Add gene pollution to the list of woes threatening valuable indigenous crops and wild organisms, from manoomin, or wild rice, to corn and even fish, to name a few.
Already the woes are many for wild rice habitats. Agricultural chemical runoff, lower water tables, boat traffic, human overpopulation and other conditions impact the health and could threaten the ultimate survival of the exquisite and culturally rich manoomin habitats. Gene pollution is a new danger, perhaps the most insidious. Most recently, the issuance of two patents on wild rice, secured by the Norcal Wild Rice Company in California, claims property rights on "cyto-plasmic male sterility," and the propagation of any wild rice plants bearing this characteristic. As well, University of Minnesota scientists have nearly finished "mapping" the wild rice genome, which critics claim adds to the danger of genetic manipulation of the wild rice crop.
Anishinaabeg people are responding with some urgency on the issue, which certainly looks quite different from their cultural perspective. Asked Robert Vanzile, Mole Lake Ojibwe, of the scientists who have managed to gain patents on a living organism: "Who gave you a right to do this? Did you talk to Wenaboojoo? Who did you talk to? Wild rice is sacred to our people"
As humans began to be able to move genes from one organism to another, the genetic engineering revolution exploded. In a classic case of science speeding way ahead of human value systems, we now see human genes in hogs (looking to breed them leaner and taller), trout genes in tomatoes and countless other free-for-all applications, any one of which could lead to unpredictable results. The ethical and spiritual questions being asked by tribal people only deepen and widen the concerns already expressed by many scientists and academic observers.
The Anishinaabeg are completely correct to be alarmed. Just months ago, the story broke in Chiapas, Mexico of hardy, old time corn varieties being contaminated with genetically engineered corn. Indigenous corn varieties, some in that region from which very early corn seed is believed to have originated, have now been permanently contaminated. There was great scandal over the issue, but great initial damage had been done to an ancient treasure. Scientist estimate that genetically engineered wild rice released into the natural beds could contaminate right to the core or heart of the wild rice genome within five years. For instance, a recent Ohio State University study warned that weeds may be acquiring traits, such as resistance to pests and longer life-spans, passed on to them by "genetically improved crops." In June 2000, 10,000 genetically engineered salmon, which expectedly joined the wild salmon population, diluted its gene pool and likely introduced "stupid" genes that decrease competitive drive and weaken resistance to new diseases. This kind of transfer is predictable now, increasingly inevitable. What are not at all predictable are the potential creations, and potential monstrosities, that humans playing Creator for profit and without much apparent restraint could bring into existence.
The method of tinkering with genetics to thus gain legal standing to patent a living organism is troublesome, even onerous enough; it crashes directly against the whole notion of collective community knowledge, of Native peoples and natural world development of food and medicinal crops. As Minnesota Chippewa Tribe President Norman Deschampe warned in 1998, in early condemnation of the genetic research being conducted by the University of Minnesota, "The genetic variants of wild rice found naturally occurring on the waters in the territories ceded by the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe to the State of Minnesota are a unique treasure that has been carefully protected by the people of our tribe for centuries." Minnesota, which ranks second behind California, sells four to six million pounds of wild rice per year. Commercially produced "paddy rice" offers very stiff competition to wild rice producers.
Indian sovereign and cultural rights over crops, medicinal plants and other natural world knowledge are a potentially powerful base from which to challenge the present tendency to allow science to ride roughshod over indigenous spiritual and ethical concerns. Knowledge gained through many generations is a cultural patrimony. Indigenous peoples, worldwide, retain great reservoirs of knowledge of bio-diverse habitats and genetic materials. As traditional elders speak directly to the spiritual issues involved in the manipulation of genetic life, Native observers call for Indian scientific involvement and/or veto power in any research into their tribal properties. As reported by the Mazina'igan Chronicle, one speaker from White Earth Reservation told gathered Ojibwe during a protest rally in late May, "They say they can improve upon this gift the Creator gave us. But the potential for catastrophe is just too high."
We encourage and support any and every Native peoples who actively protect the bio-diversity of their indigenous geography. We commend the efforts of the Anishinaabeg to challenge the potential dangers to the core genome of their wild rice relative, manoomin, along whom they developed and whom they are culturally instructed to protect.
The intensely important issue of bio-piracy should be studied and confronted by all Native peoples whose traditional covenant with nature sustains. There is a lot to study and understand of the scientific elements involved, but it is worth it. This is an issue that refers specifically to the origins of life and the inscription of cellular knowledge ? original instructions of the most fundamental kind ? with implications for the biological (natural) structure of life itself. This is a topic about which Native thinkers will have a lot to say. It is also one in which tribal governments will need to act to protect their natural world relatives.