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Wild rice - sacred manomin

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Wild rice, or manomin, is a sacred staple for many Ojibwe people. Bois
Forte band members said wild rice was their potato growing up. It was
readily available, and every family obtained a sizable quantity to last
most of the year.

Wild rice production has decreased on Nett Lake. Wild Rice is not actually
a rice, it is a legume, but called a rice because it grows in lakes.

For the Bois Forte people wild rice is also a commercial commodity.
Families benefited financially by selling the finished product to
supplement the family income. The spiritual connection to the wild rice
goes back centuries and Nett Lake, which was one of the most prolific wild
rice producing lakes in Minnesota, maintains a spiritual attachment to the
people.

But competition in the wild rice market has led to an economic downturn for
the people of Nett Lake. Cultivated wild rice grown in paddies from
Minnesota to California have made a huge dent in the sale of more
expensive, but naturally processed, wild rice that comes from the lakes.

Some marketing of the paddy wild rice uses American Indian imagery, or
claims it is hand harvested, which confuses the public. Many years ago,
Minnesota passed laws controlling the marketing practices and statements to
protect the true native, lake grown and naturally-processed product.

"What the commercial growers have is not wild rice, it shouldn't be called
that," elders said. The difference is in color, paddy rice is black, lake
rice, brownish gray. Lake rice cooks up more easily and faster, paddy wild
rice may take double the time to soften. The taste is also different. Hand
harvested, parched and processed lake grown wild rice has a nuttier flavor
that carries its own through soups and other dishes, Bois Forte members
said.

Bois Forte wants to rejuvenate a failing commercial enterprise with the
wild rice that Nett Lake produces. This is another of the many plans for
economic development by the Bois Forte council and the Department of
Natural Resources.

Without help, said Chris Holmes, band biologist, Nett Lake will not have
wild rice in 20 years. Fast-growing bogs are taking over, choking out the
oxygen from fresh water streams, and covering the lake to where it will
eventually no longer be a lake.

Damming the lake in the 1920s was intended to regulate the water
fluctuation of the lake. Years ago the lake would produce wild rice maybe
one out of four years which was not conducive to a good economic crop. It
did provide families with wild rice.

When the federal government opened the reservation to loggers, the trees
that surrounded the lake and contributed to a healthy biosphere were cut.
Those trees were turned into paper and other products. What was left were
trees that beavers liked. So the beaver cut the trees, made dams and the
fresh water to the lake was slowed down, said Corey Strong, director of the
Department of Natural Resources.

The beaver dams were blown up from time to time, but the decay of the lake
continued. The wild rice of the best-producing lake in the state was in
jeopardy.

A new dam was built to regulate the water, but still the bogs encroached
and many families who previously would take it upon themselves to clear the
creeks and rivers flowing into the lake slowly quit, Strong said.

Production of wild rice was dropping. The top year of production in the
past few years has been 65,000 pounds of wild rice, with a much lower
production for families that ranged from 14,000 to 25,000 pounds. The
potential, Holmes said could be for more than one million pounds of wild
rice. That would make a sizeable commercial product.

More drastic measures were needed to save the sacred manomin.

It took 10 years of planning and the ideas had to be sold to elders and the
council, Strong said. Nett Lake is void of any motorized boat or vehicle,
which presented a major stumbling block. The bogs had to be destroyed and
the only cutters available used motors and thus fuel spills could threaten
the lake.

Strong said the elders were against this process because of the gasoline
and oil. But with new technology that created a vegetable oil-based
hydraulic oil and new methods of cleanup for potential diesel spills the
elders and the tribal council got behind the project.

Now Nett Lake has three motorized vehicles in use; the bog cutter, a
harvester that picks up the floating gunk and deposits the bog residue on
the lake's banks and an air boat to transport workers to the cutter and
harvester that is also used by officials to inspect the progress of wild
rice regeneration.

Revenues from Fortune Bay Resort and Casino paid for a cutter and
harvester. For the past two years the bogs were cut, some stream inlets
opened, up and with the flow of fresh oxygenated water to the lake the rice
beds are now growing.

Wild rice seed can lay dormant for up to six years before decaying in the
lake bottom. When the right mixture of oxygen, sunlight and temperature are
achieved the seed will germinate. That is happening on Nett Lake today.

Hand harvested and processed wild rice requires hard work. Canoes are
polled by one person through the wild rice beds while another person uses
knockers, or hefty sticks to bend the grassy plant over the canoe and with
the other stick knock the rice into the boat. In rhythmic fashion from one
side to another a canoe can be filled, depending on the year with some 200
pounds of wild rice in a few hours.

The rice is then taken to shore where a large cast iron pot is set over an
open fire and the rice is then stirred in the pot where it is parched;
stirred with a wooden paddle by hand. The rice is then placed in a birch
bark or other type pan and tossed in the wind so the shucks blow from the
seed. Harvested wild rice can be stored for many years.

Care is taken during the harvesting to make sure that enough seed is
returned to the lake so it will continue to grow.

The Bois Forte Band of Chippewa at one time had a thriving commercial wild
rice operation. It is still in operation, but produces very little income
for the band members. The market is small and the wild rice is mostly sold
in the band's gift shops and in some area food markets.

Processing the wild rice on a larger scale for economic development when
the lake is restored and the wild rice regenerates is a goal for the
Department of Natural Resources and the community. This will provide a
stable income for a few employees.

The people of Minnesota and Wisconsin know the value of lake grown and hand
harvested wild rice. But the message isn't out to the rest of the country.
Marketing of a higher-priced product will present certain pitfalls for the
Bois Forte, but they are hoping the quality of the product will be a
selling point.