Each year in autumn, the Anishinaabeg people take to the lakes of northern Minnesota to harvest wild rice, the only grain native to North America. They travel in pairs: one person to row and the other to gently knock the grains into the bed of the canoe with a long pole. This is how they’ve harvested wild rice for centuries. The grain is an integral part of the culture and economy of the Northwoods region, the wilderness that stretches from north-central Minnesota across the Great Lakes to Michigan.
For the past century, wild rice beds across the region have steadily diminished, forcing the state to conduct a comprehensive survey of waterways where wild rice grows to determine the threats to Minnesota’s state grain and how to protect it for future generations. There are several hazards: climate change; invasive species, including genetically modified wild rice cultivated in paddies; dams; and encroaching farmland. Yet the state’s focus has fallen on one culprit identified more than 70 years ago: sulfate. Although sulfate occurs naturally, mining, wastewater plants, and other industrial facilities discharge large amounts of the mineral into the waterways where wild rice stands thrive. The resulting decline in wild rice has pit Native American harvesters and environmentalists against big industry, with Minnesota’s pollution control agency stuck in the middle.
Even as far back as the 1930s, biologist John Moyle had established sulfate’s impact on wild rice. “No large stands of rice occur in water having sulfate content greater than 10 ppm (parts per million),” Moyle concluded after a decade of research. “And rice generally is absent from water with more than 50 ppm.”
Moyle’s work led the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) to adopt a standard of 10 mg of sulfate per liter of water in 1973, a standard that has rarely if ever been implemented in the last 40 years. The MPCA has given no one clear reason exactly why a standard that was on the books was never applied to industries applying for permits. Officials with the MPCA said it was a combination of things: They were focused on other water quality issues, like mercury and excess sediment; the data on wild rice was inadequate; and the regulations and statutes governing wild rice were a tangled mess. Native American groups claim the MPCA was coddling business and taking advantage of the muddled jurisdictions on land in and around reservations in order to let big industry do what they liked.
Unroasted wild rice, just after the harvest. Photo: Elizabeth Hoover
Regardless, only after a long decline that saw the number of licenses sold to rice harvesters fall from a peak of 16,000 in 1968 to less than 1,500 in 2006 did the state finally take decisive action to understand and protect wild rice. In 2008, Minnesota’s Department of Natural Resources (MDNR) surveyed wild rice beds and issued a report on the importance of wild rice, potential threats, and recommendation for the future.
“Nowhere has natural wild rice been more important, nor had a richer history, than in Minnesota,” the survey’s authors wrote. “No other native Minnesota plant approaches the level of cultural, ecological, and economic values embodied by this species.”
Following the survey, the MPCA was tasked with developing a new standard for sulfate levels in Minnesota’s wild rice water, based on a massive research effort initiated in 2011 to determine the exact mechanism whereby sulfate inhibits wild rice stands. Their preliminary analysis was released in March of this year, and the state legislature mandates a new standard be in place by January 2018.
The search for a new sulfate standard for Minnesota’s waterways puts wild rice in the middle of a discussion about how to reconcile Native fishing and hunting rights and the protection of northern Minnesota’s rivers, lakes, and forests with the economic needs of our modern society. The MPCA has met with criticism from Native tribes, environmental advocates, and also from mining and wastewater representatives. One side worries that the standards will only push the demise of wild rice back a few generations, while the other worries about the effect any new standard will have on the bottom line.
There is no easy answer, but with climate change already thinning out the hardwood forests of northern Minnesota and changing the biological makeup of the land, the decision on how to best protect wild rice may have wide-reaching and long-term effects.
Wild rice is a sacred grass
Wild rice is Anishinaabeg soul food. The Anishinaabeg, also known as the Chippewa or Ojibwe, use it as a staple like any other starch, as flour for breads, in soups with beans and meat, as stuffing for birds, and even chilled with cream for dessert. But it’s more than just an important food: wild rice is a sacred grass, the foretold grain, this tribe’s manna.
The Anishinaabeg didn’t always live around the Great Lakes region; they migrated here from the Atlantic coast centuries ago, after seven prophets came to them and urged the tribes to move west to avoid new peoples with new blood who would be arriving soon. According to legend, the prophets told them to stop when they found “food that grows on the water.” When they reached the lakes of Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Ontario, the Anishinaabeg found wild rice, which they call manoomin—the good berry—and they stayed.
The wild rice harvest formed the core Great Lakes life for generations, linking the many tribes together and lending its name to places and clans. When European settlers arrived, everything changed for the Anishinaabeg. Conflict and trade became the new pillars of Great Lakes life, culminating in a series of treaties signed between the Anishinaabeg and the U.S. government between 1837 and 1867. The treaties ceded millions of acres of the Northwoods to the government, with the Native tribes retaining hunting and fishing rights to the land. The 1867 treaty created the 837,000 acre White Earth reservation in north central Minnesota, the main Anishinaabeg (Ojibwe) reservation. White Earth is the political and cultural heart of the Ojibwe nation, and its people and leaders have been outspoken critics of U.S. government policy and advocates of Native rights to land and resources.