Wild at Heart

The Ojibwe people of the White Earth Reservation in Minnesota have been harvesting wild rice from rivers and lakes for centuries. Each fall, the Wild Rice Moon hits the north country, and the Ojibwe take part in the age-old tradition of ricing. Canoeing in pairs, they navigate the rice beds while they tenderly bend the water grass and knock the grains into their canoes. They believe wild rice is a gift from the Creator to the Anishinaabeg, a symbol of their indigenous land.

But that gift has been stolen by farmers and scientists who pass off domesticated rice as the real thing, reports Ojibwe activist and environmentalist Winona LaDuke in Orion (July/Aug. 2007). Domestic wild rice is bred to be shatter-resistant, which allows farmers in Minnesota and California to harvest the crop mechanically from paddy plantations. The paddies are fields flooded to mimic natural bodies of water, then drained and picked over by combines. The harvest is labeled “wild” and sold at a fraction of the cost of genuine wild rice. Most consumers remain none the wiser.

Worse, some companies willfully exploit shoppers’ confusion, according to LaDuke, by appropriating Indian themes on their labels; one brand went so far as to sell paddy-grown rice with an illustration of two indigenous people gathering rice in a canoe. Minnesota laws require that paddy-grown rice be labeled as such, but confusion lingers, in spite of Ojibwe attempts to lobby for greater distinction between natural and domesticated rice.

A more recent threat to genuine wild rice is genetically engineered rice. Tribes are worried that altered genes from new laboratory strains, such as those developed at the University of Minnesota, might drift into traditional gathering places. Minnesota passed a law in May that offers some protection by requiring those who want to plant genetically engineered rice to file an environmental impact statement with the state before they proceed.

While the Ojibwe are frustrated by the continued threats to their cherished grain, they faithfully continue to gather their rice as they struggle against corporations. As LaDuke writes, “It’s sort of a miracle in this millennium that this age-old tradition continues.”

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