For Decades, the Ojibwe Tribe Shunned Scientists—Until Their Partnership Became Vital

For Decades, the Ojibwe Tribe Shunned Scientists—Until Their Partnership Became Vital

For Decades, the Ojibwe Tribe Shunned Scientists—Until Their Partnership Became Vital

In the Midwest, a sacred wild rice plant has slowly vanished. University scientists and indigenous resource managers have combined their expertise to try to save it. 


EDITOR’S NOTE: This story was produced in collaboration with the Food & Environment Reporting Network, a nonprofit journalism organization.

On a warm August afternoon in 2019, University of Minnesota professor Crystal Ng, along with a handful of environmental science colleagues and students, launched a flotilla of kayaks and canoes down a slow-moving river in northern Wisconsin. The group was taking time out of its tight research schedule to follow Joe Graveen and Eric Chapman, natural resource managers for the Lac du Flambeau Ojibwe reservation, to a spot where wild rice, against all odds, was flourishing.

Their armada skirted the ruins of beaver dams and maneuvered under wooden bridges until, after eight long miles, the open water disappeared. In its place, stalks of wild rice rose five feet into the air, filling the river from bank to bank. As Ng’s canoe slid into this massive greenery, for several minutes she could no longer see the other boats. If it had been harvest time and she were Ojibwe, Ng might have been standing, wielding a ricing stick to knock the husks into her hull. Instead, she sat quietly, looking at the red-hued male blossoms that dangled from horizontal stems and the paler female flowers clustered higher up. She inhaled the plant’s earthy scent and listened as its leaves rustled.

“I was thinking about how much wild rice has declined and been lost from so many places,” Ng, who studies hydrology, recently recalled. “But here I was in the middle of it. It felt like one of the most special experiences I would ever have.”

Yet Ng had almost missed it. Worried about gathering enough sediment and water samples in the two short days she had for fieldwork, Ng tried to beg off from visiting this particular site, where Graveen and Chapman had told her wild rice was thriving. Experiencing the crop as their ancestors had was critical to studying the plant, the two Ojibwe said. “After we’d paddled through it, I understood why it was so important,” Ng noted.

That moment of revelation sits at the crux of the partnership that Ng and the Ojibwe tribe have been building since the summer of 2018: one that blends Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK)—expertise that indigenous and local people acquire through direct contact with the environment over many years—with Western science, specifically Ng and her colleagues’ expertise in water quality, groundwater flow, sediment transport, and more. Their focus is on the precipitous decline in the region of wild rice, a staple in the tribe’s diet for more than 200 years. The Ojibwe, who call wild rice manoomin, consider the plant sacred. In the 1400s, a series of prophets had told the Anishanaabe, ancestors of the Ojibwe, to leave the Eastern Seaboard and go west to where “the food grows on water.”

Wild rice once grew far and wide across the upper Midwest, but its yields have been dropping for decades because of lakeshore development, pollution, and both warmer air and water temperatures—wild rice likes harsh winters. At Lac du Flambeau, a three-hour drive northwest of Green Bay, rice once grew on as many as 25 lakes. That’s dwindled to two. “I don’t know if my grandchildren will get to harvest rice,” Graveen says.

Partnerships like this one are becoming increasingly common as researchers recognize that Western science alone cannot address the Anthropocene’s intractable problems. In fact, the Biden administration recently released guidelines to help all federal agencies include TEK in their research and decision-making: a first for any presidential administration. At the same time, some indigenous communities are mindful that climate change has made their millenia-old ways of managing natural resources less effective. Wild rice, for instance, is an extremely sensitive plant: At one point in its annual development, its leaves and stems float on the water’s surface, roots barely tethered to the sediment below. A heavy downpour can then uproot the plant and ruin that year’s harvest. Climate change presages ever more heavy downpours.

“The natural world is changing,” says Rosalyn LaPier, a member of the Blackfeet Tribe of Montana and an environmental historian at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. “So if we can scaffold [Western science and TEK] together, we will strengthen our knowledge about these places and what’s happening to them.”

