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Authors note: Our case study was created in 2017 and early 2018.  We encourage those using this case to research the emerging developments in wild rice policy and research.


In Minnesota, there is a messy conflict between the tribes, scientists, EPA, industries, and state government agencies and officials of how to best protect wild rice from pollution from taconite mines and industrial plants. Wild rice is more than just food to the Anishinabeg (also commonly referred to as the Ojibwe or Chippewa), manoomin, meaning the “good berry” is sacred and is the representation of their survival. In 1973, a law was enacted to protect wild rice from the sulfate generated from taconite mines and industrial plants. However, this ruling was not enforced and did not receive widespread attention until the early 2000s. This case study has three modules: intercultural competence, stakeholder analysis and systems thinking.

Featured Competency Domains for

Socio-Environmental Synthesis

Case study participants will practice the following competencies and skills:
Boundary Crossing
  • Active listening
  • Communication skills
  • Consensus building
Socio-Cultural Awarenesss
  • Self-awareness of identities
  • Ability to understand others’ perspectives and values
  • Recognize the ethical dimensions of socio-environmental synthesis
Systems Thinking
  • Describing systems
  • Analyzing system dynamics and driving forces
  • Identifying boundaries

Source: Wisconsin Educational Communications Board. (2017). Manoomin: Food that grows on water [Video File]. Retrieved from URL:

The Complexities of Manoomin, Chemistry and the Ecosystem
Figure by Gene-Hua Crystal Ng. Used with permission.

The State of Minnesota has struggled to protect manoomin from sulfate which is often a byproduct of pollution from iron ore mines and wastewater treatment facilities. Why is establishing a one-size fits all sulfate standard problematic? Understanding the complex, non-linear, and dynamic interactions between manoomin, the ecosystem, and society give us insight into why one standard is problematic.

This figure is developed based on the research from the following publication: Ng, G. H., Yourd, A. R., Johnson, N. W., & Myrbo, A. E. (2017). Modeling hydrologic controls on sulfur processes in sulfate‐impacted wetland and stream sediments. Journal of Geophysical Research: Biogeosciences, 122(9), 2435-2457.

Long ago, the Ojibwe migrated from the East Coast to present day Minnesota and Wisconsin based on a prophecy: If they could find the place where food grew on water, they would survive.

Source: Minnesota Historical Society

Interactions in the Ecosystem

Wild rice thrives in low-sulfate waterways. Due to mining in Minnesota’s Iron Range, and other forms of industrial pollutants, this has increased the sulfate levels in some parts of the ecosystem.

Assessing Student Performance

Learning Objectives

This case study primarily focuses on the socio-cultural awareness competence domain for socio-environmental synthesis. It also explores dimensions of systems thinking and boundary crossing.

Participants will be able to:

  • Diagram the complexity of relationships in/of sovereignty, science, policy and higher education
  • Identify the unintended consequences of creating policy with the ambiguity of enforcement
  • Describe their own cultural identity
  • Understand the complexity of working within and across cultures
For Instructors
Target Audiences
  • Biology
  • Environmental Science
  • Leadership
  • Sustainability Studies
Course Levels
  • Advanced undergraduates
  • Graduate students
  • New faculty training

Each assignment has a rubric which can either used as is or modified for a class. We encourage tailoring this case study by developing discussion questions and assignments to best align with the course learning objectives.

The Case Study

This case study examines the story of a young scientist as she attempts to navigate the complexities of the relationships between culture, science, and the sacred. She is aware of the basic scientific background of wild rice, but doesn’t understand wild rice’s significance to the Ojibwe people. In addition, the case study includes a stakeholder analysis that examines the perspectives of the tribes, industry, environmentalists, and university researchers. Finally, a systems thinking module helps increase understanding of the complex interactions in the socio-environmental landscapes.

In the Ojibwe language, the word for wild rice is manoomin which translates to the ‘good berry.’ Manoomin is much more than a food source to the Ojibwe. Manoomin is a sacred part of all Ojibwe ceremonies and is a symbol of their survival. After mining and other industries became a core part of the economy in Minnesota, sulfate pollutants entered Minnesota waterways inhibiting the growth of wild rice. This led to the creation of several policies to try to protect wild rice, but the standards were not enforced.

Also, as the university conducted research on manoomin, several missteps were made. How can this researcher: (a) understand deeper interactions between wild rice and the ecosystem, (b) navigate the tensions between the university and the local tribal community, and (c) gain knowledge through other ways of learning to inform the research and protection of wild rice?

Source: Konechne, Theresa. (2005). Manoomin: A Minnesota Way of Life [Video File]. Retrieved from URL: