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The Long and Honorable Battle of the Ojibwe to Keep Their Wild Rice Wild

A story about the long battle of the Ojibwe to keep their wild rice wild.

In the din of a large auditorium packed with people, the wild ricers of the White Earth reservation look around nervously. They have gathered for the September’s annual wild rice lottery, which allocates ricing permits for some coveted lakes in the middle of the reservation that are part of the Tamarac National Wildlife Refuge. At least 150 ricers have dug their ricing permits and tribal ID cards out of their pockets, ready if called upon, but despite the tension in the room, they still show a great deal of humor. Older men stand with sons and grandsons, hoping to draw a good lake—Chippewa and Mitchell Dam are two of the best, in part because ricers don’t have to canoe a long ways to reach the rice paddy. Women stand with brothers and husbands, all hoping for a good drawing. They all watch as a small boy reaches his hand into a jar full of numbers and names. The raucous community center quickly goes quiet as the names he has drawn are read out—then there are bursts of laughter, sighs of disappointment and someone calls to a companion: “I’ll see you out there!”

This is the time each year when the community comes together to enjoy the beauty and bounty of their reservation, which has 47 lakes and 500 other bodies of water. They are here to grow manoomin, wild rice, and it promises to be a good year. “I’ve been ricing ever since I was bitty,” says Spud Fineday, who hopes to haul in enough rice to feed his family and cover some of his expenses for the fall and the bitter winter.

“I’ve been ricing for 40 years on and off,“ Bucky Goodman says. “We’ll start probably in a little more than a week. I’ll start on Mitchell Dam, and if it’s not good there I’ll probably go onto one of the state lakes. Usually I just keep the rice for myself, so I’m not out there to see how much money I can make.… I’m getting up there in age, so I don’t want to be out there for hours at a time."

It is during Manoominike Giizis, the wild rice–making moon of the Ojibwe—August and September—when the “food that grows on the water” comes home to the people. Manoomin is the only grain indigenous to North America and is one of the greatest gifts imaginable from the land and waters. Where there is wild rice there are Ojibwe or Anishinaabeg people, and where there are Anishinaabeg, there is wild rice. Indeed, it was a part of the Anishinaabeg migration story, prophecies through which the people were instructed to “go to the place where the food grows on the water.”

A millennium later, the Ojibwe stretch across the northern part of five states and the southern part of four Canadian provinces. With the exception of the far-western reservations, where there is rice there are Ojibwe.

Manoomin is a supreme food for nutrition—it has twice the protein and fiber of brown rice, it is the first solid food given to a baby (as mazaan, or broken rice) and it is one of the last foods served to elders as they pass into the Spirit world. Wild rice is gluten-free, and when served with blueberries, cranberries and a meat, provides some of the most amazing cuisine from the North American continent.

There is no way to quantify the value of this food to the Anishinaabeg people—it feeds the belly and the soul, and is a major source of wealth. For these reasons, the Ojibwe battles to keep its wild rice are far-ranging and have transitioned from battles with weapons and treaties to battles in courtrooms, regulatory hearings, the market place and corporate offices, as well as the halls of some universities.

Historic territorial battles over wild rice between the Anishinaabeg and their most-honored enemies, the Dakota or Bwaanag, are legendary throughout the North Country—from Sioux Lookout, Ontario, to the Brule River in Wisconsin and Long Island in Lake Superior. The Anishinaabeg inland navy dominated the region, and wild rice was an essential part of the stamina of those people—it was a reliable source of nourishment, and it kept well when parched, even over several years. The Anishinaabeg grew strong eating wild rice. This is in sharp contrast to many of the foods of other regions and, indeed, when contrasted against the European experiences with famine and starvation, the value of a diverse wild food cannot be understated.

The wild rice grows in rivers, creeks and shallow lakes. Some manoomin stands tall, some short, some looks like a bottle brush, other rice looks like a punk-rock hairdo. The diversity of the wild rice in location and appearance meant that there would always be manoomin—somewhere, everywhere.

With the coming of the Europeans, wild rice became a major source of trade and income for the Anishinaabeg. A fawn-skin of wild rice was worth about two beaver skins in 1820, so it became an essential source of cash for the Ojibwe for more than 100 years. It soon became a source of contention as well. At the turn of the 18th century, anthropologists descended on the Ojibwe and other Native peoples, measuring heads, collecting songs and stories, and digging up cemeteries. Several came to the White Earth reservation. Frances Densmore, an ethnomusicologist far ahead of her time collected songs and stories and, 100 years later, has left a legacy of writings still used by Anishinaabeg scholars and teachers in writing, schools and legal hearings. Dr. Albert Jenks, from the University of Minnesota and Ales Hrliska were far less positive in their practice and legacy. Hrliska was a physical anthropologist who specialized in measuring cranial capacity—which involved measuring heads and scratching skin to create eugenics-based data “proving” racial inferiority and was used to establish classification criteria. Much of his data was used to deprive the Anishinaabeg of land, although he did comment once that he thought the Anishinaabeg of White Earth were “pleasant.”

Jenks worked with Hrliska, but he focused on manoomin, noting, “The primitive Indians do not take production very seriously.… In the case of wild rice, they could gather more if they did not spend so much time feasting and dancing every day and night during the time they are here for the purpose of gathering.… ” Jenks considered wild rice a major impediment in the Ojibwe transition toward civilization, not understanding that the Anishinaabeg practice of feasting on, praying over and dancing for the rice is an essential part of the harvest, as it is to this day. “Wild rice…which had led to their advance thus far,” he wrote, “held them back from further progress, unless, indeed, they left it behind them, for with them it was incapable of extensive cultivation.”

And thus Jenks and the University of Minnesota found their mandate: They might not have been able to domesticate the Ojibwe, but they were determined to domesticate the wild rice. In 1968, with the help of scientists at the University of Minnesota, aggressive production of paddy wild rice production began in the North Country. That year it represented some 20 percent of the state’s harvest. The suggestion that the Ojibwe were not assimilating into the mainstream economy was reiterated. A report to the Minnesota legislature in 1969, authorized by the Legislative Commission on Minnesota Resources, disparaged the Anishinaabeg relationship to wild rice as a “September Santa Claus,” a “good berry Mardi Gras” and “the excuse and provision for a spending spree.”

By 1973, paddy rice production had increased the state’s yield from less than 1 million pounds to some 4 million pounds. That increase in production

Permits for growing rice are drawn in a lottery.

Permits for growing rice are drawn in a lottery.

and the subsequent interest shown by some of the large food conglomerates such as General Mills and General Foods, skewed consumers’ perceptions and altered the market for traditional wild rice. These margin-minding marketeers produced a long-grained, hard, black wild rice that is, to this day, presented to unknowing consumers as “real wild rice,” but is a far cry from the soft, brown and tan hues of rice harvested from a lake and parched over a fire.

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In 1977, the Minnesota legislature designated wild rice as the official state grain—a move that may well have been the kiss of death for the lake wild rice crop. Financed by an outpouring from the state coffers, the University of Minnesota began aggressively developing a domesticated version of wild rice, and by the early 1980s, production of cultivated wild rice had outstripped that of the indigenous varieties. Then the industry moved to California. By 1983, California’s crop, at 8.3 million pounds, easily surpassed Minnesota’s 5 million pounds. By 1986, more than 95 percent of the “wild” rice harvested was paddy grown, the vast majority produced in Northern California.

That was too much rice. When the glut of paddy-grown wild rice hit the market in 1986, prices plummeted, dampening the emerging domestic market and devastating the Native wild rice economy. Lakeside prices crashed. This had a huge impact on the Ojibwe who, having been forced into the cash economy, now found that they had to compete with a man sitting atop a massive combine in California. The Anishinaabeg fought back. First, with protests, then with lawsuits. In 1988, Wabizii v. Busch Agricultural Resources was filed in a Minnesota court essentially claiming misleading advertising. Busch (a subsidiary of the beer behemoth) marketed a product called Onamia Wild Rice. White Earth plaintiffs Mike Swan, Wabizii, and Frank Bibeau charged that this was a California-grown paddy product “disguised as a Minnesota lake rice.” They won their suit, and a labeling law was passed in Minnesota that required paddy-grown wild rice be labeled as such in letters no less than 50 percent the size of the words “wild rice.” The problem was a loophole—the law did not apply in California, so the vast majority of the crop available was still sold in the deceptive packaging.