Still, putting such partnerships together isn’t easy. Western natural resource management “developed in the service of a utilitarian, exploitive, dominion-over-nature worldview of colonist and industrial developers,” writes Fikret Berkes, an emeritus professor of ecology at the University of Manitoba and the author of the award-winning book Sacred Ecology. By contrast, he notes, TEK is defined, in part, by its belief that humans are not superior to other species. TEK considers the interconnectedness of the ecosystem—plants, animals, humans—while Western science tends to zero in on a fraction of that system at a time. The Ojibwe’s holistic approach, Ng says, “is eye-opening.”

The daughter of ethnic Chinese immigrants, Ng arrived at the University of Minnesota in 2014 with degrees from Harvard and MIT but little experience interacting with Native Americans, who have a far larger presence in the upper Midwest than in the Northeast. Three years later, Ng won a $720,000 grant to study wild rice, but she had only a dim awareness of her employer’s egregious record when it came to the Ojibwe and their sacred plant. When tribal members reacted with anger to news of her award, she felt whipsawed. “I had the grant. I could have just gone ahead and done the research,” she says. “But they’ve been through so much trauma. I knew I couldn’t add to that.”

Some might say the university’s mistreatment of the tribe began in 1915 when anthropology professor Albert Jenks stretched his calipers over the crowns of Ojibwe men and women in northwestern Minnesota. His conclusion that 90 percent of his subjects were of “mixed race” created a legal loophole for timber companies to disregard treaty rights and acquire thousands of acres of the tribe’s forests. Others might point to Jenks describing the plant’s beauty while expressing scorn for its harvesters. In a 1900 report for the Smithsonian Institution, he wrote that wild rice sprouts from the “soft ooze of the alluvial mud at the bottom of a lake or river,” then grows rapidly until it reaches the surface, where it lays flat to maximize sunlight exposure before growing upright again. But he also opined that Native peoples’ harvesting techniques and ceremonies were wasteful, citing Edward Tanner, an earlier observer of Native American wild rice harvesting: “The tribes could gather more rice if they did not spend so much time feasting and dancing every day and night during the time they are here for the purpose of gathering.” To the Ojibwe, of course, those ceremonies showed gratitude to the spirits for a sustaining crop.

As Jenks had hoped, greater efficiency was on the horizon. In the 1950s, university agronomists began cross-breeding native wild rice strains to create a domesticated plant. The Ojibwe considered it theft because the plants came from “ceded territory,” which they’d signed over to the US government in the 1800s in exchange for the perpetual right to continue to harvest, hunt, and fish on it. The university’s new wild rice could be grown on flooded farm fields, with grains that ripened simultaneously instead of over weeks, and sturdy stems that wouldn’t collapse under a combine rolling through the fields. Soon, farmers in Minnesota and California were planting that seed while university scientists bred even better cultivars. Time and again, the Ojibwe asked them to stop. Manoomin, they said, was not just any plant: It was a divine being, central to their origin story.

In the 1990s, Ojibwe leaders heard that agronomists might be mapping the wild rice genome. The tribe filed a Freedom of Information Act request that yielded a box of jumbled paperwork and confirmed the tribe’s fears of genetic research on wild rice. They demanded a moratorium on the work. One tribal leader, Norman Deschampe, wrote to the university, noting that their treaty rights would be violated if pollen from genetically modified wild rice contaminated native stands. “The genetic variants of wild rice found naturally occurring on the waters in [ceded territory] are a unique treasure that has been carefully protected by the people of our tribe for centuries,” he wrote.

Twenty years later, Ng got her grant, motivated by a more recent controversy over proposed changes to the state’s wild rice sulfate standard, which limits discharges of the pollutant to 10 milligrams per liter in waters where the plant has historically grown. More recently, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency proposed a complicated new standard that the Ojibwe worried would favor mining and other industries, which discharge sulfate into lakes and rivers, over the tribe’s interests.

