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Technology Experts Team with Native Americans

Date: April 24, 2002
By: Marianne Kunnen-Jones
Phone: (513) 556-1826
Photo By: Dottie Stover
Archive: Research News

A UC expert is helping Native Americans harness the power of satellite imaging to manage wild rice crops and other important natural resources.

Robert Frohn

Robert Frohn, assistant professor of geography in the McMicken College of Arts and Sciences, recently won a $95,000 NASA grant to assist Native American reservations in Minnesota in using satellite imaging and computer technology to monitor their No. 1 agricultural crop.

The new NASA-funded project encompasses more than 11 reservations. It expands upon another NASA project Frohn began in April 2000, working with the Chippewa tribe at Leech Lake American Indian Reservation in Minnesota. Frohn collected data on wild rice crops using on-site verification and aerial photographs from Landsat-7. Working with the Native Americans, he was able to quantify a 65 percent crop loss that occurred from 1994 to 1999 due to changes in precipitation. Consequently, the reservation was able to submit an insurance claim of $89,000 and recoup the loss.

The insurance claim makes a big difference to a reservation where the average per capita income is $4,700.

"Even small changes in precipitation can devastate the crop," said Frohn, who sampled the common wild rice dish of the Leech Lake tribe - a soup of white stock with chicken.

Despite its name, wild rice is not really rice, but is instead an annual water grass seed that grows abundantly in the rivers and lakes of "the Land of 10,000 Lakes."

The NASA-Leech Lake project also provided funds to the tribe for six computers, global positioning systems and remote sensing software. Frohn worked closely with members of the tribe's science department. His job is to teach the tribal members to become experts in the technology themselves.

Satellite image

In his consultations with the Minnesota Indians, Frohn has identified several other areas in which satellite imaging may also benefit the Native Americans. In addition to monitoring wild rice, it can be used to monitor sugar maples, the source of maple syrup, which is an important staple in the Chippewa diet. It also will allow the tribe to track clear-cutting of timber by the U.S. Forest Service to ensure that logging does not encroach on sites considered sacred. Utility mapping and water resource inventory are two other possibilities.

Right now harvesting of wild rice usually occurs when the elders determine the time is right. "They do it by looking at the color," said Frohn. Now the geographer is looking into using satellite images to judge the best color and time.

He will head north again in late August 2002 to expand the work to all of Minnesota's reservations.

Wild rice

Frohn has co-written recent articles on his work with the Chippewa. The articles have appeared in Photogrammetric Engineering & Remote Sensing, the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers Geoscience and Remote Sensing Society and Proceedings of the American Society of Photogrammetry and Remote Sensing.

Related Story: Distance Education Project Reaches Out to Native Americans

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