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Climate Change, an Ojibwe Perspective

By mid-June, wild rice plants lie flat on the water surface, forming leafy mats. They are extremely susceptible to water level fluctuations, and can be uprooted or washed away.

By mid-June, wild rice plants lie flat on the water surface, forming leafy mats. They are extremely susceptible to water level fluctuations, and can be uprooted or washed away.

The Ojibwe people believe it is important to take care of Ah-ki (ah kee), the Earth, as mother and giver-of-life. Ah-ki provides food, water, and shelter. For this, she is honored and respected. In turn, inhabitants must take care of Ah-ki. Take only what is needed, and, keep Ah-ki clean and healthy—especially the water— which is said to be her life-blood. We all must "Ganawenim Omizakamigokwe" … take care of Mother Earth.

Among the many Trust Lands of the Lake Superior Band of Chippewa are Grand Portage at the tip of Minnesota's arrowhead, Fond du Lac, west of Duluth, and Bad River on the South Shore near Odanah, Wisconsin. All three have experienced effects of climate change—some that disrupt cultural traditions indelibly tied to the seasons.

The biology department in the Trust Lands and Resources division at Grand Portage monitors fish and wildlife, from trout surveys and rearing fish in their hatchery to aerial surveys of moose.

"We are seeing an abundance of invasive species such as curly-leaf pond weed, spotted knapweed, giant reed grass, and purple loosestrife," said Stuart Oberg, Grand Portage ecologist. Wood ticks, raccoons, and cardinals too—all species not native to the area.

Chippewa Roots

The Chippewa Nation is the second largest ethnic group of Indians in the U.S. Their ancestors resided in the Great Lakes region since about 800 A.D. In 1622, Etienne Brule met with the Chippewa at Sault Ste. Marie. He found a hunter-gatherer culture that fished and hunted. In spring, families collected maple sap, which was boiled down into sugar; and in autumn, families collected wild rice. Deep family and tribal affiliations developed through such communal activities.

Sugarbush, or maple syrup production, has long been an Ojibwe tradition—one that is affected by temperature. Oberg has no scientific data yet, but he hears people talking about the sap running earlier in the spring. The sap runs when there are warm days and cold nights. With a warmer climate, it may begin to run and then stop.

The Grand Portage Tribal Council asked their Trust Lands and Resources to publish a white paper to guide policy, identify impacts and evaluate management practices. It will be out this summer.

At Fond du Lac, Nancy Schuldt, Water Projects Coordinator, explained, "The actions you can take [in dealing with climate change] are a choice between mitigation and adaptation … but wild rice, fish, maple syrup—these are such an integral part of our cultural identity… how do you mitigate for culturally important species?"

Schuldt said they are monitoring for long-term data, like stream gauging, which will signal trends. "Hydrology is very important since wild rice beds depend on it; any change in hydrology means a change in ricing," she said. They are conducting research on nitrogen levels as well.

Extreme storm events do not bode well for rice beds. "Wild rice is an annual crop and it typically has good years and bad years…which seems to be tied to the nutrient variability of the waters in which it grows, more than to climate," Schuldt noted.

Fond du Lac Resources Management is trying to moderate some changes through management strategies. For example, when land was taken from the tribe in the early 1900s, settlers built ditches everywhere to drain the land and make it useful for agriculture. That didn't work, but the ditches remained.

In July, wild rice grows vertically. By late August or early September it becomes ripe when the seeds are ready to fall off. If not harvested, they will fall off and settle into the sediment to grow the next spring, or remain dormant until conditions are favorable.

In July, wild rice grows vertically. By late August or early September it becomes ripe when the seeds are ready to fall off. If not harvested, they will fall off and settle into the sediment to grow the next spring, or remain dormant until conditions are favorable.

Now, there's a ­massive impact on the watershed due to the ditches. As a management strategy, they have built dams at flow points of the ditches to keep water levels stable and prevent extreme changes. They do this because wild rice cannot withstand extreme water level changes.

Preserving rice beds is central to Ojibwe identity, as is preserving trout streams. If warming trends raise the temperature of the streams even by a few degrees, they won't be trout streams any more. The coldwater fish won't stay. These are groundwater-fed streams… so the condition of the streams is affected by the groundwater.

Another integral part of Tribal identity are the forests. Christian Nelson, Timber Sales Forester at Fond du Lac said he does not see Trust lands being deforested, but different species could take over. "With a warmer climate, we could lose birch, aspens, jack and red pine; white pine would stay, but balsam fir and white and black spruce would shift north," he said.

Long dry spells followed by heavy weather events would be hard on conifers, especially germination. With intermittent rain, seeds would begin to germinate and then stop.

Minnesota typically has a spring fire season during which things are dry for about four weeks. Climate change might extend that, which would be costly in terms of trees. Sugar maples, for example, are not usually fire-prone, but with a warmer climate, forest fires could ravage them.

The Fond du Lac Tribal Council chose to adopt the Kyoto protocol, which has specific goals related to it. They intend to work toward those goals.

Nelson said they are piloting a biomass gasifier that burns wood chips to produce a source of carbon-neutral energy. It's a small scale pilot, but if successful, it could lead to larger production. They are also looking at wind potential and locations for wind turbines.

On the Bad River Reservation in northwestern Wisconsin, bordering 17 miles of Lake Superior shoreline, the 2007 water levels were so low it posed serious problems for the manoomin (wild rice) in Bad River’s Kakagon Sloughs, turning them into mud flats. They were closed to ricing.

In 2008, water levels rose, but cattails developed in the rice beds, squeezing out the rice. Ed Wiggins, Bad River’s Wetlands Technician, mapped the distribution of the hybrid Narrow Leaf Cattails. By 2009, he took control measures, creating two test plots. At one site, cattails were hand-pulled and uprooted. At the other, cattails were cut beneath the water line, which stresses the plant and discourages rapid growth. In each test site, half of the area treated came back with manoomin. Both control methods were equally effective.

The Lake Superior Band of Chippewa are carrying on the values of their forebears, studying the effects of climate change and taking action to preserve long held traditions.

The Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission’s publication, Mazina’igan, contributed to this story.


By Nancy Hoene
March 2010

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