“I kind of grew up with a lot of different tribal members,” said Melonee Montano, a member of the Red Cliff Band of Ojibwe. “ I used to have a tape recorder that I’d carry with me when I drove elders around to dialysis appointments or whatever, and I was kind of always just gathering that knowledge.”
Montano has now turned this passion for collecting knowledge into her job as the traditional ecological knowledge outreach specialist for the Great Lakes Indian Fish & Wildlife Commission in Odanah, Wisconsin. Here, she interviews elders and others, especially those who hunt, fish, and gather, who have witnessed changes in the environment over time.
With climate change in action, though, Montano’s job of documenting traditional ecological knowledge, may be more important now than ever. Many environmental conditions, from temperature to sea level, have been changing over the years and will continue to do so in the future, according to climate change scientists. Wild rice, called manoomin in Ojibwe, meaning good berry, is a culturally-significant plant and food to the Ojibwe, but commission scientists say it is one of many species already beginning to struggle as a result of climate change. While tribal members and biologists may feel helpless in some areas, traditional ecological knowledge might be able to inform future decisions on manoomin maintenance in the wake of climate change and the many problems it brings.
The importance of manoomin to Lake Superior Ojibwe goes back to their migration story.
“It’s a plant that helped tell us through prophecies where we need to come because we needed to come to the place where food grows on water,” Montano says, “and that’s really where we settled ourselves after travelling and migrating.”
Manoomin is also one of the main foods in the traditional diet for the Ojibwe. It is present at all of their ceremonies, including naming ceremonies, funerals, and first kill feasts for young hunters when they kill their first animal. “It’s a huge part of our identities,” Montano notes.
The wild rice grown and harvested by the Ojibwe in the Great Lakes region is northern wild rice called zizania palustris, but North America also has southern wild rice identified as zizania aquatica and Texas wild rice, which is zizania texana, a rare and endangered species endemic to Texas.
According to Peter David, wildlife biologist at the commission, all 11 Ojibwe tribes grow manoomin, though it’s not necessarily evenly distributed. Manoomin grows mainly in the northern Great Lakes region, including northern Wisconsin and Minnesota, as well as Canada. The ideal growing condition is 0.5–3 feet of water that naturally flows and fluctuates. Water clarity is also important because it allows sunlight penetration.
Tribes usually harvest manoomin from late August to early September, though David notes this year’s harvest went almost through the end of September. While the commission encourages natural reseeding by the plant itself, it does additional seeding by hand in the fall to mimic the natural seeding.
David is not a tribal citizen himself, but he has learned much from the tribes in working with commission for over 30 years, including knowledge in the form of traditional ecological knowledge.
“The four-year rule is that in four years, there’s one good, one lousy, and two medium years—but we’ve seen failure increasing,” he says, noting a higher number of bad years, likely as a result of several factors onset by climate change.
Northern wild rice is adapted to the climate in the northern United States, including the harsher winter, so as temperatures rise, it faces more competition from plants, both native and invasive, that have traditionally been kept away by the colder conditions. Increased storms, including severe wind, hail, rainfall, and flooding, also play a role.
“We’re having 100-year floods every three to four years,” said David, which certainly poses problems to the ideal water conditions of manoomin. “The Bad River rice beds are having a terrible year this year,” he said. Although Lake Superior, where the Kakagon Sloughs of Bad River reside, is relatively healthy, he says the lake is the highest he’s seen in 30 years and that they’ve started to see some algal blooms, which are rapid increases in algae populations as a result of nutrient-rich water conditions. These blooms can deplete oxygen levels, making it difficult for other plants and wildlife to survive.
Other pests and diseases are becoming more prominent as well. Brown spot disease is a fungal disease that destroys the seed bank of wild rice, and it’s increasing in prevalence with warmer, wetter conditions. Climate change is also believed to enhance the survival of rice worm pests that decrease seed production.
If the impacts of climate change weren’t bad enough, David also notes that the manoomin seeds, which are relatively heavy, don’t have much dispersal ability. Moving water can help transport seeds downstream, but they don’t have wings, so they usually fall in the water near the plant and have trouble moving upstream.
“Lots of historic rice beds have been lost,” he says. “There’s really no way of knowing how much, but I’d guess maybe 50 percent.” Counteracting this loss, however, is a struggle when the landscape and hydrology have been significantly altered and waterways damned. He says they could rebuild dikes for 500-year floods rather than 100, for example, but that can be cost-prohibitive.
“There’s not a lot of work on genetics of wild rice,” David says, perhaps contemplating it as an alternative. While some areas see it as “wild rice was a gift from the Creator and shouldn’t be messed with,” he thinks others may be willing to embrace genetic research as a result of the harsh impacts they’ve seen.
In the meantime, the commission and Montano’s work in traditional ecological knowledge may inform some action regarding manoomin. In addition to documenting TEK, sometimes dating back multiple generations or even centuries, her job is to bridge the gap between this knowledge and western science.
“We kind of look at what the scientists are gathering and what we’re hearing in the interviews, and we figure out where the connections are,” she said. “Especially when it comes from a vulnerability perspective, there’s a lot of ways that they match. So, for example, our interviews talk about wild rice being one of the most vulnerable beings when it comes to climate change, and that has been the case that has shown up in our scientific approach with the vulnerability studies too.”
The commission’s first Vulnerability Assessment categorizes manoomin as “highly to extremely vulnerable,” noting that of the 11 plants and animals studied, it was the “most vulnerable being/species in this assessment, and has already begun to respond to climate-related effects.”
Montano notes the importance of traditional ecological knowledge also as a connection to language, culture, and identity.
“We don’t just look at it from the ecological standpoint because as Anishinaabe people, our environment is directly connected to our culture, to our identities, to our way of being, treaty rights, all those kinds of things,” Montano says, “so we can’t really separate or put ecology in its own file. It doesn’t work from an Anishinaabe perspective.”
Along with this, she notes that regular science uses tools that “take the personhood out of it.” Whereas science would describe manoomin as a thing or a “what,” the Anishinaabe perspective considers it as a being or a “who.” Documenting and combining this perspective and knowledge with western science, like in the Vulnerability Assessment, is something the commission can then share with their member tribes.
“It can help tribes actually realize from all our collective knowledge maybe what they should be focusing on or putting energy in as far as climate change adaptation,” Montano says. “If we’re seeing consistently across the board that manoomin is one of the most sensitive ones, it can help them realize that maybe more efforts need to be put toward manoomin and the surrounding ecosystem.”
The commission is currently working on a second assessment on the vulnerability of more species, as well as a climate change adaptation plan that will include a cultural component and help further inform action regarding wild rice and other beings affected by climate change.