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Gego anjitooken manoomin, "Don't change the rice"

It is Manoomini-giizis, the wild rice moon. Out on the lakes and rivers, the rice is moving toward the surface, ready to greet the Anishinaabeg once again. The Anishinaabeg are also rising to the surface: this spring, an international coalition to protect wild rice was launched, citing the University of Minnesota, and international genetic pirates as the adversaries in what promises to be a long and pitched battle.

Paul Schultz of White Earth reservation, joined with Gerald White (Leech Lake), Joe LaGarde and others calling for the University of Minnesota to stop its genetic work on wild rice, "? as it places the rice at risk, and as well, it will probably allow for scientific control over our wild rice." By this Ode'minigiizis, or June, many tribal governments in the region as well as Native organizations had passed resolutions opposing further genetic work on wild rice and calling for an end to patenting of wild rice.

Economic Justice

Think of it this way: The University of Minnesota is a land grant institution that is mandated to undertake work for the benefit of the people and the land of that region.

Additionally, the University of Minnesota accepts millions of dollars of federal money, which is also supposed to relate it to the public interest. The University, it seems, may be using public money for private benefit. For the past fifty years, the University of Minnesota has been busy with wild rice. Thus far, it has produced nine different varieties of paddy rice, including "Purple Petrowske," its most recent. And, now it has completed mapping of the wild rice genome.

All of that research is for the benefit of paddy rice producers. There are, at most fifty paddy rice growers in the state of Minnesota. According to the presently available data, the University of Minnesota is spending around half-a-million dollars a year on paddy rice research. (The actual figures haven't been released to the public, but we are working on it.) Since the vast majority of paddy grown wild rice is now coming from California ? largely due to the past research of the University of Minnesota ? it seems justifiable that the University of California should just do that research for the paddy rice industry: why waste our money? Additionally, some Anishinaabeg are asking why so much money is spent for 50 paddy rice producers, while there are at least 50,000 Anishinaabeg in the state, and no research is done on their behalf?

For the past year and a half, Joe LaGarde and other Anishinaabeg have asked the University of Minnesota to release information as to the amount of money spent on paddy rice research, the nature of the research, the origins of the money and other relevant and critical information. At the June rally, the request was repeated. In mid June, Vice President and Dean Muscoplat responded: "The specific information you requested will be supplied by the University's Records and Information Management department per University of Minnesota procedures." Joe LaGarde is waiting.

The Gene Pirates

With the mapping of the wild rice genome by the University of Minnesota, scientists can potentially insert genes from other plants into wild rice or from wild rice into other plants. This type of biotech research and method of genetic manipulation is known as "trans-genetic engineering." It is the act of putting the genetic material(s) from one organism/plant into the genetic material(s) of another organism/plant through the use of a "particle gun." This technique is widely used in biotech research and is an invasive method that "fires" genetic material into the cells, and therefore the DNA structure, of another organism or plant thereby combining the genetic information and creating a new and unique organism or plant. To date, this method of genetic manipulation has not been performed on wild rice in the United States, but that may change. It is known that the international scope of biotechnology has reached our sacred wild rice beds with evidence that researchers in Australia are utilizing this method to "fire" genetic material into the genes of white rice and wild rice.

The United States Patent and Trade Office is reviewing a patent application for a method of trans-genetic engineering. The method developed by Australian researchers is the first case to date that utilizes this method and creates a totally new type of wild rice.

The term used to describe this method of genetic engineering using DNA directly isolated from a donor plant is "micro-projectile bombardment." This new research also raises many questions. First, from where did they get the original strain or plant of wild rice? Second, who are the economic interests in the United States or world for whom this research is being developed? Third, are they doing any field tests for this newly created plant yet in Australia or in the United States and what are the implications of those field tests on natural stands of wild rice? Fourth, are these researchers collaborating with any research institutions in the United States?

Invasion of the Paddy Rice

In the middle of wild rice country, the Grand Rapids Research Station continues its work with wild rice. With the University of Minnesota operating four wild rice research stations in the heart of natural wild rice bio-diversity, there are bound to be repercussions. No one is sure if there is an impact on our native rice beds, and there are no laws to protect our rice in the future. In the new millennium, we are concerned about "genetic pollution" ? the trashing of the genetic integrity of our wild rice by paddy rice stands.

All of these concerns have prompted the coalition, now comprised of most Anishinaabeg reservations on the U.S. side of the border and a host of other groups, to look to the future. This summer our tribal biology departments, with ricers, will be looking closely at our rice beds. We need to find if the "sterile males" which are being patented exist in nature. Then, the Anishinaabeg can look at challenging the patents on wild rice. Additionally, we are looking at legal and policy options open to the people to protect the manoomin. These might include labeling laws, challenges to University of Minnesota policies and challenges to the California and Australian rice researchers and industries.

Mino-niibing omaa. It is a good summer here. The Manoomin bi-dagoshid. Our rice is arriving here. Let us work to protect it, and let us be thankful for the good seed the Creator gave to the Anishinaabeg. Stay informed.

For more information contact the White Earth Land Recovery Program at 1 (888) 779-3577, www.welrp.com, or the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission at 1(715) 682-8414.

Winona LaDuke, an Ojibwe from the White Earth reservation, is program director of Honor the Earth, a national Native American environmental justice program. She served as the Green Party vice presidential candidate in the 1996 and 2000 elections. She can be reached at her email address: wlhonorearth@earthlink.net

Brian Carlson, a former intern in the White Earth Land Recovery project, is now a regional community organizer for Clean Water Action in Boston, Mass.