Honoring Manoomin and fighting for its survival

On the White Earth reservation, people ran twenty five miles to honor the wild rice and protect it. (Photo courtesy Winona LaDuke.)

By Winona LaDuke

“You can feel the wind talk to the rice.”
– Lew Murray, Rice Lake Village.

It’s Rice Lake Village on the White Earth reservation – the mother lode of wild rice – Lower Rice Lake. Lew Murray stood in front of the gathering of about two hundred or so people, to greet runners who had just run twenty five miles to honor the wild rice, and protect it. It’s a joyful gathering also, because people are just starting to gather outside after COVID and we are all happy to see each other.

For some it’s been a long time. For some of us who are facing police many days on the Enbridge pipeline route, it’s a welcome sanctuary from the violence- emotional, ecological and physical. More than anything the gathering, organized by community members brings us together to reaffirm our commitment to our wild rice and water.

“I’ve been around the sun about forty eight times and that rice has been with me all those times. There’s really nothing like it.” said Murray while remembering when he started ricing. “At thirteen years old I was staying at the south end with my cousin, and an old man came over and said, ‘I need a poler’. After that I poled. I’ve done that since. It’s great way of life for us; take care of our rice and our water.” That’s the story of many young men on the reservation.

Murray is one of three or four big wild rice processers on the reservation, finishing tens of thousands of pounds of rice, creating a finished rice that’s light tan in color, and flavored by the the unique taste of wood parching. This is the real thing.

The wild rice economy continues and, as Cody Eaglefeather reminds us, is a part of our migration stories, and a centerpiece of our identity. “We are having an identity crisis”, he tells us, talking about the challenges of this generation in keeping our way of life. Cody, like many other ricers, can bring in thousands of pounds of wild rice in the fall, supporting not only his family, but many families on the reservation. Wild rice is our freedom, and for two hundred years, the state and other colonial institutions have been trying to destroy that freedom, through policies, subsidies, arrests, and destruction of wild rice habitat.

The rice harvest unifies everyone, and it’s a time of great excitement and joy in the village. Not surprisingly, Rice Lake village has opposed Enbridge’s plans since Day One, demanding hearings in the village, and turning out with thousands of others at the Headwaters of the Mississippi. Enbridge’s work to divide the White Earth community with lucrative contracts to Gordon Construction and their plays in tribal politics are not viewed well here. This gathering is attended by most of the tribal council, who see the opposition to Line 3.

Wild rice, or manoomin, is the way of life for this village and for most of the White Earth reservation. It feeds the body and it feeds the soul, with hundreds of thousands of pounds produced for not only our community but for sale. Today the manoomin is feeding the souls, as tribal members and friends come and gather to honor the rice, and to challenge not only Enbridge, but the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, which has just allocated 5 billion gallons of water to Enbridge for the Line 3 pipeline, in the middle of the deepest drought we can remember.

The week before, tribal members saw hoses pumping water from the Upper Rice Lake by Knife River Contracting, something they’ve done for years, as well as a bunch of other local businesses just taking water, with very few (if any) regulation. The Minnesota DNR policies are being challenged, the rice needs the water, and those policies need adaptation. After all, in 2019 the White Earth tribe recognized the Rights of Manoomin, as a part of a growing movement internationally to strengthen regulatory and constitutional protections for the rights of Nature over the rights of private property and corporations.

Silas Neeland , the fourteen year old from Rice Lake Village stands with a microphone in front of the crowd. He’s been organizing youth and events for the past year, during Covid and beyond, and traveled to Washington DC to have his voice heard. He tells our community to stand up for the rice, “the Black Snake is thirteen miles from our wild rice lake… it’s time to kill the Black Snake”.

Lew Murray has been ricing most of his life, and like hundreds of other Anishinaabe from the reservation, relied on the manoomin for sustenance, traveling to the lakes in the south, first to harvest – Big Sandy, the Sandy Lake Flowage, Minnewawa, the Crow Wing lakes and more. The rice on Shell Lake is large, the river rice smaller. Then the ricers move closer to Lower Rice Lake, into the Tamarac Refuge, some ricing over by Leech Lake or through the Ottertail River systems – the people follow the rice. It ripens differently in each lake and region, and that traditional ecological knowledge is kept by ricers generation after generation. Those lakes are throughout the l855 treaty territory, and today, in the impact zone of Line 3 – the last tar sands pipeline.

This is the only place in the world for this plant, and we’ve harvested the same lakes for thousands of years. That’s the mark of a sustainable economy, which also defines northern economy. For thousands of years, this was a wild rice economy, non-Indians benefitting as well, as they parlayed Native rice to gourmet buyers from the east and west.

In the l970s, the advent of paddy rice, created by the University of Minnesota, ravaged the wild rice economy of Minnesota. The University’s work and the creation of patented seeds of the “state grain”, ultimately led to 75% of what’s called wild rice being produced today in diked rice paddies in northern California – a la Gourmet House, Uncle Bens, and Indian Harvest Wild Rice.

The University’s historic work pushed the traditional wild rice economy to the margins, and coupled with the mismanagement of water by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, has resulted in the destruction of 70% of the wild rice in the state. That’s why the remaining lakes are so critical to protect, not only from Enbridge, but from industrial agriculture run off, and of course, the ever looming mining industry’s attempt at a comeback at the end of the mining era. Protecting the water is protecting the wild rice.

The Body Burden of Hating
Coming to the village was a great emotional relief. I hadn’t realized the body burden of the hating. As I looked on and listened to the laughs and stories of Rice Lakers, a tremendous feeling of love and healing came over us, again. Our people love our water and our manoomin.

Try being an Indian person or a Water Protector in Park Rapids these days. There’s a lot of fearful looks, even some dirty looks, some yelling at us Water Protectors. It’s the Deep North, and it’s not just dirty looks, it’s continued exclusion, as the Park Rapids Chamber of Commerce seems intent upon pushing the only Native delegation out of the Park Rapids Fourth of July Parade.

I’m having some serious flashbacks to Standing Rock, as local media and Enbridge fan show their racism. Why would you hate on Water Protectors? Hubbard County has arrested hundreds of people for standing for the water, and yet, in the midst of the deepest drought we can remember, it stands by as Enbridge takes 3 billion gallons in dewatering, pushing around our freshwater like it’s a waste product. Coming from the reservation and into the l855 treaty territory, the Shell River is running at 25% capacity, yet Enbridge proposes to cross this river five times, and each time it will take hundreds of thousands of gallons out of the river to run those pumps. Not to mention, the dewatering of all the trenches by the pipeline.

In the meantime, thousands of Minnesotans and others are coming to support our people, supporting the treaty rights of the Anishinaabe as well as opposing the taking of water by the Canadian multinational. “Asserting our treaty rights is not a crime, we are here to protect the water. Our native relatives have been moving up in a good way to defend the treaty,” Nancy Beaulieu tells the crowd. Nancy, along with Dawn Goodwin from the Rise Coalition, succeeded in bringing almost 3000 people to the Treaty People’s Gathering in early June, and then held ceremonies on the Enbridge route, holding a space for 8 days.

Meanwhile, at Rice Lake, the rice is trying to come up, it’s laying flat on the water in most places. Looking out from Big Bear Landing, you can see the rice coming in strong, and the swans on the lake, huge flocks of them – this is a sanctuary, not only for rice, but for millions of migratory birds. True to form, at Bunga Landing in Rice Lake, it’s standing on the river, the rice is returning.

A constant in our lives, the rice remains, awaiting the Anishinaabe, our prayers, our songs, and our gratitude.