A few years later, another battle ensued—this one over genetic engineering. Again the University of Minnesota was the protagonist, seeking options to genetically engineer wild rice, based on their success in “cracking the DNA sequence” of wild rice, or Zizania aquatica. This claim was opposed by the Anishinaabeg in the form of protests, heated meetings and legislative hearings. The debate raged for most of a decade, resulting finally in a new law in Minnesota prohibiting the introduction of any genetically engineered wild rice paddy stands without a full environmental impact assessment. Thus far, there is no genetically engineered wild rice, on supermarket shelves. Nor should there ever be, since the two phrases seem contradictory. Anything engineered is not wild.

A new set of threats has come to the Anishinaabeg and the wild rice. This time it is in the form of new mining proposals in the North Country, from Michigan’s Keweenaw Bay to the Boundary Waters of northern Minnesota. A new set of mining proposals revisit old projects of a century past, as the world minerals market scrapes the bottom of the ore deposits.

Instead of the battles fought 150 years ago with Gatling guns and bows and arrows, today the Ojibwe and their neighbors on the lakes face regulatory battles in a war provoked by a simple set of chemical realities—mining transforms aquatic ecosystems, and wild rice cannot grow in water with high levels of sulfates. New mines proposed in Minnesota include a Franconia Minerals mine and a PolyMet Mining mine, both of which will create sulfide contamination in the water. To the east, a similar challenge to the famed wild rice of the Kakagon Sloughs of Bad River is found in the Gogebic Taconite mine proposal, an iron mine in the Penokee Mountain Range of Wisconsin. In that state, mining proponents are seeking a rewrite of mining laws to allow for sulfide discharge into the pristine waters of the Bad River Watershed, Kakagon and ultimately Lake Superior. A Rio Tinto nickel and copper mine on the Yellow Dog Plains on the Kewaneeaw Peninsula in Michigan would also imperil wild rice beds.

Sulfide mining leads to the release of sulfuric acid. The mix of air, water and bacteria turns sulfur into sulfuric acid. This changes the pH of the water system and liberates heavy metals, including mercury, from the rock. That’s why wild rice and mines cannot coexist.

Minnesota mining proponents have spent more than $20 million on their projects, but thus far, money can’t buy them a clean bill of health. The Environmental Protection Agency has given a very negative rating on the PolyMet mine proposal.

Back on the White Earth reservation, a pick-up truck pulls up at the rice mill at Native Harvest on Round Lake. Eugene Davis and Tony Warren, tired, wet and happy, have brought 300 pounds of rice off South Chippewa Lake, where it is raining. “This is the only job we can make $50 an hour at up here,” says Davis, 20.

He didn’t mind the rain, either. “I like it when it rains out there. It’s nice. You can’t hear anything but the rain.”

That solitude is what brings the ricers back—along with the memories. When asked if it matters to him that five generations of his family have riced on South Chippewa Lake he smiles. “I like knowing that they was on the same lake. It makes me feel good.”

The sweet smell of rice parching wafts through the dusty air. The shifting, creaking machines are ancient, some handmade: a 1940s Red Clipper fanning mill, a handmade thrasher, a 1980s set of George Stinson parching drums (a regional celebrity), a 1950s vintage gravity table. Most new equipment is made for the big operations in California, not for here. The men fiddle with the machines, fine-tuning the gravity table. Then the rice pours out of the equipment, a gravity table, which sorts the rice into a stream of dark green, tan, and brown grains. This is the perfection of the small batch, and the simple joy of this life.

To the ricers of White Earth, the Ojibwe Wild Rice Moon—Manoominike Giizis—is the season of harvest, a ceremony, and a way of life. “I grew up ricing,” says Fineday. “You get to visit people you haven’t seen for a whole year, because just about everyone goes ricing.”

For another year, the traditions, the ecosystems and the wild rice moon live on. The battles will rage on, in the genetic labs, in the mining corporate headquarters and in court. The Anishinaabeg of White Earth, however, who have pulled their harvest tags, intend to rice.


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