“The biogeochemistry involved made it a fascinating science question,” says Ng, who also liked the idea of trying to help the Ojibwe. With funding in hand, she and some colleagues headed to the White Earth Ojibwe reservation, in Mahnomen, Minn., in the fall of 2017 for a wild rice symposium. Almost a decade earlier, agriculture school faculty had helped found the event, which is held every two years, hoping to move forward from the university’s past mistakes.

At the conference, Ng watched as then–university president Eric Kaler flew in on a private jet, strode into a room with an entourage of aides, gave a carefully worded speech that made no promises about ending wild rice breeding, then declined an invitation to stay for lunch. It was also “the first time we had personally heard people talk about how hurt they felt about the University of Minnesota just desecrating this sacred being that means so much to them,” Ng says. Her proposed research wasn’t about breeding wild rice, but, to her disappointment, the Ojibwe viewed her as just another outsider deciding what was best for them without asking for their observations about wild rice’s decline. Their angry reaction, Ng says, “felt like a slap in the face.”

Around this time, Graveen was stepping into a new role as a tribal wild rice technician. It was a good fit for someone who loved the outdoors and had spent the majority of his life on the reservation. Graveen grew up in the 1970s and ’80s—the fifth child of 10—raised by a single mother working two jobs at a time to survive. His maternal grandmother attended the notorious Carlisle Indian Industrial School, in Pennsylvania, whose motto was “kill the Indian, save the man.” His paternal grandmother knew some of the Ojibwe language, but was afraid to speak it.

Graveen’s father struggled with alcoholism and Graveen followed suit, taking his first sip at age 4 and drinking daily throughout his youth. By the time he was a teenager, he was desperate for a new perspective. When a friend invited him to stay with an Ojibwe-Potawatomi couple northeast of the reservation, he began a new life: hunting, fishing, gathering berries, hauling drinking water, and chopping firewood for heat. Every autumn, they spent weeks harvesting manoomin on a nearby lake. After three years, Graveen went home and took some college classes with the goal of practicing nature-based mental health therapy. He was acutely aware of such a need on the reservation. “Historically, there’s been a lot of trauma,” he says. “For a long time it was, ‘Don’t talk about it.’ Then the trauma gets carried forward to the next generation.”

Graveen didn’t agree with some tribal leaders’ assertion that manoomin’s decline reflected the natural carrying capacity of some of the reservation’s water bodies; he was determined to bring the plant back. His first day on the job, his boss, Eric Chapman, asked him to sit in on a conference call. On the line was a University of Minnesota scientist who wanted to talk about a partnership in which Ojibwe knowledge of the landscape would be used to form the research questions. “We had questions on data ownership, tribal sovereignty, things like that,” says Graveen. Once Ng presented a memorandum that spelled out how the tribe’s needs would always come first, they were all in. “[Ng’s team] kept their word,” he says.

Letting the tribe dictate the direction of her research was hard for Ng. “I learned to do science the traditional way, by experts in the field,” she says. “And by experts I mean people with PhDs who write papers for fancy journals.” That has its place, she adds, but it’s too often about chasing citations for promotion, rather than solving real problems. She decided to move forward, knowing that allowing someone like Graveen, who never finished his undergraduate degree, to develop research questions might be viewed by some in the academy as unorthodox.

Unsure of where to begin, she called Mark Bellcourt, an Ojibwe who used to teach courses on TEK and worked, until recently, as an adviser and program director in the Ag School. Bellcourt was accustomed to colleagues’ asking him to be their “token Indian” on research projects. “Most of the time, I just hang up on them,” he says. But Ng told him she wanted to do things completely differently. He suggested a listening tour: At their first stop, they sat down with tribal elders, introduced themselves, explained the project, and said, “We’re here to listen.” No one spoke. Finally, one of the elders stood and said, with more than a hint of skepticism, “Well, this is all very interesting, but what do you really want?”

