The White Earth Land Recovery Project is working to protect wild rice, or manoomin, from genetic engineering and patenting. Through coalition building and communication with Tribes throughout the Great Lakes region, we have achieved some major victories. The White Earth Reservation has become the first reservation in the country to pass an ordinance banning the introduction of genetically modified seeds into the ecosystem – in this case wild rice seeds. According to White Earth’s new conservation code, it is “prohibited to introduce, grow, or plant any type of genetically modified wild rice on land or water within the exterior boundaries of the White Earth Indian reservation.”
Wild rice is central to the Minnesota way of life and Anishinaabeg culture. The Anishinaabeg of Northern Minnesota followed a prophecy to migrate to where food grows on water. Statewide, there are 60.000 acres of wild rice on streams and lakes. Wild rice provides both spiritual and nutritional sustenance for the people, and it contributes to the local economies of the seven Anishinaabeg Tribes of Minnesota.
“We want to protect our wild rice from genetic contamination,” explained Mike Swan,Commissioner of Natural Resources for the White Earth band. “We have a huge wild rice crop on this reservation, and many Tribal members depend on it for our food, economy and way of life.” Shortly after the White Earth ordinance, the Fond Du Lac band passed a similar law opposing the genetic modification of wild rice.
Research into the genetics of wild rice has been taking place over the last ten years at the University of Minnesota. Researchers have mapped parts of the genome of wild rice and are looking for functional genes to control traits for further domestication. One concern of the Anishinaabeg, as well as religious and outdoors groups in the state, is that this technology is laying foundations for genetically engineered wild rice. Genetically engineered wild rice could present risks to human health, the environment, and cultural integrity for some groups.
“A duck doesn’t know the difference between genetically engineered paddy grown wild rice, or some hybrid of wild rice, and natural lake rice,” explains Frank Bibeau, a rice producer from Ball Club, MN, and a White Earth tribal member. “That means that a bird eats some of that rice, or gets some of the rice caught in its wings, and drops it into a lake stand, the potential for contaminating a Minnesota natural resource is great.”
If introduced into Minnesota, genetically engineered wild rice will likely contaminate natural stands of lake wild rice, irreversibly altering the natural lakes ecosystem, which is important for fish,waterfowl, and water quality. Genetically engineered wild rice would cause a loss of foreign export markets for both Native hand-harvested wild rice and cultivated wild rice, because over 3500 jurisdictions worldwide do not allow genetically engineered food imports. This year legislation was introduced into the Minnesota State Legislature that would prohibit the introduction of genetically engineered wild rice into the state of Minnesota (House Bill 1382/ Senate Bill 1566). This legislation would prevent contamination of natural lake stands, and provide protection for the future of our Minnesota State Grain and lake ecosystem.
In the indigenous struggle to protect intellectual property rights, the White Earth Land Recovery Project’s work to build coalitions, get Tribes on board, and introduce legislation, is historic and unprecedented. With the support of the Great Lakes Aquatic Habitat Network Fund, we have been able to hold meetings and develop campaign materials, bringing together diverse interests, and allowing us to create a coherent strategy for protecting wild rice throughout the Native Communities of the Great Lakes.
Working with a graphic designer, we created a new campaign poster that is both visually appealing and powerfully communicative. Red Cliff Ojibwe artist Rabbett Strickland’s original painting “Nenabozho and Nookomis Ricing,” is the base design. Superimposed on the colorful image are the words, “Keep ItWild,” a slogan for the struggle to keep wild rice wild. In allowing us to put a face and name on the campaign, this poster has increased both visibility and recognition of the cause.We have distributed free posters to cultural and community centers on the reservation, food cooperatives, businesses, and many individuals—from legislators to Tribal members to schoolchildren. As the posters have cropped up across Minnesota, we have received many requests for them, spurring interest in our work.
To further increase visibility and communication throughout the state by informing both legislators and community groups, we produced a short documentary film, “Manoomin: A Minnesota Way of Life.” The film speaks with the voices of ricers, activists, Tribal elders, and academics, explaining the history and importance of wild rice to Ojibwe communities, and the technology and concerns of genetic engineering and patenting. The film, as an organizing tool, can be paired with specific actions for individuals to speak out on the issue. This July, we will hold five “Keep it Wild! Eat-Ins,” on the White Earth Reservation. The Eat-Ins feature a documentary screening, wild rice supper, and open discussion, followed by postcard signing, letter writing, and planning for future actions. Already, we have shown the film to key legislators, third through eighth-grade school children, Fond Du Lac Tribal College, and public audiences in Minneapolis/St. Paul. Through video communication we have aimed to explain the issue with authentic voices, educate, and spur action. As with the posters, we have distributed copies of the film freely to advocates across the state and country, striving to spread the word as widely as possible.
Much of our communications success has come from talking with people directly. Presentations across the state, formal and informal meetings, even approaching people at the 137th Annual White Earth Pow Wow to sign postcards to their State Senator, have reached diverse audiences with the message of protecting wild rice. Personal interaction, paired with tangible materials such as posters, films, brochures, postcards, and petitions, and online techniques, including an e-mail action alert list and a website have helped us establish a comprehensive set of outreach tools.
Support from the Great Lakes Aquatic Habitat Network Fund has been integral to the success of our communications campaign. As a result, we have come far in this struggle, yet we have a long way to go until wild rice is permanently protected.“To us, wild rice is sacred.We think it’s worth protecting,” said Mike Swan.
By Winona LaDuke and Sarah Alexander
White Earth Land Recovery Project
32033 E. Round Lake Road, Ponsford, MN 56575
1-888-779-3577 • WELandRecovery@arvig.net