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Sea Grant and partners work together to restore culturally important wild rice

Sea Grant and partners work together to restore culturally important wild rice

Sea Grant and NOAA’s Office for Coastal Management (OCM) recently joined efforts to fund an outreach project focused on wild rice (Manoomin) in the Great Lakes region. The "Manoomin Project" is designed to integrate traditional knowledge with western science in order to raise awareness about the cultural and ecological importance of restoring local wild rice populations.

Manoomin used to be an important food source to the Ojibwe people but only sparsely populates the shorelines of Lake Superior today. Several years ago it was discovered that increased levels of sulfate in waterways negatively impact the survival of Manoomin seedlings. In recent years, Sea Grant-funded researchers, OCM, and many other partners have been working to research both the biology of the plants as well as the cultural connections to native peoples in the area. This project represents the latest advancement of a larger, more comprehensive effort to restore Manoomin.

Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin Sea Grant programs received $30,000 in federal funds from NOAA OCM, which were matched at 50% by non-federal Sea Grant funds, to work with partners in the region to form a collaborative group made up of tribes, government, university and community representatives in order to produce Manoomin outreach toolkits. This project builds on previous work of OCM, Sea Grant and many others in the region to study and restore Manoomin populations.

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As Native American Elder Jeff Savage, eloquently said, “We have a lot of hurdles to get over for wild rice restoration, and the biggest is ignorance.”

His remarks came at the Second Annual Lake Superior Manoomin (Wild Rice) Restoration Workshop in Duluth, Minnesota, in April 2018.  Savage, director of the Fond du Lac Cultural Center and Museum, was taking part in a panel discussion about the cultural significance of wild rice with elders from tribes in northern Wisconsin, Michigan and Minnesota.

Leading the effort to develop a Manoomin outreach project in Wisconsin will be Deidre Peroff, Wisconsin Sea Grant’s social scientist. She stresses that the project is more of a tribal effort than a Sea Grant effort.

“We’re working with the tribes to develop and share materials that would be useful to them to promote awareness and conservation of Manoomin. While we can’t begin to understand Manoomin from a tribal perspective, we can encourage others to respect it as a significant cultural and regional resource,” Peroff said.

An educational toolkit that focuses on increasing awareness about wild rice and provides guidance on how to protect and restore it will be produced and disseminated at local and regional events. Also, an online database of resources will be created about the cultural and regional significance of wild rice, harvesting procedures, and its ecological functions and importance. The database will provide links to commercial distributors, and current research and outreach projects.

Peroff said that, while the toolkit is a collaborative effort, Wisconsin Sea Grant will work primarily on the database, Michigan Sea Grant on the development of project outreach materials, and Minnesota Sea Grant on youth education activities.

“The idea is to have a place where anyone can reference information about wild rice, whether that’s educational, outreach materials or research that’s been done,” Peroff said. “There’s lots of information out there but some of it needs updating. We just want to make sure we understand what’s out there, what’s most useful and which audience to target.”

Even some of the elders who participated in the panel discussion in April 2018 might find the information useful. Several of the six said they were “new” to wild rice -- they didn’t grow up harvesting it and have just only begun to learn about it.

Roger LaBine of the Lac Vieux Desert Band of Lake Superior Chippewa said that the first time he saw wild rice was when he was a teenager at a funeral reception dinner. “I wouldn’t eat it because I thought people were eating grubs. I didn’t know what it was because it was gone from my community.”

Thankfully, LaBine now understands Manoomin’s importance to his people. “Losing rice would be like losing our language,” he said.

This toolkit project should go a long way to help ensuring that this doesn’t happen. For more information, contact Deidre Peroff at dmperoff@aqua.wisc.edu.

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