Not every Ojibwe band agreed to work with them. Some wanted complete data ownership, which Ng could not guarantee because the research was publicly funded. She and the others pressed on, spending a year doing nothing but building relationships. Failing to immediately jump into the research could have resulted in the university’s revoking the grant. Instead, the grant committee supported their actions, though not everyone was understanding. Ng says some faculty chided her for wasting time when the tenure clock was ticking, saying: “You got the money and you better do some good science because you don’t have many publications.” Eventually five Ojibwe reservations got involved, as well as some tribal nonprofits.

Ng and Bellcourt also recruited Mike Dockry, a research scientist who is Potawatomi and has studied attempts to bring TEK and Western science together for better environmental stewardship. Dockry advised Ng to start simply, so she installed surface water monitors in tribal wild rice habitats to see how water levels fluctuate from year to year. High springtime levels can drown wild rice, and low fall levels mean canoes cannot reach the rice for harvesting. Climate change could make either problem worse, and the tribe easily recognized the usefulness of such data. “Building trust,” Dockry says, “was an important first step.”

Eventually, tribal members started asking the researchers to broaden their scope. They wondered whether forest clearcutting in the 1800s, after the tribes ceded their land, may have overloaded local waterways with sediment. A 1996 study found that wild rice seed germinates best when it’s no deeper than eight centimeters. The tribe also knew that clearcutting had caused some forests to shift from coniferous to deciduous, which meant that after those trees dropped their leaves, more snow was exposed to sunlight and more water ran off the land. They wanted to know if that extra runoff had affected wild rice abundance years ago, and if climate change would make matters worse.

Graveen noticed that one part of the riverbed was sand and gravel, instead of the usual rich muck that occurred in other areas. When he plunged his hand into the water there, it felt cooler, too. Wondering if that might be a clue as to why the nearby wild rice grew more densely, he asked Ng to check it out. She installed sensors that showed more groundwater upwelling in those spots. Later, when Graveen mentioned that there was an Ojibwe saying for “when the water from above meets the water from below,” Ng got excited. He seemed to be describing what hydrologists refer to as the hyporheic zone, which occurs when surface water percolates down into groundwater, mixes, then reemerges further downstream, cooler and purer: Manoomin doesn’t like warm water, and it’s sensitive to pollutants. “The hyporheic zone has only recently become a hot topic in hydrology,” Ng says. “But the Ojibwe have long had a word for it in their everyday vocabulary.”

The partnership has not yet revealed why rice is in trouble at Lac du Flambeau. “In other places, [the cause of decline] is more obvious,” Ng says. “Contaminants, invasive species. None of that seems to be a factor here. It’s perplexing.” Still, there’s no shortage of people who want to continue to work on the problem, including Native students.

Graveen says Ng, her colleagues, and especially the students with their easy acceptance of TEK give him hope: “Just to hear them say that the things we’ve shared have changed their thought process and how they do research means a lot.” Their visits also seem to further stoke his passion for saving wild rice. When the group traveled to Lac du Flambeau last August, Graveen organized a wild rice feast in the tribal multipurpose building. After a day on the river, the scientists arrived freshly showered, having traded their Patagonia pants for skirts and khakis. They sat along the perimeter as six men banged mallets against a large deer-hide drum, while letting loose a series of high-pitched chants.

Later, after the passing of ceremonial tobacco and a dinner of wild rice, elk stew, mashed potatoes, and berries, Graveen stood. He wore his usual outfit, a hoodie and a baseball cap. “This partnership is a blessing,” he told the group, but it had also confirmed his worst fears: that manoomin was in serious trouble.

“The science part is terrifying, having that validation [that wild rice is indeed vanishing],” he said. But he remained optimistic, he said, because the partnership is “really honoring that Indigenous knowledge and respect and going forward with it and putting it out there.” And, he added with a chuckle, he expected their collaboration would continue long into the future. “We ain’t done, that’s for sure,” he said. “We’ve got a lot more work to do.”

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