Researcher merges science, Native American tradition

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Capital News Service

LANSING — When Michigan State University graduate student Jared Gregorini studies in the forest, he often leaves a tobacco plant.

That’s because Gregorini, also known as Leading Crow, is Native American.

Before becoming a biological conservation researcher, he worked with the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians as an assistant biologist. He’s from Ontario and his research focuses on Michigan’s eastern Upper Peninsula, an environment similar to Ontario’s.

The plant Gregorini gives to the forest is usually tobacco, which is sacred to his Native American community.

Many Native American cultures view the forest as sacred, Gregorini said, and it’s a tradition to offer it tribute after taking something from it, such as berries or hunted animals.

Gregorini says gathering knowledge is no different from gathering physical resources. And he doesn’t see ancient Native American spirituality as incompatible with modern science. 

In fact, he believes in mixing the two together.

So does his research adviser, Gary Roloff.

“We’ve seen a lot of literature over the years about integrating Western and Indigenous sciences to help better conservation,” said Roloff, a professor of fisheries and wildlife.

“But we’ve struggled with what exactly that looks like, and one of the things I’m hoping that will come out of Jared is how to most effectively use Indigenous sciences as part of a Western experimental design here,” he said.

Gregorini’s research focuses on how removing fire from an ecosystem affects it and how “prescribed fires” can influence it. A prescribed fire is also often known as a controlled burn.

Fire managers may “prescribe” a treatment for resource benefits or research. That includes lighting a fire after planning and under controlled conditions, according to the National Park Service.

Regular wildfires are extremely beneficial to the forest, specifically when blueberry plants burn, Gregorini said. When a wildfire ends, the area is often filled with blueberries the following year, which attracts new animals.

That practice was common among ancient Indigenous peoples as a way to attract animals for hunting, as well as to renew the ecosystem, he said.

Gregorini said he’s always respected the forest and feels it’s his responsibility to give back to it.

Roloff said part of the Anishinaabe belief is that when you’re studying on the land, you should give thanks to the land for being the teacher. 

“That’s a very ‘Indigenous’ (way) to look at it, versus the Western way where you just go and put a bunch of experiments on the land and then take information from the land, instead of the land being a teacher,” he said.

“Having Jared being kind of a teacher was actually really kind of eye-opening for me. It’s a different way of viewing data collection,” Roloff said

Other researchers under Roloff are beginning to incorporate Native American spiritual practices into their work as well. It’s a shift he attributes to Indigenous researchers like Gregorini.

Gregorini says he hopes his research inspires other Indigenous peoples to attend postgraduate school.

Native Americans are one of the least likely groups to attend a higher-education institution, with only 17% continuing their education after high school, according to a Postsecondary National Policy Institute Study.

Gregorini says he hopes to change that.

Wells Foster writes for Great Lakes Echo.

Researcher Jared Gregorini. Credit: Michigan State University.

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