The Journal of Extension -

December 2009 // Volume 47 // Number 6 // Ideas at Work // v47-6iw5

A Regional Multicultural Approach to Sustaining Wild Rice

Outreach programming can often involve issues that have complex multicultural and regional dimensions. Those dimensions, while challenging, can represent important opportunities. This article describes the methods and outcomes associated with integrating multicultural and regional perspectives into efforts to sustain wild rice in the Upper Great Lakes Region. The outcomes highlight the importance of utilizing multicultural approaches, addressing issues at appropriate scales, and enabling diverse partnerships. This project underscores the importance of integrating multicultural and regional perspectives into appropriate outreach programming.

Patrick Robinson
Environmental Restoration Specialist
University of Wisconsin-Extension
Green Bay, Wisconsin

Scott Herron
Associate Professor of Biology
Ferris State University
Big Rapids, Michigan

Rebecca Power
Great Lakes Regional Water Program Liaison
University of Wisconsin-Extension
Madison, Wisconsin

Deborah Zak
Campus Regional Director
University of Minnesota Extension
Crookston, Minnesota


Outreach professionals often address complex issues that affect individuals and communities with varied interests and worldviews (Hassel, 2007). They are also increasingly recognizing the multiple geographic scales at which those issues need to be addressed to achieve desired outcomes (Gunderson & Holling, 2002). In this article, we provide an example of an outreach strategy that supports efforts to sustain wild rice in the Upper Great Lakes Region, specifically Michigan, Minnesota, and Wisconsin. We believe this approach demonstrates the importance and effectiveness of incorporating multicultural and regional perspectives into appropriate outreach programming efforts.

Wild rice (Zizania spp.) is a native aquatic plant that is harvested and enjoyed by people of varied cultural backgrounds throughout the Upper Great Lakes Region (Fannucchi, Fannucchi, & Craven, 1986). This native grain has also been a central component of the culture of indigenous people in the region for thousands of years (Yarnell, 1964) and continues to be of great importance to many tribal communities. Unfortunately, wild rice populations have declined throughout much of the plant's historic range, due in large part to human impacts (Vennum, 1988). Given the strong cross-cultural importance of this grain, sustaining regional populations of wild rice requires a commitment to multicultural approaches.

A Multicultural Outreach Strategy

To begin addressing regional wild rice declines, we worked with project partners to co-lead the convening of several scoping meetings in 2005 and 2006. Participants in the scoping meetings included representatives from diverse cultural and organizational perspectives surrounding wild rice, including tribal communities, tribal organizations, state and federal agencies, non-government organizations, and universities.

The scoping meetings were used to identify important environmental and social issues (Tabbush, 2004; Taylor & Ryder, 2003) related to sustaining wild rice and select relevant strategies to address the issues. Our efforts recognized the dominant-subordinate group dynamics that have historically characterized relations between Euroamericans and American Indians (Perry & Robyn, 2005) and adhered to the following "best-practice guidelines" (Palerm, 2000) to create a transparent and equitable process:

  • Invited representation from all the concerned or affected constituencies.
  • Developed and ensured an egalitarian process and atmosphere at the meetings.
  • Utilized a facilitated process led by a neutral party.
  • Employed a consensus-based methodology.

Meeting participants identified the following two concepts as central to developing a wild rice outreach strategy.

  • Multicultural partnerships and approaches are essential to sustaining wild rice populations.
  • Efforts to maintain and restore wild rice populations should occur at a multi-state scale due to the historic range of wild rice and its regional importance.

Using these central concepts as guiding principles, the scoping meeting participants concluded that the most appropriate initial outreach strategy would be a wild rice conference designed to 1) enhance regional sharing of information, 2) increase multicultural awareness and understanding, and 3) foster multicultural partnerships.

A diverse, multi-state steering committee was formed to assist with planning the recommended wild rice conference. The steering committee included representatives from six tribal organizations or communities, three state or federal agencies, four universities, and one non-government organization. The diverse membership of the committee was essential to ensuring the integration of multicultural perspectives into the conference. A financial assistance program was also developed to allow traditionally underrepresented tribal audiences to participate in the conference.


