To Protect Wild Rice, Tribes and Universities Have Formed an Unlikely Collaboration

Working with tribal scientists has pushed University of Minnesota researchers to think bigger about their research

By Grace van Deelen

November 2, 2022

Wild rice is an annual aquatic grass that produces a seed that is delicious and nutritious for wildlife and humans.

Wild rice is an annual aquatic grass that produces a seed that is delicious and nutritious for wildlife and humans. Photo courtesy of J Sullivan/Wisconsin DNR.

Counting by square feet, the town of Lac du Flambeau, Wisconsin is more than one-third water. Three huge lakes—Long Interlaken Lake, Pokegama Lake, and Flambeau Lake—flank the downtown, which serves as the civic center of the Lac du Flambeau Reservation. The reservation, home to the Lac du Flambeau Band of Lake Superior Chippewa Indians and 260 lakes in total, is also home to wild rice—a grain that grows in lakes and rivers in the upper Midwest.

On the northeast bank of Flambeau Lake sits the Tribal Natural Resources Department. There, in his 50s and gregarious, wild rice program manager and scientist Joe Graveen studies the plant and acts as its ambassador to the rest of the region.

But wild rice—known as Zizania palustris to scientists and manoomin to the Anishinaabe people of Lac du Flambeau—no longer grows in Flambeau Lake. In fact, it no longer grows on many of the lakes or rivers in northern Wisconsin or Minnesota, where it historically thrived. Graveen, who grew up exploring the waters of the area, has noticed the decline acutely, and is trying to figure out what’s caused it.

Untangling wild rice decline is a priority to Graveen and his colleagues because the plant is culturally important to the Lac du Flambeau tribe, as well as the broader group of Anishinaabe people to which the tribe belongs. In fact, the Anishinaabe people originally migrated from the East Coast to Wisconsin and Minnesota for the express purpose of following wild rice. The word “manoomin” means “good berry,” and comes from the Ojibwe language, which members of the Lake Superior Chippewa, to which the Lac du Flambeau tribe belongs, speak.

Graveen is not alone in his efforts to protect wild rice. In 2018, he began participating in an unlikely partnership: the “Kawe Gidaa-naanaagadawendaamin Manoomin” (“First we must consider Manoomin / Psiη”) collaboration. The research collaboration, which includes both tribal and non-tribal institutions such as the University of Minnesota, has grown to include social scientists, graduate students, and undergraduate researchers, and is now probing scientific and ethical questions about wild rice decline in the upper Midwest. In the process, UMN scientists are re-thinking their research process and expanding their definitions of science, which has had ripple effects beyond the wild rice research itself.

Crystal Ng, a University of Minnesota hydrogeologist, started the collaboration in 2018 after her first attempt to partner with tribes in the region on wild rice research was met with a lukewarm reaction. She realized she needed to think much more seriously about how to create meaningful research partnerships in the face of the university’s violent history with Minnesota’s tribes, who have historically criticized the university’s role in promoting research into the wild rice genome.

As a result, Ng decided that partnership-building, rather than hydrogeology, would be the focus of her research, and the best way forward to protect wild rice itself.

For tribes, natural resource managers, and scientists in the region, protecting wild rice is made difficult by a poor understanding among scientists about why, exactly, it is declining. While any number of ecological changes (climate change, human development, habitat loss, mining) are certainly contributors, natural resource departments and tribes simply don’t have the bandwidth to tackle them all, making untangling these factors a priority.

To Graveen, though, the complexity of wild rice ecology is not an obstacle, but the solution itself. By embracing the many possible factors of decline at once, he says, wild rice ecologists might have a better chance at a more accurate understanding of the problem. “It’s real simple, when you look at the complexity of it,” he says.

Graveen’s approach to research, for instance, looks deep into the past and widely across the landscape for clues. He delves into archival documents to tie historical events in the region to water levels and water quality measurements taken in the present day, and has found that past development, like the construction of a mill in a nearby lake in the early 1900s, has contributed to nearby wild rice decline. He has urged Ng and others to look at the plant’s decline on a larger temporal and geographical scale—rather than studying specific lakes, he recommends piecing the puzzle together on the level of whole watersheds.

Graveen’s community in Lac du Flambeau also possesses generations of observational knowledge of wild rice. As he explains, once one starts seeing the wild rice system as a greater whole—an entity that is born from and gives life to everything else, like the forest, the animals, the water, and even humans—it’s easier to understand what needs to be done to protect it.

He calls this observational knowledge “TEK,” for Traditional Ecological Knowledge. While TEK has many meanings among different groups of people and in different academic circles, he explains it using his own experience growing up in northern Wisconsin. As a result of all that time spent on the land, he and other tribal members can notice small changes over time that researchers, who might visit one lake three times in three years, might not be able to see.

For most university scientists, he says, that’s why some ecological problems are difficult to understand. “They don’t look at it holistically,” he says.

Indigenous science, though, offers a potentially game-changing perspective to ecological problems because it includes a holistic perspective. “Indigenous communities worldwide have this valuable, valuable information that [scientists] are missing,” says Graveen.

It took some time for Ng to shift her frame of mind and approach to science once she started the partnership. But working with Graveen and other tribal collaborators has changed how she’s conducted her research, and she says she thinks about science quite differently now.

“We’re realizing that a lot of the science that we’re doing is really driven by [tribal partners],” she says.

Following Graveen’s example, she says that collaborating with tribes has helped her to incorporate, and embrace, the many factors that show up in the data she collects. In the past, she’d try to pick study sites that were easier to understand, or that limited the amount of confounding variables that she would have to deal with. For example, in the past, she’s tried to avoid working with wetland sites that are “unusual”—maybe they have a beaver dam, or a particularly high amount of human disturbance.

As scientists, she says, “usually our instinct, our reflex is to cheat a bit and find the unique places where it's a little bit less messy.” But taking a holistic view of the wild rice problem has helped her realize that every site has an element of messiness. Studying that messiness is key to understanding the larger picture of wild rice decline. And, it’s more accurate, anyway, she says.

To Graveen and other tribal scientists, part of the science is also the relationship to the landscape. Doing research, to him, is not simply collecting and analyzing lakebed samples; it is also canoeing on rice lakes, walking in the shoreline forests, participating in cultural festivals, and being part of his tribal community. Those actions, which might seem external to science for many classically-trained Western scientists, are crucial to his methods. Because wild rice is connected to everything else on the landscape, says Graveen, responsible research needs to emphasize a relationship between the scientist and the place in which the research occurs. As a result, university partners in the collaboration are urged to spend as much time on the landscape as possible and participate in the annual harvest of wild rice.

What that means for Ng, her colleagues, and the graduate and undergraduate students in the collaboration is now to experience the landscape as a relationship. Researchers visit Lac du Flambeau a few times a year, not to collect samples, but to participate in the other aspects of wild rice: paddling rice waters, harvesting rice, eating rice, witnessing tribal wild rice traditions.

The effects of the “First” collaboration have reached beyond wild rice, too, says Ng, and she hopes those effects will continue to grow. Most recently, she says, she’s been involved with the university’s School of Earth and Environmental Sciences to re-think their approach to a land acknowledgement. The school’s Department of Forest Resources has also begun to integrate courses related to Indigenous land management into their course requirements. Beginning this fall, all new forestry students will be required to take tribal natural resource management classes before graduating. Ng says she sees the Department of Geology moving in a similar direction.

“We want to make it the norm, rather than the exception, to be doing work this way,” she says.