Work That Blends Two Worlds – A Conversation With Roger James, Grand Portage Naturalist

By Deborah Locke, DNR Information Officer



Below is an interview with Leland “Roger” James (Ojibwe), the parks and trails naturalist at Grand Portage State Park in the far northeast corner of Minnesota. He goes by Roger as a first name and has been with the DNR since November 2022. I wanted to know why he chose the work he does, and what makes him tick. For those answers, see below.

First, Roger, it’s typical to ask about education. I attended the College of St. Scholastica in Duluth. I studied secondary education with a biology major, and an Indian Studies minor with emphasis on the Ojibwe language.

What was your job before you came to Parks and Trails? I worked in health and human services in Grand Portage, helping people get services, and creating community-wide programming and outreach. We worked on diabetes prevention and overall health, incorporating traditional knowledge and modern ways. Those efforts reflected our way of life, and old ways — being in tune with the natural world, food, medicines and culture. If you live in Indian country, it’s natural to know as much about the outdoors as the indoors. The two blend naturally.

As a teacher at the charter school, I helped kids gain understanding through nature. I wrote the science and math curriculum and realized how important our roles were as teachers and guides. That same spirit carries over to what we do in our park and at the DNR. Stewardship, management, and education

How did that past prepare you for what you do today? While in high school I used to read these book at the reservation’s lodge hotel, books like star guides, bird books, field guides. We didn’t have a library in the late 70s and that was what I could get ahold of. So, I’ve always had an interest in wildlife. Our culture and history teach us how we came to be and how we view our selves in the world. The culture is in the language. Here at this park, we share our story and talk about what the land means to us and our world view. I always liked being outside anyway, so this work is a blend of two worlds.

We’re talking now at the end of the day. How did you spend today? At the charter school, the kids and I talked in Ojibwe about the birds and animals captured on trail cameras. We use our Ojibwe language a lot, as the nuances and concepts of things are in the language. We say simple things to start with like “The birds have arrived.

What surprised you about the job? It was a lot to take in at the beginning. I was surprised at how closely we work with others. I may do a trail talk and Travis Novitsky, the park manager, will do introductions and address other matters and take some weight off my shoulders. I can reach out virtually online to other naturalists and staff, I’m surprised how that works

Is there a special project you enjoy? The medicine garden of traditional plants that was started a few years ago. We are also working on a night sky program that shows Ojibwe constellations. We talk about the directions and how they blend in with the sky. The kids love it.

What is special about the environment you work in? I go outside and look around and feel amazed that I get to work here. It’s important to share what we have with others. I grew up around here, I studied science, and I couldn’t ask for a better place to be.

Is there anything you want to add? Years ago, a woman asked why we didn’t harvest and gather with the tools we had when the treaties were signed. I said, “For the same reason you’re not in a horse and buggy.” We had a tag line at the Oshki school back when it started, it was: “Environmentally focused, technologically integrated.” To survive in this landscape, you must master the technology of the woods. You have to be technologically advanced and innovative, changing and fluid. At the park we share that mysterious way of survival and integrate today’s technology in ways we never dreamed.

All photos of Grand Portage State Park are courtesy of Travis Novitsky.

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