The Wild Rice Restoration and Preservation Conference was held on the Lac Vieux Desert Band of Lake Superior Chippewa reservation near Watersmeet, Michigan in August of 2006 <>. The conference brought together 109 individuals, including representatives from tribal communities, universities, nonprofit groups, and federal and state agencies. Multicultural sharing at the conference was maximized through the blending of "cultural," "scientific," and "communication and networking" sessions.

The conference successfully attracted both tribal and non-tribal individuals. Over 40% of the attendees were tribal members. Ninety-four percent of the respondents to our post-conference evaluation (50% response rate) indicated that they learned a significant or great amount about the cultural values of wild rice (Biedermann & Blasczyk, 2006). Eighty percent stated that they learned a significant or great amount about the ecological values of wild rice. Open-ended comments from the evaluations indicate that the blending of sessions effectively promoted important cultural and ecological learning and created a very effective cross-cultural experience for participants.

As hoped, the conference has acted as a springboard for a sustained, multicultural network of individuals working to enhance wild rice outreach and restoration efforts. This multicultural conference, and the preparation for it, has fostered important partnerships. Since the conference, the partners have continued working together and have formed a Native Wild Rice Coalition.

Lessons Learned

Involving multicultural representation in program planning is essential to effectively integrating varied cultural perspectives. Blending diverse ways of knowing into programming can enable the building of cultural bridges and shared knowledge. In addition, outreach efforts are sometimes most effective when occurring at local, state, and multi-state scales. For example, the Great Lakes Regional Water Program (which is a partnership between the Cooperative State Research, Education, and Extension Service and land-grant universities in Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, and Wisconsin) has helped foster regional connections that are augmenting and complementing state and local efforts.

Our experience with developing an outreach strategy related to sustaining wild rice in the Upper Great Lakes Region underscores the importance of:

  • Creating opportunities for multicultural interaction, leadership, and partnerships related to university outreach efforts.
  • Using multicultural partnerships to effectively leverage human and financial resources.
  • Identifying issues with cultural and geographic resonance that will mobilize individuals and agencies to reexamine past approaches and future efforts.
  • Addressing issues at scales appropriate for achieving program impact.


The authors would like to acknowledge the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission and Lac Vieux Desert Band of Lake Superior Chippewa for their important contributions to this effort. This article is based upon work supported by the Cooperative State Research, Education, and Extension Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture, under Agreement No. 2000-5402.


Biedermann, J., & Blasczyk, J. (2006). Conference evaluation survey, wild rice coalition building and conference, August 2006: Introduction and summary. Madison: University of Wisconsin-Extension.

Fannucchi, G. T., Fannucchi, W. M., & Craven, S. (1986). Wild-rice in Wisconsin: Its ecology and cultivation (Bull. No. G3372). Madison: University of Wisconsin-Extension.

Gunderson, L., & Holling, C. S. (Eds.). (2002). Panarchy: Understanding transformations in human and natural systems. Washington, D.C.: Island Press.

Hassel, C. A., (2007). Can cross-cultural engagement improve the Land-Grant University? Journal of Extension [On-line], 45(5) Article 5FEA7. Available at:

Palerm, J. R. (2000). An empirical-theoretical analysis framework for public participation in environmental impact assessment. Journal of Environmental Planning and Management, 43(5), 581-600.

Perry, B., & Robyn, L. (2005). Putting anti-Indian violence in context: The case of the Great Lakes Chippewas of Wisconsin. The American Indian Quarterly, 29(3 & 4), 590-625.

Tabbush, P. (2004). Public money for public good? Public participation in forest planning. Forestry, 77(2), 145-156.

Taylor, J. G., & Ryder, S. D. (2003). Use of the Delphi Method in resolving complex water resource issues. Journal of the American Water Resources Association, 39(1), 183-189.

Vennum, T., Jr. (1988). Wild rice and the Ojibway people. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press.

Yarnell, R. A. (1965). Aboriginal relationships between culture and plant life in the upper Great Lakes region. Anthropological Papers 23. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Museum of Anthropology.