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Sierra Magazine
Food For Thought: Wild Rice Moon

Harvesting North America's only native grain

By Winona La Duke

The crispness of early fall touches my face as we paddle through the rice on Blackbird Lake. Four eagles fly overhead, and a flock of geese moves gracefully across the sky. I can see officers of the law ensconced in their work.

They are ricing. Eugene Clark (aka Beebzo), deputy sheriff of Becker County, Minnesota, and Mahnomen County Sheriff John MacArthur are both Anishinaabeg (Ojibwe), and today they are continuing their people's generations-old harvesting tradition, as they have since they were teenagers. "We're out here to eat, not to make money," says Beebzo. Today, they bring in a couple hundred pounds for their families, and take it to be finished at the Native Harvest mill, where Ronnie Chilton is working. Ronnie has also riced his whole life, "most of the time with my dad." He wishes he was on a lake, he says, right now.

It is the wild rice moon in the north country, an important traditional and economic event for Native people in northern Minnesota. Anishinaabeg legend tells how Nanaboozhoo, our culture hero, was introduced to rice:

"One evening Nanaboozhoo returned from hunting, but he had no game. As he came toward his fire, there was a duck sitting on the edge of his kettle of boiling water. After the duck flew away, Nanaboozhoo looked into the kettle and found wild rice floating upon the water, but he did not know what it was. He ate his supper from the kettle, and it was the best soup he had ever tasted. Later, he followed in the direction that the duck had taken, and came to a lake full of manoomin, wild rice. After that, when Nanaboozhoo did not kill a deer, he knew where to find food to eat."

The grain is not always so easy to find, and with many Native people depending on the money a good harvest can bring, the reasons are hotly debated. "It used to be you would get lost in the rice on Big Rice Lake," says Russell Warren, who has processed wild rice for 20 years. "They used to have to put flags up at the landings, so you could find your way back." He blames fertilizer and runoff from nearby farms for the decline.

Another culprit is water levels. Traditional leader Dale Greene says that production at Big Rice Lake has declined since 1934 when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service dammed the lake's outlet to increase the number of waterfowl. "There's so much sediment, the seeds never get to the bottom to germinate," he explains. "There used to be 300 to 500 boats out here. Now, maybe 40 in a good year." Water levels are also affected by the proliferation of beaver. A decline in trapping and the absence of wolves mean that beavers, with all their ambition, rule the north woods.

Another problem is the industrialization of wild rice production. In 1977, the Minnesota state legislature designated wild rice as the official state grain, and the University of Minnesota began to aggressively develop a domesticated version. By the early 1980s, cultivated "wild" rice outstripped the indigenous harvest. By 1986, more than 95 percent of the wild rice harvested was grown not in natural lakes but diked paddies, most of them in northern California. When the resulting glut hit the market, the price plummeted, devastating the Native wild rice economy.

At risk is the incredible diversity of wild rice. The differences in wild rice beds are well known to local harvesters: Some plants grow tall and live in deep water, others have adapted to shallow; some strains have fat grains, others long. Even those interested only in monocultural cultivated rice, says University of Minnesota agronomist Ervin Oelke, should be concerned with preserving wild varieties. "We're now in the process of domesticating the species. It's important we have all the genetics that are available to us to [further] develop this crop."

Industrialized wild rice is all most consumers ever see, and that's a pity. The rice for Uncle Ben's, Pillsbury, Stouffer's, and General Mills is processed and scarified so that it will cook at the same rate as white rice. Ours is shiny, dark green, brown, and tan; it tastes like a lake, and that taste cannot be replicated.


Winona LaDuke, a frequent contributor to Sierra, is the vice presidential candidate for the Green Party. For information on native-harvest wild rice, contact Indian Harvest, (800) 294-2433, www.indianharvest.com, or Native Harvest, (888) 779-3577, www.nativeharvest.com.

(C) 2000 Sierra Club. Reproduction of this article is not permitted without permission. Contact sierra.magazine@sierraclub.org for more information.


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