A Tribal Story Written in Silica: Using Phytoliths to Research the Effects of Mining on Past Wild Rice (Zizania palustris) Abundance in Sandy Lake, Minnesota
Wednesday, 17 December 2014
Wild rice (Zizania palustris, manoomin) is an emergent aquatic plant that grows annually in the northern Great Lakes region of North America. This region is also rich in iron ore deposits and correspondingly has an extensive history of mining activities. Wild rice no longer grows in some areas where it was previously abundant. Sandy Lake, located in St. Louis County on federally protected lands that are ceded territory of the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa in Minnesota and downstream of the nearby U.S. Steel Minntac mine, was selected as a test site. This lake has a history of ricing activities by the Ojibwe (Chippewa) People, for whom manoomin has cultural importance. Lake cores were taken on June 17, 2014 by LacCore and FDLRM staff and samples were obtained. This project used phytolith analysis to answer the question of past wild rice presence and abundance in Sandy Lake. Phytoliths are microscopic opal silica deposits produced in some plants. Zizania palustris produces phytolith morphotypes that are unequivocally diagnostic of this species in this region. Microscopic slides were prepared and analyzed for wild rice phytoliths. Concentration values ranged from 25 to 4379 phytoliths per cm3/year, and wild rice accumulation figures ranged from 7 to 789 phytoliths/cm2/year, the maximum values of which occurred in the 1920s and generally declined to the current lowest levels observed. Mining has likely impacted wild rice populations by causing increased sulfate levels and possibly contributing to higher lake levels.