Grant Two Bulls' work analyzing 200-year-old pollen samples is creating a new and fascinating snapshot of an American Indian encampment on Lake Calhoun and launching the high school student's research to national prominence.
The project became a melding of Two Bulls' passion for science and history with his desire for more connection to his Indian heritage.
"Here's a high school senior doing pretty high-level research and then taking that data and speaking to national audiences about it in a really impressive way," said Matthew Beckman, a molecular biologist from Augsburg College who served as Two Bulls' adviser. "Grant is truly an exceptional kid."
The 18-year-old senior from Breck School spent most of last summer counting ragweed and grass in sediment samples taken from Lake Calhoun to study the ecological impact of a former Indian encampment. He admits the work was tedious, but the project is racking up accolades on the national science fair scene.
A member of the Oglala-Lakota tribe, Two Bulls won the regional American Indian Science and Engineering Society's competition and placed fourth in the national competition. In coming weeks, he hopes to qualify for the International Science and Engineering Fair. Winning it would be the high school equivalent of picking up the Nobel Prize.
The research has also pulled Two Bulls closer to his Indian ancestry.
His grandfather and namesake lives on the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota, as did his father, Robert, an Episcopalian minister who leads the All Saints Indian Mission in Minneapolis. There, the Two Bulls family runs the First Nations Kitchen for local native people, serving almost 100 every Sunday.
The Two Bulls family is one of the largest on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. The family name is derived from a relative's account of an ancestor who killed two buffalo bulls in a single shot.
"We always visit my grandfather's house, right on the edge of the Badlands, so it's a very scenic, special place," Two Bulls said.
Two Bulls' work on the project was initiated through Breck's advanced science research curriculum. Students apply for the program, which requires them to put in more than 300 hours of summer research followed by a yearlong seminar. Students are paired with professional mentors who serve as sounding boards for the research.
Two Bulls was drawn to the idea of exploring the ecological effect on Lake Calhoun of an early 19th-century Mdewakanton Dakota agricultural village known as Eatonville. The village is also commonly referred to as Cloud Man Village, named after its leader.
To learn all that he could about Eatonville, Two Bulls pored over documents at several local libraries and interviewed historians familiar with Cloud Man and the settlement.
"It's kind of a historical anomaly. It was sedentary and agricultural, which was not what the Dakota were about at all," he said.
At the settlement's peak, about 300 Dakota lived on the southeastern shore of Lake Calhoun.
"It was a short time, but it was brilliant," Two Bulls said.
"At one time, they were producing a thousand bushels of corn a year. So, I knew their impact would be significant on the lake."
Initially, Two Bulls thought he could study the impact by looking at the ancient eggs of Daphnia, a water flea, and the subject of Beckman's work. But the work proved to be riddled with complexities and Two Bulls had to switch gears about a month into his work, deciding to focus on pollen instead.
Pollen would provide evidence of human disturbance, so Two Bulls, with the help of researchers from the University of Minnesota's Limnological Research Center, took core samples from the lake. He then spent hours counting pollen, documenting a buildup that occurred exactly at the same time of Eatonville.
"It's really not fun," Two Bulls said of counting pollen. "There's no automated way to do it. You have to do it with your eyes, sitting at a microscope for hours."
Nonetheless, Two Bulls' research provides baseline data for the first documented existence of ragweed in the Lake Calhoun area. Since the time of Eatonville, pollen counts have only continued to escalate.
Once the research was done, Two Bulls spent the next few months perfecting his presentation, while juggling classes, playing defensive end for Breck's football team and serving as an editor of the Bugle, the school's newspaper.
"What a cool project," said Lois Fruen, the head of Breck's science department and the advanced science research program adviser. "He has become kind of model for kids in our school because he's taken advantage of the community resources in a way that no other student has done in the past."
Two Bulls, who has shown himself to be something of a perfectionist, is critical of some of his early presentations — too much detail packed in the beginning. Since the national competition, he's made several changes and feels good about his chances in upcoming competitions.
Either way, Two Bulls plans to continue to keep exploring the history of the region's native people. He has been accepted at Dartmouth College and plans to begin classes next fall.
"I'm thinking about government, economics and probably incorporate some native studies along the way," he said. "I can really see myself being of service to my tribe, but I really have no idea what arena that might be in."