Protecting Manoomin: Tribal-UMN partnership prioritizes Indigenous knowledge to study and learn from wild rice

By Mae Davenport, Michael Dockry, Gene-Hua Crystal Ng, and Emily Green

Early fall means wild rice harvesting season for many people in Minnesota and around the western Great Lakes. Manoomin (Ojibwe)/ Psiη (Dakota) / Zizania palustris (Latin/scientific) is a highly nutritious native grass that has long grown in shallow waterways throughout the Great Lakes region. To the Ojibwe tribes across the region it is a sacred food, medicine, and gift from the Creator, which they have stewarded, hand-harvested, and processed for millennia. Manoomin is also a highly sensitive species. Its range and abundance have been in decline because of multiple stressors including disturbed hydrology, nutrient loads, land use change and climate change. It is nearly gone in Michigan, and an estimated one-third of Manoomin stands have disappeared across Wisconsin and Minnesota. In addition, tribal resource managers are concerned about declines in harvesting. Harvesting among non-tribal, Minnesota permit holders has decreased dramatically from more than 16,000 permit holders in the 1960s to around 1,500 today.


Kawe Gidaa-naanaagadawendaamin Manoomin project researchers collecting data and learning from Manoomin.

To address these challenges a unique research collaboration including tribes, inter-tribal organizations, and the University of Minnesota (UMN) has formed to protect Manoomin and strengthen relationships between UMN and tribal communities.

The project, 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, is unique in its underlying commitment to prioritize tribal knowledge, perspectives, and needs in research and engagement. Since the project began in 2017 with a grant from the UMN-Twin Cities Grand Challenges Program, the partnership has expanded to include participants from 9 tribes, 5 tribal natural resource agencies, 2 inter-tribal organizations, and 8 native and 12 non-native students.

As part of its work to date, the partnership seeks to better understand the Manoomin harvest from the perspective of non-native wild rice harvesters and to monitor harvesting practices over time. Thus, a survey of state-permitted, non-tribal harvesters in Minnesota was conducted. Project team members designed a survey in collaboration with tribal partners and mailed it to all state permit holders (1,330) in 2018. The survey inquired about harvesters’ values, beliefs, and harvesting practices. The response was strong, 672 individuals responded for a 53% response rate.  

Among other findings, the survey results reveal that:

  • 98 percent view wild rice as a healthful food source
  • 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 Manoomin is an important food source and cultural resource to non-tribal harvesters. It supports ongoing research and stewardship of tribal and non-tribal resource management agencies.

“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 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.”

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.

Beyond 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.

The work of the First we must consider Manoomin/Psiη 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.”

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.”


More information about the Kawe Gidaa Naanaagadawendaamin Manoomin/Psiη (First we must consider Manoomin/Psiη) project