Wild Rice and the Anishinaabe Scientist

Volume 24, No. 3 - Spring 2013
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ANISHINAABE SCIENTIST. Michael Price kayaks at the Wild Rice River dam while preparing to take students out on Lower Rice Lake to collect data on wild rice stands. Photo courtesy of Michael Price

ANISHINAABE SCIENTIST. Michael Price kayaks at the Wild Rice River dam while preparing to take students out on Lower Rice Lake to collect data on wild rice stands. Photo courtesy of Michael Price

I wonder how Chief Fine Day, one of the original signers of the 1867 White Earth Treaty, would have felt knowing that one of his descendants in the 21st century, a young female, would be using the White man’s scientific methods and technology to conduct research from space on wild rice beds. I wonder what the original treaty signers would have thought of a college, built on tribal lands 130 years after the treaty was signed, that offers Ojibwe language and cultural traditions, as well as cutting edge science to tribal members.

White Earth Tribal and Community College (WETCC, Mahnomen, MN) students Lainey Fineday and Dianne Kier began their scientific research experience by conducting a geospatial analysis of Lower Rice Lake, one of the prominent lakes on the White Earth reservation for harvesting manoomin– wild rice. Their research is part of the NASA Kiksapa Summer Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU), a program that partners with tribal colleges and universities to conduct geospatial and climate change research within their tribal communities. The 12-week NASA-REU program allows students to pursue studies that are culturally important to them and their tribal communities. Just as the buffalo are sacred to the Plains Lakota and the salmon are sacred to the Coastal Salish, wild rice carries cultural, spiritual, and economic significance for the Anishinaabe people of the White Earth Nation as well as other Anishinaabeg nations of Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Canada.

For Lainey Fineday, the scientific analysis of Lower Rice Lake holds particular importance: Chief Fine Day was her great-great-grandfather. Lower Rice Lake was specifically identified in the final draft of the treaty, which was reviewed by President Abraham Lincoln and later signed by President Andrew Johnson. Inclusion of Rice Lake in the treaty language guaranteed protection of wild rice beds for generations to come. Lower Rice Lake continues to be one of the largest natural stands of wild rice on the reservation today. Lainey has compared water levels on Lower Rice Lake in the late 1800s with those of today by georeferencing historic maps of the reservation from 1843, 1870, and 1929. Using ArcGIS software, Lainey “stretched” the digitized historic map images so that their latitudinal and longitudinal coordinates would match. Next, she digitized the outer parameter of Lower Rice Lake for each year, including 2005 to 2011. Lastly, she stacked the digitized map layers so differences in lake parameters could be compared. Her preliminary data suggests that Lower Rice Lake has maintained its original watershed boundaries for well over 100 years.

For her part, student Dianne Kier conducted a survey of aquatic vegetation on Lower Rice Lake using Landsat multispectral satellite data. The Landsat satellite orbits the earth every 90 minutes and flies over the White Earth Nation once every 16 days. By downloading the satellite image on the flyover day from Earth Resources Observation and Science (EROS) Data Center in Sioux Falls, SD, Dianne can view aquatic vegetation within the Lower Rice Lake boundaries. Though mostly wild rice, other aquatic plant communities exist on the lake such as cattails, bulrush, and water lilies.

Groundtruthing—collecting data on the ground or in this case, on the lake— was conducted using kayaks and handheld global positioning satellite (GPS) units. By locating specific latitudinal and longitudinal point coordinates on the lake, Dianne identified the specific vegetation and logged that information into a database. By collecting about 300 data points, Dianne will verify how well the Landsat satellite identifies and measures the existing stands of wild rice as well as other aquatic vegetation growing in Lower Rice Lake.

Dianne has been harvesting wild rice at Lower Rice Lake since she was a young adult. She was taught by her brothers to harvest manoomin in the traditional way using a canoe, pole, and rice knockers. For many years, Dianne was out on the lake during the harvest season, observing which areas had the best rice stands. She remembers that many traditional rice harvesters rarely, if ever, traveled to the south end of Lower Rice Lake for harvesting. “The best rice was always north of the put-in,” she says. From the satellite images, Dianne can see the thick vegetation stands in the northern end of the lake, which confirms that harvesters had selected the best place to harvest.

Western science teaches us about composition of matter, functionality of physical characteristics, and methods of inquiry. But it teaches us nothing about interconnectedness, stewardship, active responsibility, or sacredness. Unlike most mainstream colleges and universities— where curriculum and methodologies are identical to one another— tribal colleges have the freedom to integrate science with Indigenous knowledge and cultural values that are unique to their tribal community, creating a body of knowledge known as Native Science or Traditional Ecological Knowledge.

Dr. Daniel Wildcat of Haskell Indian Nations University argues that Native Science is “value-added.” This value-added perspective of science may soon be a necessity for our survival if we, as humans, continue on our current trajectory of consumption and exploitation of the natural world. Tribal colleges and universities are unique incubators for nurturing the growth of research scientists who practice their tribal values and have a firm foundation in Indigenous knowledge. These values influence how students formulate research questions, design research projects, and understand the world around them.

Many Anishinaabe believe that they carry a responsibility to care for wild rice. At WETCC, geospatial science and technology are being utilized to fulfill that responsibility. Anishinaabe students understand that technology is nothing more than a tool; it’s the cultural values that instruct one how to use those tools in a sacred way. The Seven Grandfather Teachings of the Anishinaabeg are those values. Students also understand that the health and vitality of Anishinaabe people are directly connected to the health and vitality of wild rice. It is the job of the Anishinaabe scientist to discover the pathway of sacredness and sustainability within their tribal lands. Like their ancestors before them, today’s generation must do their part to ensure that the manoomin will be there for future generations. I believe that the original treaty signers would be proud of the accomplishments of their people today.

Michael Wassegijig Price is Anishinaabe and an enrolled tribal member of Wikwemikong First Nations of Manitoulin Island, Ontario.

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