Akiing: Where the Wild Rice Grows

It is Manoominike Giizis, the Wild Rice Making Moon.  For thousands of years, Native people have gone to these lakes, listened to the sounds of geese, cranes, and swans as they fly overhead.  This is a wild rice ecosystem.  We take to the lakes with tobacco in hand, canoes, poles and sticks, the same way as our ancestors have for a thousand years.   Manoomin, or wild rice, feeds both the bodies and spirits.

Indigenous people are 4% of the world’s population, but protect 80% of the world’s biodiversity. Wild rice is this biodiversity.  The Great Lakes, Anishinaabe Akiing, is the only place in the world where wild rice grows. Here the Anishinaabe continue a resistance to mega projects which has spanned decades, all to protect manoomin, which is our way of life.

There is magic to this food.  Minwenzha, long ago, the Anishinaabe were instructed by prophets to travel from our Great Water homeland of the east to the Place where the Food Grows upon the Water.  That is manoomin, or wild rice.

It is late August in the North Country, the wild rice is ripening on lakes; the colors have changed from green towards brown, the kernels fill out in the rice heads, from milky to solid.  You can smell the rice. 

It is late August in the North Country, the wild rice is ripening on lakes; the colors have changed from green towards brown, the kernels fill out in the rice heads, from milky to solid.  You can smell the rice.  The cars and trucks begin to move towards the lakes, canoes tied up top. Scouts are sent by families to see which lakes have ripe rice, and the season begins. It’s a joyous time in the North Country.

Over the centuries, the technology has changed, it’s still a thousand years of a “sustainable economy”. Take care of your manoomin and it will care for you. The trade economy of wild rice grew, and greed of white traders came as well. As parching equipment changed to accommodate larger volumes, the wild rice economy moved from the rice camps of the Anishinaabe to the non Native economy. Enter Gibbs Wild Rice, Gourmet House, Uncle Ben’s, and Anheuser Busch.

By the 1950s, the non Native parchers had begun to control more of the Anishinaabe economy, and now sought to control the price of wild rice at lakeside. At the same time, the University of Minnesota adapted the wild varieties into a field crop;  and created the paddy industry, which quickly moved to northern California,  far from the Anishinaabe and the lakes to which the manoomin belongs.  Today, 75% of what’s called wild rice, is actually grown in diked rice paddies in northern California.  The Anishinaabe call that “tame rice”, noting that rice tastes like a paddy, not a lake.

Indeed, manoomin is a super food: the grain has half the calories and twice the protein of white rice, high in nutritional value. It’s also got what University of Minnesota researchers would call an astonishing effect on diminishing cholesterol, indeed a magical grain.

The Resistance

The rematriation of manoomin began in the 1980s, as Anishinaabe began to resist the  paddy wild rice industry, and the appropriation of Native wealth. Wabizi v. Anheuser Busch was a lawsuit by two wild ricers from White Earth, Mike Swan and Frank Bibeau . They sued Anheuser Busch for selling some California grown paddy rice as manoomin. Wabizi set in place the first regulations on market misrepresentation of wild rice.  In Minnesota, paddy-grown wild rice must be labeled. “Sadly 75% of the wild rice grown in California has a loophole. They don’t have to label.”, Frank Bibeau explains.  Over the years, the older parchers have passed on, and those mills, have been slowly purchased up by the Anishinaabe, and more mills  have been made. Today, well over half of the commercially available lake wild rice is parched by Native people. The White Earth tribe not only sells manoomin, but also provides wild rice under contract to the USDA for commodity foods programs.

“The genetic variants of wild rice found naturally occurring on the waters in the territories ceded by the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe to the State of Minnesota are a unique treasure that has been carefully protected by the people of our tribe for centuries… We were not promised just any wild rice, that promise could be kept by delivering sacks of grain to our members each year. We were promised the rice that grew in the waters of our people, and all the value that rice holds… a sacred and significant place in our culture.”—Norm Deschamps, former Chairman of the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe

In 2000, a new threat to the wild rice emerged—genetic engineering. The University of Minnesota had planned to develop genetically engineered wild rice varieties to introduce into diked production paddies, serving those same non Native businessmen, who had the paddies.   The resulting battle between the Anishinaabe and the University of Minnesota was brutal—in the end, it was won by the Anishinaabe. There is no genetically engineered wild rice today, and in 2003, the Anishinaabe won the International Slow Food Award for Biodiversity for their legislative and regulatory win. Hard fought battles, the rice and the Anishinaabe prevailed.

harvesting wild rice 70476333_2466645420050048_2311227124381384704_n.jpg

Wiindigo Economics—Enbridge , Polymet, and GTAC

Before there was Lake Superior, there were giant copper deposits along the Great Lake.  Those copper deposits provided a historic wealth to the Anishinaabe for tools and adornment. Amongst them are some of the sacred sites of the Anishinaabe, including the famous Ontonagan Boulder.  Much of that copper was hauled off to make Kennecott and Anaconda Copper, leaving craters and holes in the North Country.  By 1900, a hundred copper companies were born from the wealth of  Superior.

