Cheryl Katz
Sean Thompson, natural resource technician for the Fond du Lac band of Lake Superior Chippewa, looks out over restored wild rice on the reservation’s Perch Lake, near Cloquet, Minnesota. "It’s the crown jewel of the reservation lakes," Thompson says.

For Tribes in U.S., a Movement to Revive Native Foods and Lands

Cheryl Katz, Yale Environment 360
10/23/15

On ancestral lands, the Fond du Lac band in Minnesota is planting wild rice and restoring wetlands damaged by dams, industry, and logging. Their efforts are part of a growing trend by Native Americans to bring back traditional food sources and heal scarred landscapes. Reprinted with permission from Yale Environment 360

Two by two, the wild rice harvesters emerge from the grass-filled lake and drag their canoes to shore. The harvesters, Lake Superior Chippewa, are reaping their ancestral food in the traditional way—one poling the boat through the waist-high tangle, and the other bending the stems and gently brushing ripe seed loose with a pair of batons. It’s hard, dirty work on a steamy Minnesota late-summer day. They’re caked with chaff and sweat.

But the canoes are loaded with the sacred grain they call manoomin. It was a good harvest, they say.

For decades, this lake on the reservation of the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, near Duluth, was choked with weeds and produced little of the so-called wild rice that once blanketed the upper Great Lakes. Huge swaths of the nutritious native plant—not actually rice but an annual aquatic grass (genus Zizania)—were reduced to remnants by dams, industry, logging, and other disruptive land uses over the past century-and-a-half.

Wild rice is actually not rice, but a native aquatic grass. The grain — a sacred staple for the Ojibwe people — is being planted more widely by Native Americans in the Great Lakes region, part of a larger national trend in which Native Americans are reviving traditional food sources and healing scarred lands. (Photo: Cheryl Katz)

But with a blend of ancestral knowledge, modern equipment, and cutting-edge expertise, Fond du Lac natural resource specialists are bringing back the “food that grows on water.” Reservation lakes will yield an estimated 30,000 pounds this year, feeding families and hosting ceremonies with the delicacy that tribal legend says was prophesied to their ancestors. Their approach has been so successful that the band is now leading the first major state, federal, and non-profit collaboration to restore part of Lake Superior’s former vast wild rice ecosystem.

The earthy grain prized by epicureans is fundamental to the indigenous people, also called Ojibwe or Anishinaabeg, who flank the Great Lakes from Michigan to Minnesota.

“It’s in every bit of our way of life,” says Thomas Howes, the Fond du Lac natural resources manager, sitting on the gunwhale of a canoe filled with the bright green spikelets he has just finished harvesting. “That’s why you see Ojibwe people make this degree of effort.”

Similar efforts are underway by native communities across North America. From restoring salmon nurseries in the Pacific Northwest, to rebuilding caribou herds in the Canadian Rockies, to removing New England dams blocking alewives and sturgeon from their historic runs, tribes are reviving traditional food sources and healing scarred lands, both on and off reservations. The path isn’t easy — tribal projects face daunting obstacles, including a crazy-quilt of property rights, circumscribed jurisdictions, and conflicts with neighbors over visions for the land. But their centuries of practical knowledge and cultural focus provide valuable guidance for stewards of the environment today.

“There has been a new movement by indigenous people to restore tribal lands and resources,” says Darren Ranco, an anthropology professor at the University of Maine in Orono, and a member of the Penobscot Nation, which is realizing an ambitious goal of reopening fish freeways on the dam-choked Penobscot River. “There’s also been a reimagined focus on food and food sovereignty.”

The movement was bolstered by 1970s court decisions increasing tribal resource rights, 1980s expansion of environmental quality legislation, and an infusion of money after Indian gaming was legalized in 1988. Now, a new generation of Native American scientists, attorneys, and politically savvy advocates are bringing their expertise back to the reservation, joining government and conservation coalitions and procuring grants.

“That’s brought some really important solutions to the table that probably weren’t there before,” says Ranco, who directs the university’s Native American Research program. “The Western tradition was continually marginalizing indigenous knowledge and values, and no longer is that happening.... At least it’s not happening as much.”

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