This weekend I am at the annual Stewardship Network Conference in Lansing. It's a great place to network with people from across the state, the Midwest, and even, now, some folks from back east, who are all involved in land stewardship at one level or another.
This year the conference has a number of programs about wild rice (manoomin). Now, perhaps you've heard of wild rice...you might even have eaten it...but the odds are it wasn't "real" wild rice (which is only available from the Native peoples; that which we buy is a genetically modified/engineered rice grown in paddies mostly in California) .
I wasn't planning to attend any of the wild rice sessions during this conference because we don't have wild rice where I work, and where I live it's not wild rice habitat (dry, flat fields of glacial outwash). BUT. The keynote speaker this morning was Winona LaDuke, a member of the Anishinabe nation in Wisconsin who is probably most famous for her political and environmental activism. Her speech focused on the tar sands pipline (Sandpiper) that "they" are trying to run from North Dakota to Lake Superior. The environmental destruction that is caused by these pipelines, the tar sands oil fields, and fracking are enough (or should be enough) to give anyone pause. The tears flowed without stop down my cheeks as I watched the slides and videos she showed of the devastation these practices leave in their wake. And Michigan is the most highly "fracked" state in the country - the whole state is under assault. Ugh.
Winona's focus, however, was on what the pipeline (and fracking) might (very likely) do to wild rice in the states.
Many, many years ago, the Anishinabe people lived in the Northeast. Their prophets predicted a time of trouble ahead, and the spirits told them to go west to where the food grew on the water, to follow the turtle. Over the course of many years, they migrated westward, ending up in what is now Michigan, Minnesota, Wisconsin - those places where wild rice grew in abundance in the lakes and wetlands. Wild rice is spiritually and culturally important to these people - it also became one of their most important food sources.
Then European colonists arrived in the east, and many of the native people faced devastating losses. It turns out the Anishinabe prophets were right and by moving westward their people were saved...for a while.
When settlers also moved westward, the native peoples, as we all know, were shunted off their traditional lands and onto smaller and smaller reservations, usually in locations that were of little value.
The Anishinabe, however, even when they ceded many of their traditional lands, were guaranteed access to hunt, fish and harvest rice on non-reservation lands. But as their culture was slowed eroded away, by the practice of sending their children to Indian Schools away from their homes, among other things, they gradually loss their connection with the land, especially the wild rice.
Luckily, some elders remembered.
In the 1980s, the treaties that guaranteed them access to the land's resources was once more recognized and they started to relearn and reconnect with the wild rice.
Today, in Michigan, wild rice is slowly being restored to some of the remaining lakes where it once thrived.
There are two species of wild rice: Northern Wild Rice (Zizania palustris), which is "common," and Southern Wild Rice (Z. aquatica), which is a protected species in Michigan (I didn't catch if it was endangered or just threatened). Most of the rice in Michigan is growing in the northern part of the state, but it could grow down here in the southern parts. In fact, a coworker of mine told me that some wild rice recently appeared in Haehnle Sanctuary, where we go to watch the cranes. I think I'm going to have to schedule a visit!
This evening the folks here from the Anishinabe tribes held a pipe and a water ceremony to thank the Creator for the gathering this weekend and to send our prayers out to "all our relations" and to the Creator to protect the water and the rice, and to guide us in protecting the resources of this land.
It was very moving. I chose not to take any photos because it was a sacred ceremony. It was also an historic gathering and ceremony, and I was very honored to be a part of it.
Every year the Anishinabe up at Lac Vieux Desert hold Wild Rice Camps when they harvest the rice, and they are open to anyone who wants to attend. I've put this on my bucket list. I plan, in the next year or two, to make the pilgrimage to the western UP to attend one of the camps. Should be a wonderful learning experience.
Wild rice - manoomin. I learned something new about Michigan today. Miigwech (thank you).