Aquatic plant provides food—and knowledge
Manoomin was made for the waters of Minnesota. This precious plant, also known as psiη to Dakota people and wild rice in English, grows better here than just about anywhere. It is part of the region’s Anishinaabe people, a generous but delicate community member that provides delicious food packed with protein and nutrition.
Dr. Amy Myrbo has been studying Manoomin for more than 10 years. Today, she is a scientist at the Science Museum of Minnesota’s St. Croix Watershed Research Station. Myrbo’s rice research set her on a career path to help change how science is conducted.
The greatest thing she says she has learned while studying Manoomin is not about the plant, but about human relationships. Working with Anishinaabe and Dakota tribes, ecologists, harvesters, and others, she’s found insights into traditional knowledge and become friends with Native colleagues.
“We're brought up in science believing that we go study things and tell the public,” she says. “But the public knows more than you think they do, and experience it in wide ways.”
People who have been living with Manoomin for centuries know it well.
Food and water
Wild rice, known in western science as Zizania palustris, is found across the western Great Lakes states, the homeland of the Anishinaabe and Dakota people. But there are at least 64,000 acres of naturally growing wild rice in Minnesota, more than anywhere else, in more than 2,000 lakes and rivers.
There was more wild rice before European immigration, when settlers discharged pollution, drained wetlands for agriculture, and conducted other activities that killed it in uncounted waterbodies. Rice was found everywhere in the state 200 years ago, but today is confined to 55 of 87 counties.
Every year in late summer, harvesters fan out to collect millions of pounds of the grain. It remains an important tradition, and provides sustenance for many people, both Native and not. Tribal harvesters collect about 700 pounds each, on average. Some sell a portion of their crop, supporting a significant economic impact, while many keep it for personal consumption and to give and trade to others. Its value is far greater than financial, or even as food.
Native scientists carefully monitor and manage beloved Manoomin waters. They incorporate generations of knowledge and are dedicated to being stewards for generations to come, and practice reciprocity for all the care it provides.
“Manoomin is a being, a relative, and a sacred gift that must be protected,” the 1854 Treaty Authority says. “Manoomin is an important part of stories and ceremonies, and continues to be a healthy and natural food source today.”
Manoomin is part of Ojibwe, Dakota, and Minnesota culture because of the state’s specific environment. The grain needs a narrow niche of conditions to survive and thrive over thousands of years, and Minnesota is a perfect fit. While growth in specific water bodies naturally fluctuates from year to year, Manoomin prevails as it has for millennia.
Wild rice is an aquatic plant, growing best in one to three feet of water with a mucky bottom. The plant generally needs a slight current to thrive, so slow-moving rivers or lakes with an inlet and outlet are best. Other key conditions include water fluctuation cycles, winter weather, and chemistry.
“It’s the sweet spot where the growing season is long enough, winters are cold enough, and summers are dry enough,” says Myrbo.
Minnesota’s precipitation patterns are one of the reasons wild rice thrives here. In particular, stable or declining water levels during the summer are important, because that’s when growing rice reaches the surface and is vulnerable to being either drowned or washed away by flooding. At the same time, indigenous Manoomin managers know that some annual fluctuation is needed to prevent perennial wetland plants from pushing rice out.
The state’s frigid winters are also an asset. Wild rice seeds drop in fall—much is harvested, much is not, and much is eaten by migrating birds. Because it’s not a perennial plant, new seeds must germinate and sprout each spring. They will only do that after a sufficiently cold winter.
And, while it needs a northern climate, Manoomin also needs enough sunny weather to successfully grow from the bottom of the water to climb into the sky. High latitudes with little solar energy limit its growth. But too far south, winters aren’t cold enough. And, despite being a water plant, if the atmosphere is too wet, a fungal infection can damage wild rice and its seeds.
A sensitive species in a changing world, Manoomin has continued to dwindle in Minnesota over recent decades. Trying to protect and restore it was how Myrbo began seeing science differently.
It all started when she was invited to present an activity at a weekend science camp for mainly Native youth, with the Fond du Lac Band, and ended up working with numerous tribal resource managers around Minnesota and Wisconsin to try to use sediment core samples to understand the history of wild rice water bodies, their chemistries and compositions, and how they had changed over time.
