LCO Community Wrestles With Bio-tech Issues

Nov 15th, 2005 | By | Category: 17-2: Sustainability, Tribal College News

Ojibwe communities in the upper Midwest face a classic bio-ethics dilemma: Scientists have begun mapping the wild rice genome. This has alarmed some tribal communities, who fear that wild rice will be genetically modified and introduced to the environment, where it might cross-pollinate with native stands of wild rice.

In Ojibwe culture, harvesting and eating wild rice is almost a sacrament, and changing its essence raises red flags for many.

This complex topic is one of many that instructors at Lac Courte Oreilles Ojibwa Community College (LCO, Hayward, WI) wanted to introduce to students and members of the community. Their objective? They wanted to demonstrate that biotechnology is part of everyone’s daily lives. They also wanted to foster a better understanding of ways in which tribal communities can address complex topics.

Their answer? Deb Hinterleitner Anderson and Patrick J. Shields have designed a Tribal Learning Community Model, a model that they hope can be used by other colleges. Anderson has been a faculty member 15 years; she teaches Life Science and Natural Resources. Shields teaches English and Sociology at the tribal college.

“We believe that complex topics, involving biological, social, or ethical issues, can be presented through a Tribal Learning Community Model in a way that is manageable to local communities,” Shields says.

The first step was for the faculty to determine which current issues existed within the tribal community that could be tied to biotechnology topics. Faculty attended conferences and workshops, such as the “Conference on Biodiversity, Biotechnology and the Legal Protection of Traditional Knowledge” hosted by Washington University in St. Louis and the Bioethics Institute hosted by the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis.

LCO faculty compiled relevant regional material at these conferences and other events organized under a USDA Biotech Consortium Grant. By networking within the tribal community, they were able to find specific local material on tribal issues.

All of the new material could be integrated into the curriculum. In addition, they took biotechnology issues to the people through community events, collaboration with tribal organizations, tribal media, and groups such as schools and elders.

The tribal college organized four conferences focusing on the scientific, social, ethical, and economic issues surrounding biotechnology and its impact on tribal cultures. One of the guest speakers was Winona LaDuke (White Earth Chippewa tribal member and former vice presidential candidate of the Green Party).

Activities were added to a broad array of classes, including Composition, Sociology, Biology, Plant Science, Forestry, Ethnobotany, Introduction to Tribal Cultures, and Computer Science. The Sociology courses, for example, completed consumer surveys and researched the social impact of wild rice and genetic engineering on tribal cultures.

In addition, K-12 tribal students participated in a poster contest with a wild rice theme. Tribal elders shared their spiritual perspectives and provided traditional foods for the community events.

Anderson and Shields say that other colleges could use the same model for other subjects. The bioethics grant was funded under the USDA Initiative for Future Agriculture and Food Systems.  South Dakota State University was the lead institution. The partners were in Iowa, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Wisconsin. In addition to LCO, three other tribal colleges participated: Si Tanka University, Leech Lake Tribal College, and Cankdeska Cikana Community College.

For more information, including a chart showing each step of the process, contact Patrick J. Shields (715) 634-4790 ext. 137 or

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