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Northwestern partners with Indigenous scientists to conserve Great Lakes wetlands

Project is first NSF-funded Coastlines and People Hub for the Great Lakes region
manoomin wild rice
Manoomin at sunset on Big Sandy Lake in McGregor, Minnesota. Photo by Lorie Shaull

A Northwestern University-led research team has received a $5 million grant over five years from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to develop new methods to help mitigate the effects of climate change on the Great Lakes and its surrounding natural ecosystems.

By partnering with Indigenous and Native American scientists, conservation agencies and government agencies, the team will focus on manoomin (the Ojibwe word for wild rice), a critical — yet declining — part of the Great Lakes ecosystem and a sacred food that connects Native communities to the land.

The project is one of five new Coastlines and People (CoPe) Hubs, announced last week by NSF. It marks the first CoPe Hub for the Great Lakes region. 

In addition to Northwestern, the academic team includes members from the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, Purdue University, Argonne National Laboratory and the University of Wisconsin. The team spent two years establishing relationships and learning from Bad River, Lac du Flambeau, Fond du Lac and Mille Lacs tribes, with assistance and guidance from the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission and Indigenous faculty at Northwestern. 

“This hub represents a significant investment by the NSF in seeding technology, practices and programs for Great Lakes climate resilience,” said Josiah Hester, the principal investigator of the grant, who is Native Hawaiian. “It is an acknowledgement that we urgently need to partner with Indigenous scientists, who can draw on their ancestors’ sustainability practices and knowledge in our efforts to mitigate the effects of climate change.”

Hester is an adjunct assistant professor of computer science, computer engineering and electrical engineering at Northwestern’s McCormick School of Engineering. After spending several years at Northwestern, he joined the faculty at the Georgia Institute of Technology this month. Hester will be joined by four co-principal investigators, including Kimberly Marion Suiseeya, an assistant professor of political science at Northwestern’s Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences.

The team's work with Indigenous communities in the Great Lakes region grew out of the Buffett Institute for Global Affairs' Disproportionate Impacts of Environmental Challenges working group.

The hub will engage researchers from several units and centers across Northwestern, including the Center for Native American and Indigenous Research (CNAIR), the Center for Water Research, the Institute for Sustainability and Energy at Northwestern, the Center for Engineering Sustainability and Resilience and the Northwestern-Argonne Institute of Science and Engineering.

"This project began with relationship building and a willingness by Northwestern researchers to step back and invite our Indigenous partners to frame the research,” said Patty Loew (Mashkiiziibii-Bad River Ojibwe), an advisor who helped facilitate early conversations about the project, a professor of journalism at Northwestern and CNAIR’s founding director. “The result is a project that is both meaningful and respectful to our tribal collaborators.”

By engaging researchers across disciplines — political science, natural sciences, computing and data science, communication and journalism, education and engineering — the hub will reinforce a holistic, Indigenous viewpoint of how physical and social problems intersect around manoomin. Similarly, these viewpoints are broadened by the inclusion of entities outside of academia, including: Ojibwe tribes who shared research problems as well as technical and traditional knowledge; conservation agencies such as Wisconsin Greenfire that shared expertise and policy guidance; and government agencies such as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which provided data and programmatic advice on effective regional data science.

“The CoPE project is innovative, exciting and unique because it is based upon tribally driven research questions and seeks to incorporate indigenous knowledge into scientific research,” said Jonathan Gilbert, director of the biological sciences division of the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission (GLIFWC). “I am hopeful that this project will expand GLIFWC and tribal expertise in sensor technology and machine learning, but I am also hopeful that it will help to expand the perspectives of our partners from Northwestern (among others) to include cultural sensitivity and appreciation within the academic community.”

While considerable work has been done to protect marine coastal marshes from climate change and land development, the Great Lakes’ fringing wetlands systems have received substantially less attention. Manoomin, which grows in these wetlands, is particularly endangered. Ecologically, culturally and dietarily important to Native Nations, manoomin has declined significantly in recent years due to extreme weather events, warming waters, rapid habitat loss and pollution from mining and leaking pipelines. 

“Manoomin ties the physical and ecological issues of coastal wetlands to the spiritual, social and subsistence issues of the people who have lived on these coasts for millennia,” Hester said. “It is an interface between people and coastlines, much like wetlands are an interface between land and water.”

To help the region push back against climate change, the CoPe Hub has outlined two major goals: (1) to enable development of Indigenous-led, data-driven resilience strategies to monitor manoomin, and (2) to increase participation among Great Lakes Indigenous people in science through culturally empowering and sovereignty-affirming collaborative research in support of manoomin wetlands.

“Manoomin ties the physical and ecological issues of coastal wetlands to the spiritual, social and subsistence issues of the people who have lived on these coasts for millennia.”

– Josiah Hester, computer engineer

Much of the scientific work will revolve around the development and implementation of new, inexpensive smart sensors and data science cyberinfrastructure to capture data from plants and wildlife. These sensors will extract new sources of data, potentially uncovering hidden insights into the connections among physical processes, ecosystems and human activity. The cyberinfrastructure also will include a custom smartphone application to enable local community members to gather observations, such as water levels or temperatures of the wild rice beds.

“It is exciting to see regional coordinated efforts to support manoomin after decades of decline,” said William (Joe) Graveen, Tribal Council Member and Wild Rice Cultural Enhancement Program Technician of the Lac du Flambeau Band of Lake Superior Chippewa Indians. “I’m happy to see the CoPe Hub team trying to work with all the stakeholders in the region to address this critical issue.”

The program, “Strengthening Resilience of Manoomin, the Sentinel Species of the Great Lakes, with Data-Science Supported Seventh Generation Stewardship,” is supported by grant number 2209226. CoPe supports multi-institutional coastal research hubs that study the interactions among natural, human-built and social systems in coastal populated environments.