Later, she led a University of Minnesota lab that sent technicians around the state to collect water samples and extract sediment cores from wild rice waters. They were part of a large effort by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency to understand the plant’s ecological needs, and what might be causing its decline.
Much of this history and knowledge is already part of Ojibwe culture. It isn’t published in peer-reviewed journals, but accumulated over generations. Recognizing this incredible depth of traditional ecological knowledge, Myrbo said her work on Manoomin means she’ll “never look at science the same way again.”
Trained as a geochemist, Myrbo seeks knowledge about the physical processes of Earth. But she came to realize that true understanding must include the community.
“In geology you're always studying a place, and there's always people in those places who care about it,” Myrbo says.
Community science can bring insights and information that a trained scientist might never find otherwise. Myrbo points out that this method of engaging the public is more accepted in medical science than the natural and physical sciences. Doctors have been pioneering ways to involve communities in their studies for decades.
“The community helps figure out the important questions, and doctors or scientists get better buy-in, better trust of results, better answers,” Myrbo says. “Because you're asking the right questions that are relevant to people. That hit me so hard when I heard that.”
Her work with Native communities made her eager to help other scientists expand their work to include more traditional knowledge, and broaden the benefits for larger communities. She currently consults with researchers to include community science in grant proposals, believing change can follow funding.
Last fall, Myrbo was one author on a journal article based on the Manoomin collaboration between the University of Minnesota and resource managers at tribal and non-tribal agencies. The paper documented their project, and provided 10 recommendations for pursuing similar cooperative studies.
“One of the most significant outcomes of our efforts is a research partnership rooted in trust, respect for tribal political and resource sovereignty, and a commitment to integrating Anishinaabe worldviews and knowledge with Western science and analysis,” the authors wrote.
The partnership now includes the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe, Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, Lac du Flambeau Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe, St. Croix Chippewa Indians of Wisconsin, 1854 Treaty Authority, Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission, and the Great Lakes Inter-Tribal Council.
Manoomin is not the only Native resource where scientists and managers are working together to manage a cherished part of their culture. In the Pacific Northwest, state fisheries managers have turned to tribal experts to address declining salmon numbers in some areas, using methods and ethics that have been honed since time immemorial.
The big picture
In Minnesota, research and traditional knowledge make it clear that Ojibwe know what Manoomin needs and what threatens its survival. One of those threats is a substance that is benign in many ways: sulfate. This salty compound is generally not considered a problem, but it turns into sulfide when it gets into certain sediments—where it poisons wild rice.
Sulfate has long been discharged into Minnesota’s Manoomin waters by mines and wastewater treatment plants.
Climate change is also hurting Manoomin, as it disrupts the cold of winter and the growing season, rain and snow, and water fluctuations. Invasive species can also upset the delicate balance, and new homes and resorts on wild rice waters can result in its decline.
Through working with tribal resource managers, harvesters, elders, and rice chiefs who manage harvests, Myrbo came back to a basic premise of science: Everything is connected. Nothing can be studied without understanding how it fits into natural networks. She urges scientists to broaden their views.
“Don't isolate something and study it, but look at how it is valued and relates to other things, the stories it’s involved in,” she says.
Minnesota’s Manoomin has been abused since the arrival of the first white settlers, but it has prevailed. The growing respect for traditional ecological knowledge, and the possibilities of partnerships with western science, may be its best chance to survive future centuries.
Transforming research and relationships through collaborative tribal-university partnerships on Manoomin (wild rice), Environmental Science & Policy, Volume 115, 2021, Pages 108-115, ISSN 1462-9011, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.envsci.2020.10.010.
Myrbo, A., Swain, E. B., Engstrom, D. R., Coleman Wasik, J., Brenner, J., Dykhuizen Shore, M., … Blaha, G. (2017). Sulfide generated by sulfate reduction is a primary controller of the occurrence of wild rice (Zizania palustris) in shallow aquatic ecosystems. Journal of Geophysical Research: Biogeosciences, 122, 2736– 2753.