Dr. Samantha Majhor and Danielle Barrett work to restore ecosystems and culture with wild rice

Students and faculty working on the Wild Rice Project at Marquette University’s Indigeneity Lab are trying to answer the question: Will wild rice grow in Milwaukee’s rivers? What may seem like a simple scientific approach requires building relationships with indigenous communities and a deep understanding of the connection that indigenous peoples have with the waters and wild rice.

Marquette’s Indigeneity Lab began in 2021 with undergraduate research grants. The university sought opportunities to support Indigenous students and improve relationships with Indigenous elders and communities in the area. The Wild Rice Project is a key part of this lab where students use the scientific method to test plant adaptability and determine which species is most likely to grow in Milwaukee’s waterways.

I sat down with Dr. Samantha Majhor, faculty advisor for the program, and Danielle Barrett, a student who has been working on the project for the past year and is president of the Native American Student Association. Majhor is of Dakota and Assiniboine descent, and Barrett is from the Eastern Band Cherokee tribes. They share their thoughts and experiences working on the project.

sacred stories

Wild rice, called manoomin in the Algonquin language, has a deep history that is closely tied to the Anishinaabe people who were forced to settle in this region and are based in what is now Minnesota and Wisconsin. “For indigenous people, wild rice is a relative, it is part of sacred stories,” says Majhor. There is a prophecy among these people that they will find a place where food grows on water. When they found wild rice, they chose to settle here.

“Food is one part of the home that told them where they needed to be,” Barrett says. Because of this deep connection to the plant that has provided food, medicine and nourishment for centuries, the indigenous peoples of this region honor rice and protect it.

In order to supply the Marquette Lab with wild rice and gain the trust of indigenous communities to perform lab tests with them, participants must build relationships with indigenous tribes and community members, but this takes time. “We have a steep history here in the United States of colonialism and assimilation projects,” says Majhor. “The medical industry – and other industries – are areas where Western scientific and medical projects have done harm and are viewed with suspicion by Indigenous communities.”

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Science, Culture, History

That’s why it’s vital for the Indigeneity Lab to take an approach that looks at the science, cultivation and history of the plant. And in doing so, there is an opportunity to repair relationships with the native community and potentially reintroduce the plant to Milwaukee rivers.

“If we grow it in the Menominee River, we can increase community awareness that we haven’t seen before,” Barrett says. But even beyond the far-reaching cultural impacts this could have, the ecological impacts would be enormous. “If grain could even grow, that would say a lot about water quality and the health of the environment.”

Many Milwaukee organizations and local government have worked for years to clean up the water. If wild rice could grow, it would show the success of these efforts. And to go further, the plant has the ability to clean the water in which it grows.

There are many layers to this project and a deep-rooted history of oppression to talk about. Marquette University is taking an important step in acknowledging its own history and working to restore relationships with Indigenous communities in the area. Wild rice is a central part of this process and has the potential to restore repressed indigenous ecosystems, knowledge and culture.

Learn more about the Indigeneity Lab at today.marquette.edu/2022/05/indigeneity-lab-students-honored-with-student-activist-award/.