Wild Rice: The food that grows on water

Grassroots Battle by the Gichigami: — Part 2

This is the second in a series of eight posts which together comprise an in-depth article concerning a proposed iron ore mine in the Penokee Hills of Northern Wisconsin and the widespread resistance to the project. Two installments of the article will be posted each week.


In the earliest Anishinaabeg stories and prophecies, wild rice or manoomin was known as “the food that grows upon the water.” It was over 1,500 years ago that the Anishinaabeg migrated here from the east, stopping when they found the place where wild rice was growing on the lakes and marshes. The Kakagon-Bad River Sloughs is home to one of the largest wild rice beds in the world.

Winona LaDuke, a leader of the White Earth reservation in Minnesota and the Green Party candidate for vice president in 2000, wrote in Yes! magazine in that year that manoomin was a gift from the Creator, Gichi Manidoo. The food is central to her people’s nutrition, sustenance and economy, LaDuke explained, and the wild rice harvest is a tradition that ties the community together and joins it to past generations.

“Wild rice is the center of our universe,” Patty Loew told me. “It embodies the covenant we have with our Creator.”

“We know that wild rice is a very fragile plant, that it’s exceptionally susceptible to sulfates in the water. We know that because the taconite mine at Hibbing (MN.) has killed 50 to 100 miles of wild rice down river. We know how important the plant is in terms of acting as a filter for water quality and the foundation for this whole wetland ecosystem,” she said.

“Everybody’s dependent on this wild rice. So the thought of an open-pit taconite mine spewing poison into the water, and how that might affect our rice, is frightening.”

Patty Loew at Kakagon Sloughs-0794

Patty Loew at the Kakagon Sloughs

State scientists and tribes in Minnesota have been studying the impact of mining and industrial discharges on wild rice for a number of years. Sulfate is a mineral salt that can harm rice stands when it converts to sulfide at the root level and becomes toxic to the plant. Ironically, if sufficient iron is present in the water, it binds to the sulfide and makes it non-toxic to the wild rice.

A factor that is as much a concern as sulfate to the fate of wild rice is the fluctuation of water levels in the sloughs. Jim Meeker, who died suddenly in December, 2014, had studied wild rice and its habitat in the sloughs for over two decades. He worked for the tribe and was the first botanist for GLIFWC. He wrote his dissertation for his doctorate at the University of Wisconsin-Madison on the Kakagon Slough’s wild rice.

“It so happens that if you take away the water fluctuations in places like the Kakagon, it usually signals the death knell of the wetlands,” Meeker said that evening over the dinner table. It seems that wild rice requires a habitat with some regular fluctuation in water depth, but not too much.

Meeker and Elias-

Joan Elias and Jim Meeker

“One thing the mine could do is eliminate those natural fluctuations that the wild rice has evolved over three to four thousand years,” Meeker said.

His wife, Joan Elias, added that the water from some of the artesian wells along Lake Superior is 9,000 years old, or even older.

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Next: Treaty Rights: This Land is Whose Land?



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