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Bringing Indigenous wild rice research closer to campus

In 2021, Kailee Pearson spent her summer in Michigan's Upper Peninsula. Interning with the Sault Tribe Wildlife Program as a field technician, Pearson, who will graduate from Michigan State University with a degree in fisheries and wildlife this December, monitored invasive plants, surveyed bird species and nesting sites, and tracked data on wild rice growth.

Pearson, a member of the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians, loved the experience "€” especially the work she was doing with wild rice. So much so that she was able to continue the research this spring. She did not have to travel to the U.P., though. Pearson brought wild rice research to the Corey Marsh Ecological Research Center, about 20 minutes northeast of East Lansing.

Working with EEB core faculty member Jen Owen, coordinator of the research center and associate professor and associate chair in the Department of Fisheries and Wildlife, Pearson set up her own research project to study Indigenous wild rice, looking at ways to grow in different conditions. Michigan's wild rice, Manoomin, is important to many wetlands in the state and culturally significant to Michigan's Indigenous tribes. The rice, which could become Michigan's official state grain thanks to a bill making its way through the state legislature, has been an essential subsistence for Indigenous people of the Great Lakes for generations. To Pearson, that is important.

"Everything I did last year brought me directly to where I am right now," she said. "Everyone I worked

Portrait of Jen Owen
Jen Owen

with was really helpful in teaching me exactly what I needed to know in order to take that knowledge and now apply it to my own research at MSU."

That is one of the main goals of CMERC, Owen said: To give students a space to take ownership of their studies. Owen has been working to make CMERC welcoming for students, along with MSU faculty, staff and community members, since it opened in 2018.

Prior to MSU AgBioResearch opening the center, the university considered selling the property. The land formerly was the MSU Muck Soil Research Farm, which hosted vegetable trials for 70 years before closing in 2012. In 2018, however, Owen proposed a center for scientific research in natural resource restoration and management, and university leaders gave her the go-ahead.

Since opening, CMERC has begun conducting research and creating outreach and education programs for the public, with a goal of enhancing science communication and engagement. Because of the land's historical connection to the Native American community, Owen is developing relationships and meaningful connections with tribal communities in efforts to develop a shared understanding of place-based learning and knowledge creation.

It is important to Owen that those relationships continue to flourish, especially because the land at CMERC is the only remnant from the swamp land grant from 1858. MSU received 7,000 acres of swamp and sold all but 400 acres "€” which today is CMERC.

"It seems fitting," Owen said, "that we take that last remnant and we build partnerships with Indigenous communities."

Read more in MSU Today