France delegation promotes Native products

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france delegation promotes native products-web.jpgThe idea of becoming a Native American

trade ambassador came to Diane Gorney during one of her recent

excursions to France. “Walking down the streets in Paris people

kept coming up and offering to buy the jewelry right off of me,”

says the Minneapolis resident and White Earth descendant.

Gorney refused to sell the stunning

beaded earrings, necklaces and bracelets she had purchased from

Ojibwe artists back home. From those interactions, however, she came

to understand the appetite French people have for all things Native

American. In their hunger Gorney saw an opportunity to help her

Ojibwe people. She investigated the availability of American Indian

items such as traditional art and jewelry, and hand-harvested

Minnesota wild rice.

The “Native American art” Gorney

found in Parisian shops was of poor quality and manufactured in

China. Gorney’s search for wild rice led her across the French

capital. French cookbooks and menus frequently reference an

ingredient called “riz sauvage (translation: wild rice),” so

Gorney was mystified when she couldn’t find it in stores. Finally,

at an obscure kosher market, Gorney ran across riz sauvage, but found

the product nothing like the natural cereal grain which flourishes

upon Minnesota’s northern waters.

The graphic on the packaging of

France’s leading brand of riz sauvage, Tilda Giant Wild Rice, lends

the impression the black rice is harvested by Native Americans. Its

box cover contains an image of two American Indians poling a birch

bark canoe through a wild rice bed. But a closer look reveals the

truth: the product marketed in France as Native American wild rice is

actually Indonesian, paddy-cultivated, black basmati rice, packaged

and distributed by a Britain-based food brand selling in over 50

countries.

Gorney, a former art teacher, soon

returned to Paris with a suitcase full of White Earth wild rice. She

handed out one-pound bags to chefs and others whom she hoped would

spread the word about the nutritious, delicious and sacred grain. “I

wanted them to share, but people loved it so much they kept it for

themselves. So my efforts were dead on arrival.”

Back in Minnesota, Gorney converted

her frustration into action, assembling a team to open the French

market to Native American goods from Minnesota. As this issue of The

Circle went to press in late April, Gorney and her delegation were

departing for Paris where they were scheduled to meet with trade

officials at the U.S. Embassy and promote Native goods from Minnesota

at one of France’s largest provincial fairs, the Foire de Tours.

“I just want to get Minnesota Native

arts and wild rice sold in France,” Gorney said. “It seems very

logical for these to be available there. If we are successful, it

will mean access to real arts and wild rice for the French, and more

money for our people on the rez.”

Greg Bellanger, a member of the White

Earth Nation and owner of Northland Visions: Native American Fine Art

and Gifts from the Northland (1113 East Franklin Ave., Minneapolis),

is a participant in the trade delegation. He says his efforts are

motivated by a desire to “create a greater demand for Minnesota

Native goods, so that we can increase the number of tribal members

able to make a living as artists and traditional wild rice

harvesters.”

When his father, Ken Bellanger, opened

the store in 2000, he sold 500 pounds of Wild Rice in the first 12

months, which he purchased directly from White Earth and Leech Lake

band citizens. Today, Northland Visions sells over 3,000 pounds of

Native-harvested Minnesota wild rice annually. Despite the increasing

demand, Greg Bellanger says there is plenty more wild rice available.

“A ton of rice is left behind at the end of each season. My people

at White Earth and Leech Lake are capable of harvesting as much rice

as we will need.”

Bellanger doesn’t anticipate selling

anything on the initial trip. He’s only carrying wild rice samples

and photographs that represent available artworks. “This trip is

all about relationship building,” he said. “We’re going there

to meet and greet, shake hands, have dinner and get to know each

other. That’s the way the French do business.”

Bellanger expects the wild rice to

practically sell itself. “We’re going to stress the fact that

each rice harvest is limited edition. It can only be harvested once a

year. It can only be cultivated in this part of the world. And we

only sell hand harvested rice from tribal members. Which, when people

understand this, adds to the value of the product. It is also

completely wild organic,” he said.

“Our biggest challenge will be

marketing, making the French public aware that what we’re offering

is not the same as riz sauvage,” Mike O’Dell, the delegation’s

export management director, said. To avoid confusion, O’Dell said

the trade group plans to present Minnesota wild rice by its Ojibwe

name, manomin (“good berry”).

O’Dell, who has a master’s degree

in international marketing, spent eight years living in France and

speaks fluent French, says the question the delegation will be asking

is “Why haven’t efforts to sell manomin in France and other

European markets succeeded in the past.” O’Dell believes one

reason is the two-year tribal government election cycle. “Any

efforts that have been initiated have been abandoned with changes in

leadership. There has been no consistency driving an export program.”

O’Dell believes, however, that this delegation has the right

mixture of passion and expertise to make wild rice a staple of the

French table.

“My French friends are very excited.

The French love all things Native American. They also love high

quality food. Minnesota Native, hand-harvested, and fire roasted

manomin has the potential to become very popular is France. We hope

it will find a lasting place among the many other luxury food items

the French love to use in their cuisine,” O’Dell said.

PHOTO: Greg Bellanger, Diane Gorney,

Mike O’Dell constitute a delegation of Ojibwe entrepreneurs who are

meeting with trade officials at the French U.S. Embassy to promote

Native goods from Minnesota at one of France’s largest provincial

fairs, the Foire de Tours. (Courtesy photo).