Editor’s Desk: Behind an attempt to save wild rice

Harvesting wild rice in Steamboat Bay on Leech Lake, in Minnesota. AP Photo/Jessie Wardarski.

By Elizabeth Royte

Wild rice used to grow abundantly on rivers and lakes across the upper Midwest. But for decades, the plant has been in steep decline for reasons distressingly familiar: habitat loss, pollution, and global warming. Around Lac du Flambeau, several hours northwest of Green Bay, Wisconsin, rice once grew on as many as 25 lakes. Now it grows on only two.

The disappearance of wild rice means a great deal to the Ojibwe, who have consumed it as a dietary staple for more than 200 years and consider the plant — which they call manoomin — sacred. But when Crystal Ng, a University of Minnesota hydrologist, won a grant to study the decline of wild rice, the tribe met her with anger— a reaction based on its long history of conflict with the university, which has mapped the wild rice genome and continues to breed rice hybrids against the tribe’s wishes.

Nancy Averett, FERN’s Midwest climate reporting fellow, traveled to Wisconsin to meet Ng and Ojibwe rice technician Joe Graveen. Her story, “The future of wild rice may depend on an unlikely alliance,” co-published with The Nation, examines how Ng and the Lac du Flambeau Ojibwe eventually came to terms, and why research partnerships that blend traditional ecological knowledge (TEK) – expertise that indigenous and local people acquire through direct contact with the environment over many years – with western science are becoming increasingly common.

Researchers are starting to recognize that following just one approach — the empiricism of western science, for example, or the holism of Indigenous cultures — is unlikely to resolve the Anthropocene’s most intractable problems. Change is coming from both sides: some Indigenous communities are mindful that climate change has made their millenia-old methods of managing natural resources less effective; the Biden administration, for its part, recently released guidelines to help all federal agencies include TEK in their research and decision making.

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