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Manoomin Project teaches at-risk youth respect, culture

MARQUETTE, Mich. - American Indians have long known the medicinal and spiritual benefits of manoomin; but along the shores of Lake Superior in northern Michigan, a wild rice restoration project is teaching non-Native teenagers respect for American Indian culture and the environment.

''This is about respect for nature,'' the Rev. Jon Magnuson said to a rambunctious group of teenagers.

On the first of a three-day outing in July 2006, the teens were embarking on a several-mile hike into the remote Northwoods of Michigan's Upper Peninsula to study the previous year's wild rice crop.

It wasn't long before those teens topped a hill and surprised two bear cubs that scrambled up a tree about 50 yards away.

''Look - there are two bears,'' said a teenage boy motioning to others to run toward the cubs.

Their guide, Don Chosa, Keweenaw Bay Indian Community, knew that meant a protective mother wasn't far away.

''Remember what I said about respect,'' Chosa said - and the curious teens stopped in their tracks.

Chosa instructed the youth to give the cubs a wide berth.

The Manoomin Project teaches at-risk teens - sentenced in juvenile court for minor crimes - respect for themselves, Native heritage and nature. The teens study and plant wild rice, and learn how the grain is used in ceremonies.

Since 2004, about 130 teens and dozens of adult volunteers have planted more than a ton of wild rice seed in U.P. waters, where it once thrived but disappeared a century ago due to logging and other human activities.

The project is sponsored by the Cedar Tree Institute, the Superior Watershed Partnership and the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community.

KBIC President and CEO Susan LaFernier said, ''The Manoomin Project is a wonderful way for this gift to continue for our generations to come.''

''Wild rice is important to our lakes and streams and provides food for our waterfowl,'' LaFernier said. ''Public support is essential to ensure that we will once again have an abundance of wild rice.''

Magnuson said, ''The unique dimension of this project is to bring together at-risk youth, and engage them in a restoration of a natural world.

''There is much more going on than monitoring sites, taking water samples and planting rice. There's a healing going on with both the earth and the human spirit,'' continued Magnuson, a Lutheran pastor and Manoomin Project founder who is also executive director of the Cedar Tree Institute.

''Make sure you broadcast the seed - spread it out,'' said volunteer Tom Reed to teen Danny Carello during the Nov. 3 planting along several miles of the Dead River near Marquette.

''We want to give thanks to nature for allowing us to plant the rice,'' said Reed of Marquette, who has a bachelor's degree in social work.

''Megwiich,'' said Carello, 13, saying ''thank you'' to nature in Ojibwa as he carefully tossed wild rice seeds into a pond.

The 2007 planting was delayed six weeks because the project was unable to get seeds due to the severe drought that impacted the Midwest wild rice crop. Low water levels in Wisconsin forced the project to get seeds from Minnesota.

''It's an honor to know that you are participating in the first time wild rice has been introduced into this area,'' guide Dave Anthony told the youths after they sprinkled tobacco into the roaring rapids of the Dead River in a ceremony giving thanks for accepting and nurturing the seeds.

''This past year, wild rice across the nation kind of suffered and that worries me,'' said Anthony, Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians and a Northern Michigan University student. ''Wild rice harvesting is going down - so what you are doing becomes even more important.''

Initially, not all the teens were happy about participating, but they found out the project was fun.

''Some of the teens were angry just to be there because it was something they had to do,'' said Chosa, a KBIC member who recently moved back to the International Falls, Minn., area where he also belongs to the Bois Forte Band of Chippewa.

''But as soon as we started and the teens started learning - they started to enjoy it,'' said Chosa, a former adjunct professor of Native American Studies at Northern Michigan University. ''Those same teens contacted me the next year and wanted to participate a second time.''

Fifteen-year-old Brooke Soeltner of Negaunee said she started sobbing when told her probation involved planting wild rice, but it turned out to be one of the most rewarding experiences of her life.

''I started to cry because I had to do it,'' recalled the Negaunee High School sophomore, who quickly learned to enjoy the experience.

''We learned how to say 'hello' in Ojibwa and that manoomin means 'wild rice' - it was very fun,'' Soeltner said. ''I thought it was pretty cool that we got to learn about how the American Indians use wild rice and how important it is to them.''

Marquette County Juvenile Court gets adjudicated teens involved in the wild rice and other nature projects instead of mindless work.

''At first it's new and strange to the teens, but when they finally realize it's OK to actually learn about wild rice, they thinks it's pretty cool stuff,'' said Marquette County Juvenile Court probation officer Bill Mankee. ''We learned more about American Indian culture and the four colors of direction - red, white, black and yellow.''

Marquette County Juvenile Court child care counselor Jim Rule said it's important that ''the teens are giving something back to the community and nature.''

''I think it's a positive thing for the youth and for the Dead River after it was devastated by the [May 2004] flood,'' said Rule, who works at the Marquette County Youth Home.

Reed, who helps manage the planting, said the manoomin restoration faces many challenges because it's on the edge of the natural range of wild rice and is a favorite food of many creatures ... but even that's part of nature.