Islands National Lakeshore from 1993-2016. He now serves as a board member of Friends of the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore.

Friends of the Apostle Islands Board Member Neil Howk

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