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Ojibwe wild rice harvesting may be a dying tradition

MCGREGOR, Minn. - Wild rice harvesting in north-central Minnesota produced an all-time low yield, according to three traditional manoomin chiefs from the Rice Lake branch of the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe.

Appearing before a panel of congressional aides in a public listening session on the Rice Lake National Wildlife Refuge system near the Mississippi River, Dale Greene Sr., a ceremonial drum chief, called upon the government to create a one-mile buffer zone around every Minnesota wild rice lake to protect them.

''I've been around this lake since I was born [and] the decline is steady,'' he reported, elaborating with a brief lesson on the water ecosystem needed to sustain wild rice plants.

''Muskrats and beavers are the greatest engineers in the world - we must replant muskrats as they clean the lake out,'' he continued.

''Wild rice rivers have a hard bottom and have shallow water - that's why it's a shorter grain,'' he explained.

''Out here,'' he stated, turning his head and nodding behind him to Rice Lake, ''there's more sediment and nutrients bringing in more natural nutrients from the springs.''

''It's in everybody's best interest to have a healthy rice system,'' said John Halber, aide to U.S. Sen. Norm Coleman, R-Minn., ''and to operate dams in such a way to help natural seasonal fluctuation.''

Wild rice, or manoomin, once comprised about 25 percent of the Ojibwe diet; therefore, most negotiations with the United States for reservation lands prioritized wild rice marsh and lake areas historically favored by the bands. Rice Lake was one of the best. Years ago, Ojibwe Indians nearly circled this prized watershed with their wigwams and small cabins. But the lake was also cherished by environmentalists, who viewed it as a natural habitat for migrating fowl.

In 1934, the Rice Lake Ojibwe were ordered to move and their little school was torn down. The wildlife refuge was then established by executive order the following year, providing a protected habitat to hundreds of bird species, 64 mammal and fish species, and other reptiles. The environmentalists were elated.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture would later step in, during hard times, with rations to the dislocated Ojibwe families to compensate them for wild rice loss.

The Rice Lake plants were once thick and tall. Greene reported that in the old days, there were hundreds of ricing boats on the lake and it was difficult to see any of the Indian men who propelled their crafts by standing upright with long pushing poles.

''Now, there's only a few boats and the lake is drying up,'' he added.

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Darrell Shingobe, a younger harvester, reported that he and several friends earlier that week had brought in 130 pounds of green rice in two days on the lake.

''Three or four years ago, we're doing that in a half-day,'' he said as he described the growing concern.

''There's a serious problem with global warming and droughts have devastated our lake,'' said Mushkoub, who listed only three times in the past 50 years that the harvest was bad because of drought.

''In the old days, we brought in 18,000 pounds of [finished] rice and today, only a few thousand,'' he warned the committee.

''It's a dying tradition,'' he concluded, as he reminded the congressional aides of the 300-year residency of his Ojibwe relatives at Rice Lake.

Niibagahbow, his brother, briefed the committee with a reminder of local history, saying, ''President Clinton issued Executive Order 1007 and allowed us to return to our historic homeland to perform ceremonies in our historic refuge.''

''Our ceremonies are here, our ricing, our cemetery - we call upon you not to forget us,'' he said.

''A lot of promises were broken here to the Rice Lake band and we'd like the government to treat us ... a new beginning to work with us,'' he added.

Greene repeated the theme that the wildlife refuge was once ''our homeland.''

''They [government] guaranteed access to the refuge for our gathering rights, our medicines, our birch bark with the special use permit,'' he continued.

''We don't require you to get a permit to go to a drugstore,'' he said, as a dozen Ojibwe in the room chuckled.

Halber responded for the committee, ''We all do recognize the significance of the relationship you have with the wildlife refuge and Senator Coleman recognizes the partnership as a mutually beneficial relationship for this part of the state.''