Mining companies have returned each generation, but the ore bodies a mere pittance of those of old, requiring more energy to extract. Copper mining proposals in the coveted Boundary Waters today, for instance seek to extract ore at less than l% of total deposit, leaving 99% of the mining as wastes.   Worldwide resistance to extreme mining projects has grown.

The Nest

The Kakagan Sloughs are known as the Wisconsin Everglades—12,000 acres of wild rice, in a pristine watershed which flows into Lake Superior.  It’s worth fighting for, and it’s been well noted by the extraction industry.  In 2003, the World Mining Journal deemed Wisconsin the most difficult place in the world to site a mine. Little has changed.

The Bad River Ojibwe reservation spans the Sloughs, and has been the epicenter for two mining battles and one pipeline battle over the past three decades; more than the average set of challenges for any small nation.  A pitched battle against the White Pine Mine pitted the Bad River Band against a Canadian mining corporation which wished to run sulfuric acid on a rail line across the reservation. Anishinaabe Ogichidaa Walter Bresette and Butch Stone, along with others stopped the trains. The mine was finally defeated. Not content to leave the Bad River Anishinaabe in peace, GTAC (Gogebic mining), a Koch Brothers-sponsored taconite mining project, threatened the sloughs for another decade. That battle ended in 2018 and the Anishinaabe won again. Little has changed, by 2019, the Bad River Band has remained vigilant.

Oil and Water

Enter Enbridge, the latest Wiindigo of the north.  For over 60 years,  Enbridge, formerly Lakeland Pipeline Company, has had a mainline of pipelines, entering Minnesota in the northwest and ending in Superior, Wisconsin. At Superior, the Enbridge Mainline splits half of it going to the south towards Madison, Wisconsin, and subsequently Kalamazoo, Michigan. The second pipeline  (Line 5) goes from Superior to the Straits of Mackinac, crossing the Bad River Reservation.

In 2013, one of two easements for the 12-mile pipeline corridor through the Bad River Band’s reservation expired. The tribal council voted not to renew the expired easement in 2017 and  after two years of negotiations, filed suit to demand Enbridge remove the trespassing line.

harvesting wild rice

Joe Dan Rose, Don Corbine (way in the back), Gene Linnahan, Jimmy Lagrew (middle with blue jacket and beret), Eddie Benton, Walter Bresette, Butch Stone, Sandy Lyons

“Enough is enough,” Tribal Chairman Mike Wiggins said. “Our waterways are the lifeblood of the tribe. They represent our ancestors and our past and they represent all of our hopes and dreams for the future. We are done playing games in dealing with this perpetual dance with danger.” The region is at risk for more extreme weather and flooding as the planet warms.

Indeed, huge storms have laid bare large segments of the pipeline on the Bad River reservation, and the Bad River, is a force unto itself, the river, not surprisingly, meanders wherever it wants. That’s dangerous for pipelines.

Take the Yellowstone River in Montana, where exposed pipelines ruptured, leaking a total of about 93,000 gallons of oil. Citing seven similar ruptures across the country in the past three years, the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, the federal regulator responsible for the safe operation of the country’s energy pipelines, issued an advisory to pipeline owners earlier this year urging them to take enact various safeguards. It’s not clear if those have been followed by Enbridge.

On July 23, the Bad River Anishinaabe filed suit against Enbridge, seeking removal of the Line 5 pipeline. Most of the easements expired in 2013: the tribe says Enbridge is trespassing, and wants the pipes out.

The complaint, filed in Federal Court, explains

“Fifteen of the easements expired on June 2, 2013, as their renewal was expressly “limited as to tenure for a period not to exceed 20 (Twenty) years … ending on June 2, 2013[.]” In those same easements, Enbridge expressly promised that the company would “remove all materials, equipment and associated installations within six months of termination, and … restore the land to its prior condition….Rather than doing so, or seeking the Band’s consent to a renewal of the easements prior to their expiration, Enbridge has continued to operate the pipeline as if it has an indefinite entitlement to do so. This constitutes an unlawful possession of the subject lands, and an intentional, ongoing trespass upon them.”

