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The Past and Future of the Wild Rice Economy


Sep 9, 2023

The wild rice harvest has begun in northern Minnesota, with canoes strapped to every imaginable vehicle cruising the roads and the lakes resounding with the sounds of this thousand-year-old tradition. The harvest brings great joy as it is a link to ancestors and a breath of fresh air on wild-rice-full lakes, with mist rising and a seemingly endless sea of rice. It is a way to make a living with the natural world, rather than exploiting it, and that is good for the soul. This harvest takes place in the only place in the world where this plant grows, and it holds numerous benefits such as twice the protein of white rice and astonishing effects on lowering cholesterol. All that needs to be done is to take care of the water. This gift of manoomin, or wild rice, has come to Akiing and it must be protected. Unlike boom-bust economies of mining, logging, and oil, manoomin is an economy that is the perfect example of sustainability, with a thousand years of harvesting on the same lake.

In this economy, both Native and non-Native people have a part to play. Tribal members produce most of the manoomin for the markets and processors, while Native and non-Native individuals finish the rice for markets and consumption. Parching wild rice is considered an art, and it is not dying, but rather flourishing. The value of wild rice goes beyond monetary benefits; it provides food for families, spirits, and security knowing that wild rice is in your pantry. The economy is thriving this year, with green rice selling for $4.25 a pound. This means that vehicles can be repaired, winter clothes and fuel can be purchased, and overall it is a good life. This year, wild rice is expected to sell for $20 or more retail, and it is worth every penny.

Not all lakes ripen at the same time, showcasing the genius of nature. Southern lakes often ripen early. These lakes are spread across the 1855 Treaty Territory, which extends from Grand Rapids to the Rice Lake Refuge and west to the Otter Tail River. Our ancestors used to travel by canoe to the rice and set up camps. Some of these traditional camps still exist today, such as Star Lake, Blueberry Lake, and Rice Lake. Large families would camp in these places for a month, making enough wild rice for the season and for sale. Anthropologists at the University of Minnesota may have held disdain for this harvest, viewing it as an “Ojibwe Mardi Gras” with excessive dancing and celebration, but that is because life is good.

Legendary lakes like the Sandy Lake Flowage and the Kakagon Sloughs are integral to the wild rice harvest. Nett Lake, one of the largest wild rice producers, has around 4,800 acres of wild rice coverage on its 7,000-acre lake. The harvest on Nett Lake, along with Lower Rice Lake, is yet to come. Our ancestors traded hundreds of thousands of pounds of wild rice, and our families continue to do so today. Despite the creation of paddy-grown wild rice (known as tame rice), true wild rice retains its distinct taste of the lake.

The Anishinaabe people have fought hard to preserve this wild rice tradition, from treaty protection of manoomin to opposing plans by the University of Minnesota to create genetically modified wild rice. We believe that wild should mean something and have stood our ground, which is why we also oppose mining and oil projects. Manoomin is more valuable to us than oil or taconite. Where the manoomin lives, we are also there, and our histories are intertwined. Just like the Anishinaabeg, wild rice is resilient. Despite the Minnesota DNR and lakeshore owners raising water levels on Onamia Lake for decades, drowning the rice, it made a comeback after 50 years underwater during a drought. The rice kernels had rested on the bottom of the lake for half a century.

In a world filled with short-term promises, plastic, and a boom-bust economy, I personally believe in manoomin. It is food for the belly and the soul, representing both the past and the future. My name is Winona LaDuke, an Ojibwe writer and economist from Minnesota’s White Earth Reservation. I am also the owner of Winona’s Hemp and a regular contributor to Forum News Service.

By Editor

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