A Rice by Any Other Name

The University of Minnesota's genetic research on wild rice goes against the grain

After urging the university to cease its genetic research--at the threat of legal action--Deschampe's letter concluded, "I hope you do not feel we do so merely to stop the progress of our general society. (We are all aware of the historical outcomes for Indians when the general society feels we are in the way of their progress.)"

The missive eventually fell into the hands of Karl Lorenz, a liaison between faculty and students in the U of M's College of Agriculture who, in the fall of 1998, was arranging a class on topical issues in agriculture. Lorenz, along with two faculty members, George Spangler and Craig Hassel, decided to use the issue as a case study for the class. "We were asking, what is the economic outcome of this research?" Spangler explains. "It's not a simple question. And the rub is that it's not so much economic as cultural. There's little documentation that the university has ever been overtly concerned about how its research affected this culture. We were trying to bring another perspective to the issue."

In a letter to Yudof, the class recommended that the university acquiesce to the tribe's wishes. Based on their discussion with both tribal harvesters and university researchers, the students determined that "there has been a clear lack of productive communication between the research community at the University of Minnesota and the Native American communities involved."

A rice is a rice is a rice? University of Minnesota professor George Spangler doesn't think so.
Tony Nelson
A rice is a rice is a rice? University of Minnesota professor George Spangler doesn't think so.

"Because of this," they concluded, "our principal recommendation is that the University of Minnesota suspend all genomic research on wild rice until there are opportunities for further education, communication and dialogue."

In response, Yudof commended the class for its diligence. He also opined that "rather than terminate support of the cultivated wild rice industry, the university and the College [of Agriculture] should broaden its mission to address total natural-resource needs, including how to assist in maintaining wild rice in natural stands." To Spangler and Lorenz, the university--which, thanks to federal research dollars, created the cultivated-wild-rice industry--looked as though it might finally be willing to consider the issue from the opposite shore.

But, Spangler now asserts, U of M researchers were not ready to meet the Native community halfway. "There's a perception on the part of Native Americans of institutional arrogance within the university," he says. "I'm not saying that all the scientists here are arrogant. But it was there in the attitude of the university being surprised that the Native community had any interest in this."

Lorenz goes even further. "It was really stunning that this research could go on, and no one had even bothered to look at why it's so important to Native people," he says. "The bottom line for them is--excuse my French--don't fuck with our rice. It's sacrilege."

Still, Ron Phillips, a university geneticist who has worked with wild rice for eight years, cautions that furor over genetic research may be ill-founded. His research--which is funded by grants from the USDA and the Cultivated Rice Growers Association--is focused on understanding the rice genome, rather than on genetic manipulation, he explains. "We're really in a basic-knowledge-generation phase," Phillips says. "I see it very much as a beginning."

"There's a legitimate philosophical difference on this issue," Phillips continues. "There's a feeling among a lot of people out there that you're tampering with nature and you shouldn't do that. Scientists tend to look at that differently than the general public. It gets a very strong reaction in the general public. And, of course, if you have a religious viewpoint, that's something else."

Tribal ecologist Persell insists, meanwhile, that the tribe is merely trying to maintain control of a resource that is, by both treaty and tradition, theirs. "University researchers get big bucks for making something that makes bucks," he charges. "Are they doing this for humanity? Can they say that with a straight face? They're doing it because someone somewhere thinks they can make dollars off it." The only way to protect the economic interests of Native harvesters now, he continues, is through labeling standards similar to those currently being embraced by organic farmers--who, like the Ojibwe harvesters, are concerned about being driven out of their market by genetically manipulated crops.

In recent months, the university has begun making steps toward reconciliation. At the urging of Phillips, Visions for Change, a nonprofit liaison between the university and the community, is organizing a series of symposiums, beginning on the White Earth reservation next month, designed to bring together researchers and Native ricers. According to Maggi Adamek, the organization's executive director, the two sides have yet to reach a compromise--or even an agreed-upon agenda for discussion. Both she and Phillips remain optimistic, however. "My hope," Adamek says, "is that it'll end not just with the tribe feeling better, but also with the university realizing that there are limits to the research we can do, that there are perspectives we need to consider besides just the big, white, scientific way."


Research assistance for this article was provided by Melissa Olson.

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