Nibi-Manoomin Bridging Worldviews

Following a chance encounter with Karl Lorenz in a local restaurant, I was drawn into the Nibi-Manoomin Bridging Worldviews (NMBW) initiative. ‘Nibi’ is the Anishinaabe (Ojibwe) name for water, and ‘manoomin’ is the name for wild rice, which grows on the water and is a source of food, medicine, and livelihood, as well as being sacred and core to the identity of the Anishinaabeg, who live in northern Minnesota and in southern Ontario and take themselves to be charged with protecting it.7 Researchers at the University of Minnesota have worked with non-native commercial growers to develop strains of cultivated wild rice and have also done research to decipher the wild rice genome; both types of research raise concerns among the Anishinaabeg about the integrity of the manoomin. The NMBW initiative brings together tribal leaders and (indigenous and non-native) University researchers to work on getting the University to be responsive to tribal concerns, and to build trusting relationships in the face of a difficult and trust-eroding history.

My participation in this work mostly involved attending a lot of meetings, listening and asking questions, developing relationships, and, in conversation with scientists and administrators, helping to make the case that attentiveness to tribal concerns and interests was not only ethically obligatory but also epistemi-cally valuable. Against claims that recognizing Anishinaabe concerns would risk infringing academic freedom, I argued for cultivating a research culture that valued respectful engagement with diverse perspectives, especially those of people and traditions with long-standing, intimate relationships with the objects of scientific study.8 University research on wild rice had not only failed to engage with the tribes but had been only contingently tethered to the state: ironically, efforts to develop cultivated strains of wild rice, while responsive to Minnesota growers, have largely benefited California farmers, and the deciphering of the genome could be done anywhere with a well-enough equipped laboratory. What could be done only there, in Minnesota, was the “bridging worldviews” that animated the NMBW initiative. The cultivation of ways of knowing that honor both indigenous and western academic worldviews is, globally, of enormous urgency as well as being extraordinarily difficult—witness the snarls and roadblocks that spring up around efforts at what is (problematically) referred to as “sustainable development” (Scheman 2012). As an episte-mologist as well as, for much of this time, the president of our campus AAUP chapter (hence an official guardian of academic freedom), I had a useful standing in conversations with scientists and administrators.

A goal for the relationships the initiative worked to cultivate is to make possible collaborative research to address threats to the manoomin, including the threat of mining industry pollution of the lakes on which it grows. Another, broader aim is to help university researchers to better understand and appreciate very different ways of thinking about and relating to manoomin, other plants, and non-human nature in general. What, for example, might plant scientists learn from how archeologists have grappled with the meaning to indigenous peoples of the land, the human remains, and the artifacts that are the archeologists’ objects of study? (Nicholas and Wylie 2009). The initial consideration is the showing of respect toward others even if one does not share their beliefs by, for example, respecting what they hold sacred; but such attentiveness can lead to the transformation of one’s own relationships to those things, revealing what one might come to see as an anthropocentrically instrumentalist attitude toward the other-than-human world.

My participation in NMBW meetings, working groups, and symposia had this sort of transformative effect on me. It began when I listened to Paul Schultz, an elder from the White Earth Reservation in northern Minnesota, explain the contrasts between a western academic worldview, with humans at the top of a ‘smartness’ pyramid and stones at the very bottom. He contrasted that picture with an indigenous worldview that worked from the oldest and hence wisest things—stones—through plants and other-than-human animals to humans: babies in need of learning from their wiser elders. I had trouble making anything remotely like literal sense of this until I thought about why being around for a long time might make one wise. Longevity alone wouldn’t do it: wisdom could come only from being shaped, changed, affected, moved by what one lived through. And although it might be a western, perhaps especially academic, slur to compare insensible, non-responsive humans to stones, actual stones are anything but unaffected by what’s around them. They are, in fact, narratives of the eons through which they have come, starting with their origin stories as igneous, sedimentary, or metamorphic, and continuing through encounters with earthquakes, glaciers, oceans, and rivers, excavators of quarries, builders of roads and walls and houses. They do not respond to everything around them (but then neither do we), and they respond distinctively, depending on the type of stone they are and on what has previously happened to them. I don’t imagine that I experience or understand the world as someone immersed in an indigenous culture might; but the deep disorientation occasioned by my encounter with the people I came to know through my work with NMBW has changed how I think about metaphysics, in particular, about the fundamental question of what distinguishes a complex object from a random jumble or heap (Scheman 2008, 2016).

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