Tribal-UMN partnership works to protect Manoomin harvest

As Minnesota’s 2020 wild rice harvesting season opened on August 15, a unique research collaboration involving tribes, inter-tribal organizations, and the University of Minnesota (UMN), is beginning to share findings from its first two years of work to protect and learn from Manoomin/Psiη/wild rice.

The collaboration, given the Ojibwe name Kawe Gidaa-Naanaagadawendaamin Manoomin/Psiη (First we must consider Manoomin) by members of the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, has generated several interdisciplinary studies, including a mail survey of Minnesota state-permitted, or non-tribal, wild rice harvesters in 2018. 

More than half of the 1,339 state permit holders responded to the survey. The survey results reveal that:

  • 80 percent of respondents believe that wild rice and wild rice waters need better protection
  • 87 percent support enforcing water quality regulations to protect wild rice
  • 79 percent support increasing water quality regulations to protect wild rice.

The study confirms that wild rice is an important food source and cultural resource to non-tribal harvesters, and supports the ongoing wild rice research and stewardship of tribal and non-tribal resource management agencies. 

Wild rice is Minnesota’s state grain and to the Ojibwe tribes across the Great Lakes it is a sacred food, medicine, and gift from the Creator. Indigenous people have been hand-harvesting wild rice in this area for millenia; since European settlement, hand-harvesting has become an important tradition to non-tribal members, who are required to purchase a state permit. 

It is important to note that while harvesters are allowed to take ripe wild rice each year between Aug. 15 and Sept. 30, Minnesota’s green rice law makes it illegal to harvest unripe or “green” rice, even within the dates of the harvest season. The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources states that “although rice beds may look like they are ready, ricers must make sure the grain is ripe and falling easily from the stalk before attempting to harvest it.” 

Manoomin is also a sensitive plant; it is nearly gone in Michigan, and one-third of Manoomin stands have disappeared across Wisconsin and Minnesota as a result of multiple stressors including habitat fragmentation, disturbed hydrology, climate change, and impaired water quality.

The First we must consider Manoomin collaboration was launched in 2017 with the principal aim of supporting tribal communities in their goals to restore Manoomin/ Psiη ecosystems, ensure a healthy food source and promote greater food security for indigenous communities.  The collaboration is unique in its commitment to prioritize tribal knowledge, perspectives, and needs related to wild rice.

“Tribes in this area have such a long-standing, deep relationship with Manoomin and our study reinforces that many non-native people share this value,” said Mike Dockry, assistant professor in the Department of Forest Resources at UMN’s College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences. “In these times of such turmoil and division in society, Manoomin can really bring people together around protecting the harvest and caring for our environment.”

The collaboration also is motivated by the need to repair and enhance relationships between the University of Minnesota and tribal nations. According to Darren Vogt, Resource Management Division Director for the 1854 Treaty Authority, “This project really re-set the start point for these relationships between tribes and the University. It has shown that it is possible to do really important research that takes into consideration tribal views and tribal values.” 

In addition to the harvester survey, Kawe Gidaa-Naanaagadawendaamin Manoomin/Psiη collaborators have collected biophysical data on Manoomin waters and interviewed resource managers about the state-tribal consultation process.

“We all work side-by-side to compose research questions, design research plans, co-analyze data, and understand the implications of our findings,” said Dockry.

In addition to the biophysical and social science research, the collaboration brings all partners together twice annually (virtually if necessary) for a conference to build relationships, develop trust, shape the direction of the project, organize field work, discuss research results, and disseminate findings.

Collaborator Kari Jacobson-Hedin, Watershed Specialist with the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, noted, “This project is really powerful in supporting indigenous students to bring their knowledge, and the knowledge of their communities, to the table.” 

Project collaborators hope the tribally-centered approach will not only protect Manoomin, but also will enhance the ways in which the University works and interacts with tribes, and impact how natural resource research is done.

“I am hoping that, long-term, other projects at the University will implement the model of Tribally identified and driven research that respect Tribal sovereignty and traditional knowledge as science,” said former Fond du Lac Chairwoman and Obama Native American Affairs Advisor Karen Diver. “The interdisciplinary nature of this project, fully informed and cooperative with Tribal partners, makes this unique in natural resources research.”

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The Kawe Gidaa Naanaagadawendaamin Manoomin/Psiη project includes representatives of the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe (union of the Bois Forte, Grand Portage, Fond du Lac, Leech Lake, Mille Lacs, and White Earth bands), the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe, the St. Croix Chippewa Indians of Wisconsin, and the Fond du Lac and Lac du Flambeau Bands of Lake Superior Chippewa. In addition, it includes representatives of the 1854 Treaty Authority, Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission, the Great Lakes Inter-Tribal Council, Inc, and the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. From the University of Minnesota, the project includes researchers from the Departments of Earth and Environmental Sciences; Forest Resources; American Indian Studies; Fisheries, Wildlife and Conservation Biology; Biotechnology Institute; and the St. Anthony Falls Laboratory. 

For more information about the state-permitted wild rice harvester survey contact: 

Mae Davenport,

For information about the Kawe Gidaa Naanaagadawendaamin Manoomin/Psiη (First we must consider Manoomin) project, contact: 

Mae Davenport,

Michael Dockry,

Crystal Ng,

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