“No amount of compensation is worth risking Wenji-Bimaadiziyaang—an Ojibwe word that literally means ‘From where we get life’. It’s time to end the imminent threat the company is presenting to our people, our rivers, and Gichi-Gami (Lake Superior),” Chairman Mike Wiggins said.

While the Bad River Band filed suit in July, demanding Enbridge remove the pipeline, Enbridge countersued in late September, citing an agreement which would allow Enbridge to keep pumping oil till 2043.  The company, facing litigation in Michigan and Minnesota, is “taking off the gloves” ,facing worsening public confidence and more legal challenges.

The Band’s suit could force the shutdown of the entire pipeline, but the tribe’s sovereign immunity limits any recovery of damages by Enbridge to $800,000, and “that amount would be wholly insufficient to remedy the substantial harm that Enbridge Energy would suffer if it were required to remove Line 5 from the Reservation and reroute it,” Enbridge attorneys state. The Kakagan Sloughs wild rice harvest was lower this year, largely due to torrential rains.

Ronnie Chilton

The Magic of Parching

Wild rice parching today illustrates an amazing set of local engineering skills.  In the 1950s, parchers were fashioned from 55-gallon drums and rotated over a fire. “Thrashers” replaced jigging, adding mechanization, but losing the “new moccasins” dance to remove hulls.  Walking inside the Wild Rice Parching Mills of White Earth for the past 40 years, I’ve seen a lot of different equipment; a lot like that Johnny Cash Song, “One Piece at a Time”, ancient, and adapted equipment. The equipment is specialized, locally engineered, adjusted for rice varieties and size. There’s nuance in biodiversity. That’s to say, the Shell Lake manoomin is different than that harvested from Lower Rice Lake; the Mother Lode of wild rice in this territory. River rice is different too. There is magic in parching, and those who parch are few in number.  These are artisan processers.

Ronnie Chilton of White Earth has been around wild rice processing since he was little; and he’s 60 now.  This year, he’s training four young  Ojibwe men  in the art of parching; it’s a complex process from parching over the fire, to cooling, thrashing, fanning, and the gravity and indent machines.  An artisan parcher is able to adapt the batch according to the wild rice.  Wild rice is diverse—some from lakes , other patches on rivers; some large and some small. Some rice parches out at 50%, some lower, or much lower. Mitchell Dam, in the middle of the Tamarac Wildlife Refuge, parched out at 42% the first week of September, Rich DeWandler, another processer  tells me. That’s a lot of community pride and a unique food.

Recognizing the value of this sacred food, in 2018, the White Earth Ojibwe passed the Rights of Wild Rice as a part of tribal regulatory authority, recognizing the significance of this plant to a people and this world.   “Manoomin, or wild rice, within all the Chippewa ceded territories, possesses inherent rights to exist, flourish, regenerate, and evolve, as well as inherent rights to restoration, recovery and preservation.”

The Rights of Manoomin include: “… the right to clean water and freshwater habitat, the right to a natural environment free from industrial pollution, the right to a healthy, stable climate free from human-caused climate change impacts, the right to be free from patenting, the right to be free from contamination by genetically engineered organisms…”

The Rights of Manoomin are modeled after the Rights of Nature, recognized in courts and adopted internationally for the last decade. Indeed, one can argue that the Endangered Species Act, adopted under the Nixon Administration has this intent, asserting that beings have the right to not be made extinct.    In 2008, Ecuador and Bolivia both added Rights of Nature clauses to their constitutions. The Yurok Tribe adopted the Rights of the Klamath River this past September, and nationally and internationally legal institutions are changing to recognize these rights.

It's ten thousand years of manoominikewag, the making of wild rice on the lakes of the Anishinaabe. Despite the mismanagement of state agencies, the greed of Uncle Bens and Gourmet House, the threat of academic contamination of wild rice, the mining companies and the pipeline projects of a fossil fuel and extreme extraction economy, the manoomin remains.  It’s Manoominike Giizis, Taking to canoe and listening to the geese, cranes and rice hens, is an annual gift to the Anishinaabe who continue to protect the biodiversity and the place where the food grows upon the water.

If you would like to purchase wild rice, go here.

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