France delegation promotes Native products
Monday, May 04 2015
Written by Jon Lurie,
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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).

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