OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — Perhaps no creature symbolizes transformation as much as the butterfly, and a Native American butterfly farmer is hoping to use her knowledge of the colorful insects to transform the lives of other tribal members in rural parts of Oklahoma.
Jane Breckinridge, a member of the Muscogee Creek Nation, runs Euchee Butterfly Farm near Leonard, Oklahoma, and has been in the butterfly business for 20 years. She started a program last year, Natives Raising Natives, in which she aims to train other tribal members to also raise and sell butterflies, promote conservation efforts and get younger trainees interested in science. Nearly 30 people signed up for the first training session on Saturday.
"At the university level and beyond ... native people are almost absent. Nothing gets kids excited about science like handling caterpillars and butterflies," she said.
Breckinridge sells her butterflies to exhibits, schools and for use at weddings and funerals, and business is good — she has more orders than she can fill herself. Those who complete the training program can help her meet the demand and earn a bit of money while they're at it.
"There's always a little bit of a credibility hurdle there for the first 60 seconds when you explain you're a butterfly farmer and what you're trying to do, but then when people start to understand the economics if it, then it becomes very appealing, especially when you're talking about a place like rural Oklahoma," she said.
In the first year, Breckinridge estimates that participants could earn about $300 to $400 a month. It's not a lot, she added, but in rural areas with few opportunities for employment, a few hundred dollars can make a big difference.
Sharon Taylor is taking part with her two children and called the endeavor a "win-win" situation.
"I think it's a great opportunity as far as being able to make a little extra money and also learning about the butterflies and how science works," she said.
Millie Wind, an environmental specialist for the Thlopthlocco Tribal Town, said a couple of other tribes are interested in the project and she would eventually like to get all of Oklahoma's tribes involved.
"Oklahoma is the middle of where they (monarchs) migrate through," Wind said.
The organization has raised money through an online crowd funding website and is applying for grants to provide the participants with the necessary materials free of charge.
In the future, Breckinridge said she'd like to build a learning center and visitor center at the farm, which is located on the original allotment of land assigned to Breckinridge's great grandmother, to give families in the Tulsa area another activity to take part in.
The project, Breckinridge said, also aims to change some of the stereotypes about Native Americans.
"So many people in the mainstream, when they think about Natives they think about gaming and tobacco. There's nothing wrong with those things — they do provide revenue. I'm not against them, but I just really, really hate that that's all they think of. I'd like to give them another image," she said.
Not everyone supports commercial butterfly farming, though. The nonprofit North American Butterfly Association believes commercial butterflies have the potential to spread diseases and parasites.
Breckinridge, however, said the biggest threat to butterflies is the loss of habitat, not butterfly farms. The butterflies raised in captivity have a greater chance of survival than those in the wild, she said.
Email Kristi Eaton at Keaton@ap.org or follow her on Twitter at https://twitter.com/KristiEaton