By GIOVANNA DEL’ORTO – Associated Press
ON LEACH LAKE, Minn. (AP) — Sitting low in her canoe gliding across a rice bed on this vast lake, Kendra Haugen used one wooden stick to bend the stalks and another to knock down the rice so the stalks immediately jumped up. .
On a mid-September morning, no breeze ruffled the eagle feather her grandmother had given her, which Haugen wore on her baseball cap as she tried her hand at harvesting wild rice, a sacred process for her Ojibwe people.
“Many reservations have a hard time maintaining rice paddies, so it’s important to keep them as intact as possible. … It renews our rice paddies for the future,” said the 23-year-old college student.
Wild rice, or manumin (good seed) in Ojibwe, is sacred to indigenous peoples in the Great Lakes region because it is part of their creation story—and because for centuries it has prevented starvation during harsh winters.
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“In our origin story, we were told to go where food grows on water,” said Elaine Fleming, an elder of the Leach Lake Band of Ojibwe, whose manumina class at Leach Lake Tribal College was harvesting last week. “This is our holy food.”
But climate change, invasive species and pollution threaten the plant, even as its cultivated sibling is gaining popularity across the country as a uniquely nutritious food. although often priced beyond the reach of urban indigenous communities.
These threats make it very important to teach young band members to harvest wild rice while respecting both the rituals and the environment. This will help wild rice remain available as an important element for ceremonies, as well as a much-needed revenue generator for the Leech Lake Reservation, where nearly 40% of indigenous people live in poverty.
Basic instructions for beginners reflect this dual reality—respect the rice without breaking the stalks, and if you lose your balance, jump out to avoid overturning the canoe with its precious cargo.
Fleming handed out tobacco from a ziplock bag to everyone. Before scattering it over the calm water and setting off, the young people gathered around another elder who prayed in Ojibwe to introduce the group to the natural elements around them, explain why they needed their help, ask for safe passage through the water and say thanks.
“Every time you take something from the earth, you want to thank the earth for what it gave us,” said Kelsey Burns, a student and pioneer.
This reciprocity between people and nature is very important to Ojibwe spirituality. In their stories, the Creator, before bringing the Anishinaabe, the first indigenous people, to earth, gathered all the animals to ask what they could do to help.
“The plants listened and connected and said, ‘We have gifts, too, so the Anishinaabe can have a good life,'” Fleming explained. “Rice said, ‘We’re going to feed the Anishinaabe.’
In two hours on the water, a pair of polers, who stood manning 20-foot poles, and beaters who shoveled rice into canoes until it formed a thick green-brown carpet, harvested about 35 pounds. Experienced rice growers can harvest a quarter of a ton in a day.
This year, they can get $6 a pound of rice, a high price because the two-week harvest is particularly scarce, Ryan White said. A 44-year-old single father, he brings along his two boys and nephew to help pay the bills and buy video games for the kids.
“This is where you learn the essence of hard work,” he said as he threshed rice on a recent afternoon, taping the hems of his pants and shoes so that not a single grain was wasted.
“Cleaning the boat is very good,” White explained later as he bagged the rice. “Because of the stories we’ve heard of the old days when… even a handful meant a meal or two for the kids and at the end of winter it could really save your family.”
“This manumin is our brother who has saved us as a people in many ways,” said Dave Bismarck, who was loading about 200 pounds of freshly harvested rice in a nearby paddock. “Rising for me is truly spiritual. There are many who have already gone home, and when I draw, the more I work … the closer I am to them.”
But the beds are “continually shrinking,” said White, who has been drawing for three decades. And this endangers the spiritual and economic gifts of wild rice.
While some natural cycles are normal, bad years for wild rice are becoming more common, said Ann Geisen, lake wildlife specialist with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR).
“It seems to be related to climate change,” she added. “Bigger storms, when they’re uprooted and destroyed, we seem to have more of those. A big rebound (water level) in the spring can wipe out an entire lake.”
A warming climate can also harm the plant, whose seeds must be at freezing level on the shallow lake bed for months to germinate well, and bring destructive invasive species and fungi to Minnesota, Wisconsin and parts of Canada, the only natural habitats of wild rice.
“It’s going to completely wipe out natural stands,” said Jenny Kimball, a professor of agronomy and plant genetics at the University of Minnesota. She works to both conserve and develop more resilient breeds of wild rice, an industry she estimates adds about $58 million to the state’s economy and has been significantly ahead of natural production for decades.
However, most Ojibwe bands want to preserve natural stands several recently filed water pollution lawsuits — including one dismissed this year in White Earth Tribal Court who named manumin as the main plaintiff in the new approach to “natural rights”.
The lawsuit accused the state of failing to protect water where wild rice grows by allowing billions of gallons of groundwater to be pumped from the pipeline project.
In July, two other northern Minnesota tribes sued the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for allowing them to make changes to water quality standards that the tribes say will increase pollution and harm wild rice.
Leech Lake students and faculty discussed industrial pollution and controversial pipelines as they gathered outside the college to celebrate their first harvest day.
Before cooking the rice, they had to roast it by stirring it in a giant iron kettle for over an hour; roll the husk, dancing over it as it lay in a skinned hole in the ground; and finally they blow it into birch baskets.
“We understand our responsibility as a nation to this land. We have to think seven generations into the future,” said Fleming.
Student Burns was thinking about her 5-year-old son.
“I like to learn as much as I can about our culture,” she said. “I didn’t learn much when I was young, so I felt like I was missing a part of me. I want to continue to teach everything I am learning.”
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