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[SANET-MG] protecting sacred resources
Posted on Sun, Jan. 15, 2006
Pioneer Press Twin Cities
Protecting a sacred resource
To the Anishinabe of Minnesota and Wisconsin, the plant is called
manoomin or mahnomen. We know it in English as wild rice, though that
black grain we buy at the grocery store often isn't. Wild, that is.
Much of the "wild" rice sold in local stores is commercially grown in
rice paddies, mostly in northern California. Unfortunately, Minnesota's
official state grain and a major source of income for Minnesota's native
people has little to protect it from commercial interests that would
trade on the good name of one of our state's natural treasures.
A state labeling law — which grew out of a lawsuit in the 1980s —
requires that any wild rice sold as such in Minnesota must contain at
least 51 percent naturally grown wild rice. That still means up to 49
percent of your wild rice could be paddy-grown. And nothing stands in
the way of commercial producers who oxymoronically label their 100
percent paddy-grown rice as "cultivated wild rice" and use Indian names
and imagery to mislead shoppers.
"We can't compete with the combines," said Winona LaDuke, founding
director of the White Earth Land Recovery Project. "The paddy rice
pretty much trashed our (reservation) economies. The people on the
reservations relied on the rice for income. We have a huge wild rice
resource but we can't compete."
Among the factors that tilt the competitive playing field in favor of
large commercial ricing interests are state and federal water subsidies
in California and research at public universities, including the
University of Minnesota, that leads to the development of new strains of
rice that benefit large commercial farmers, but could harm native wild
It's that research into rice genetics that most frightens Ojibwe ricers.
They fear that genetically modified rice could infect their manoomin — a
gift to them from the Creator — and forever end its bounty.
Their fears are hardly irrational or misplaced.
Some field tests of genetically modified crops in the U.S. and Canada
have resulted in miles-long "drift" of modified pollen, leading to fears
that cross-pollination with non-modified crops is inevitable.
And a scathing report from the inspector general of the U.S. Department
of Agriculture last month charged that the department failed to properly
monitor experimental biotech crops.
According to an Associated Press report on the findings, the USDA didn't
thoroughly evaluate biotech applications nor did it ensure that
experimental crops were destroyed at the end of field tests. In some
cases, the USDA didn't even know where the modified crops were planted.
"The system has been set up practically as a self-reporting system,"
Greg Jaffe, biotech director for the nonprofit Center for Science in the
Public Interest, told the AP. "It's a 'don't look, don't find' policy."
Instead of plowing public money into research that almost certainly will
harm or destroy a native resource, why not channel the money into
programs that will help Ojibwe ricers become economically
self-sufficient? Native wild rice processors could benefit from
recapitalization and expansion of their medium-size facilities, LaDuke
said. And ricers and processors could use help with marketing their
"Branding and marketing," LaDuke said. "What distinguishes us? Quality
That brings us back to the labeling issue. LaDuke's cousin, St. Paul
businessman Al Paulson, has been pushing for a federal wild rice
labeling law for years.
"We have (Sens. Mark) Dayton and (Norm) Coleman on the Agriculture
Committee," he said. "We're trying to get them to pass a law. Native
wild rice is a name worth protecting, just like Champagne and Bordeaux."
To Indian people, manoomin is even more important than that. Wild rice
was a gift to The People from the Creator, fulfillment of a prophesy
that led the Anishinabe on their westward migration to Wisconsin and
As LaDuke says, "Don't mess it up."
Coulson is editorial page editor of the Pioneer Press, 345 Cedar St.,
St. Paul, MN 55101.
White Earth Land Recovery Project: www.savewildrice.org
Native Harvest: www.nativeharvest.com/index1.asp
Minnesota Public Radio wild rice project:
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