By GIOVANNA DELL’ORTO – Associated Press
ON LEECH LAKE, Minn. (AP) — Sitting low in her canoe gliding through a bed of rice on this vast lake, Kendra Haugen used a wooden stick to bend the rods and another to knock the rice down, so gently the rods bounced back right away.
One morning in mid-September, no breeze ruffled the eagle feather gifted by her grandmother that Haugen wore on a baseball cap as she tried her hand at harvesting wild rice – a sacred process for his Ojibwe people.
“Many reserves struggle to maintain rice beds, so it is very important to keep them as intact as possible. … It renews our rice beds for the future,” the 23-year-old student said.
Wild rice, or manoomin (good seed) in Ojibwe, is sacred to Indigenous peoples of the Great Lakes region because it is part of their creation story – and because for centuries it staved off starvation. during harsh winters.
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“In our origin story, we were told to go where the food grew on the water,” said Elaine Fleming, an elder from the Leech Lake of Ojibwe band whose manoomin class at the Leech Lake Tribal College went to harvest last week. “It’s our sacred food.”
But climate change, invasive species and pollution threaten the plant even as its cultivated sibling gains popularity across the country as an exceptionally nutritious food, although often out of reach of urban Aboriginal communities.
These threats make it crucial to teach young band members how to harvest wild rice with respect for both the rituals and the environment. This will help wild rice remain available as a ceremonial staple, but also as a much-needed income generator for the Leech Lake Reservation, where nearly 40% of Indigenous residents live in poverty.
The basic instructions for beginners reflect this dual reality – respect the rice by not breaking the stems, and if you lose your balance, jump to avoid tipping the canoe with its precious cargo.
Fleming gave everyone tobacco in a zipper bag. Before dispersing him onto the calm water and leaving, the young people gathered around another elder praying in Ojibway – to introduce the group to the natural elements around them, explain why he needed their help, ask for a safe passage on the water and give thanks.
“Every time you take something from the earth, you want to thank the earth for what it has given us,” said Kelsey Burns, a student and first rice farmer.
That reciprocity between humans and nature is essential to Ojibwe spirituality. In their stories, the Creator, before bringing the Anishinaabe, the first indigenous person, to earth gathered all the animals to ask them how they could help.
“The plants were listening and stepping in and saying, ‘We have gifts too, so the Anishinaabe can have a good life,’” Fleming explained. “Rice said, ‘We’re going to feed the Anishinaabe.’ »
In two hours on the water, the pairs of polers, who held each other at the helm with 20-foot poles, and the knockers, who rained rice into the canoe until it formed a thick carpet green-brown, collected about 35 lbs. Experienced ricers can harvest a quarter ton a day.
This year they can get $6 a pound of rice, a high price because the two-week harvest is particularly lean, Ryan White said. A 44-year-old single father, he takes his two boys and a nephew to pay the bills and for the kids to buy video games.
“You learn the essence of hard work here,” he said as he punched rice one recent afternoon, taping the hem of his pants and shoes so he wouldn’t miss a grain.
“Clean the boat really well,” White later explained as he slipped the rice into a bag. “Because of the stories we’ve heard of ancient times, when…even a handful like this meant a meal or two for the kids, and at the end of winter, it could actually save your family.”
“This manoomin is our brother, who saved us as a people in different ways,” said Dave Bismarck, who was loading about 200 pounds of freshly harvested rice at a nearby landing stage. “For me, Ricing is really spiritual. There are many who have already gone home, and when I cook rice, the harder I work…the closer I am to them.
But the beds are “continuously shrinking,” said White, who has been growing rice for three decades. And this endangers the spiritual and economic gifts of wild rice.
Although some natural cycle is normal, bad years for wild rice are becoming more frequent, said Ann Geisen, wildlife lakes specialist with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR).
“It seems to be linked to climate change,” she added. “Bigger storm events when it’s uprooted and wiped out, we seem to get more. One big jump (in water levels) in the spring can wipe out an entire lake.
A warming climate can also damage the plant, whose seeds must be near freezing on shallow lake bottoms for months to germinate well, and brings destructive invasive species and fungi to Minnesota, Wisconsin and parts of the Canada, the only natural habitats of wild rice.
“It’s going to completely delight natural stands,” said Jenny Kimball, a professor of agronomy and plant genetics at the University of Minnesota. She works to both conserve and develop hardier breeds for cultivated wild rice producers, an industry she says adds an estimated $58 million to the state’s economy and greatly exceeded natural production for decades.
However, most Ojibwa bands want to save the natural stands and several lawsuits recently filed against water contamination – including one dismissed this year by the White Earth Tribal Court who named manoomin as the lead plaintiff in a new approach to the “rights of nature”.
The lawsuit accused the state of failing to protect the water where wild rice grows by allowing the pumping of billions of gallons of groundwater from an oil pipeline project.
In July, two more northern Minnesota tribes sued the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency over its approval of state changes to water quality standards that the tribes said would increase pollution and damage the wild rice.
Leech Lake students and faculty discussed industrial pollution and controversial pipelines as they gathered outside the college for a party celebrating their first day of harvest.
Before cooking the rice, they had to dry it out, stirring it in a giant iron kettle for more than an hour; shake the pods by dancing on them as they lay in a skin-covered hole in the ground; and finally winnow it in birch bark baskets.
“We understand our responsibility as a nation to this land. We’re supposed to think seven generations into the future,” Fleming said.
Burns, the student, was thinking of her son, who is 5 years old.
“I love learning everything I can about our culture,” she said. “I didn’t learn much when I was younger, so I felt like a part of me was missing. I want to continue teaching everything I learn.
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