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Points North

The Food That Grows On Water

Mari and Monni Raphael harvest manoomin on an inland lake in northeast lower Michigan. Photo by Mike Krebs - Traverse City Record-Eagle.
Mike Krebs/Record-Eagle/Mike Krebs
Record-Eagle/Mike Krebs
Mari and Monni Raphael harvest manoomin on an inland lake in northeast lower Michigan. Photo by Mike Krebs - Traverse City Record-Eagle.

According to an Anishinaabe prophecy, manoomin – wild rice – is what brought the Ojibwe, Odawa and Potawatomi peoples to the Great Lakes. Since time immemorial, it’s been a staple food and a part of cultural identity.

The annual grass produces a nutritious seed, which ripens in the fall. It was once abundant in most lakes, streams and rivers throughout the region. But starting in the late 1800s, manoomin’s decline was fast and widespread.

Just like the plant itself, a lot of knowledge around harvesting practices has been lost as well. In this story, hear from the Anishinaabek fighting to save “the food that grows on the water.”

Producer: Patrick Shea, Sierra Clark
Editor / Host: Dan Wanschura
Music: Kai Engel, Podington Bear and Ketsa.

ROGER LABINE: Boozho. {Anishinaabemowin introduction.}

DAN WANSCHURA, HOST: That’s Roger Labine. He’s from the Lac Vieux Desert band of Lake Superior Chippewa. That’s on the border of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and Wisconsin.

LABINE: Our ancestors actually lived in up in Maine, New Brunswick and eastern Canada there. And before 1492, there was a woman – an Indian woman – who had this vision.

What she dreamed was she was standing in this river, and she was facing that western direction. So she went to the spiritual leaders and asked for an interpretation of that dream.

When the spiritual leaders sought an answer to that, they were given seven prophecies. And what the first prophecy said was that we needed to leave. Because if we didn’t leave, we would be facing death and destruction.

WANSCHURA: Roger says that was the start of his people’s migration towards the Great Lakes.

LABINE: The third prophecy said we needed to follow that direction that the sun sets. And we would know we were at our new home when we would find the food that grows on the water.

WANSCHURA: Manoomin is that food that grows on the water.

You might know it as wild rice. It’s an annual grass that grows a nutritious seed which ripens in the fall.

LABINE: Manoomin translates to “the good berry.” And this word reflects the importance of the staple food that it has become.

WANSCHURA: Roger manages water resources for his tribe. A big part of his job is restoring wild rice.

He says manoomin used to be abundant in most of the lakes and streams across the region – even along shores of the Great Lakes.

But in the late 1800s, Roger says it started to decline.

LABINE: In the logging era, there were a lot of temporary dams, because they floated logs. They didn’t have the rail system or the trucks carrying the wood to market.

WANSCHURA: Timber was sent downstream in the early spring when water levels were highest. Those logs would pull up manoomin on their way. Wild rice was also uprooted by dredging as people built marinas, homes and resorts on the water.

Roger says the damage to this staple food was fast and widespread.

LABINE: Just guessing at it, I would say probably 80, 85 percent of the manoomin beds have been destroyed. Our oral history tells us about being able to watch the decline on an annual basis and maybe even on a daily basis of our rice beds disappearing.

WANSCHURA: Today, Roger LaBine is working to bring back manoomin – both the plant, and the knowledge around it.

LABINE: Wild Rice is really culturally important to us. It’s part of our identity. We need to fight to save it.

WANSCHURA: Today, hear from those fighting to save the food that grows on the water.

WANSCHURA: This is Points North – A show about the land, water and inhabitants of the Upper Great Lakes. I’m Dan Wanschura.

On a late September morning, reporters Patrick Shea and Sierra Clark are canoeing through a lake in northern Michigan.

PATRICK SHEA, BYLINE: On the far shore, leaves are just starting to turn orange, red and yellow. Patchy clouds roll by overhead, casting shadows over the fields of golden-brown stalks sticking out of the water.

SIERRA CLARK, BYLINE: Those stalks of grass are why we’re here. It’s manoomin: wild rice.

I grew up learning how this plant was at the center of my people’s migration story.

But I had never been out ricing myself. At least not until Mari Raphael invited me.

MARI RAPHAEL: I think that’s one of the most important parts about doing this, is regaining that knowledge and trying to share it in a good way to young ones or anybody, adults – whoever has that interest in learning more.

CLARK: Mari is a full time nurse, mother, and beloved kwe. She’s Kitchi wiikwedong Anishinaabe from the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians: a sovereign nation in northwest Michigan.

RAPHAEL: There’s an older term for it called manidoomin meaning the Creator’s grain. And so we also call the beds the Creator’s garden. And you feel that when you’re out there. You’re so connected to nature and all of the life around you. So that’s my soapbox.

SHEA: Mari uses a long cedar pole to gently guide her canoe through dense patches of wild rice.

CLARK: In the middle of the canoe sits her daughter Monni, holding two knockers – short sticks made of cedar wood. Monni uses one to bend the stalks of grass towards her, and with the other, she gently taps, and a shower of seeds rain down.

Monni Raphael bends stalks of manoomin over her canoe, and uses two cedar sticks to knock seeds into the boat. (Photo by Mike Krebs - Traverse City Record-Eagle.)
Mike Krebs/Record-Eagle/Mike Krebs
Record-Eagle/Mike Krebs
Monni Raphael bends stalks of manoomin over her canoe, and uses two cedar sticks to knock seeds into the boat. (Photo by Mike Krebs - Traverse City Record-Eagle.)

CLARK: Most of it falls into the canoe. But many seeds fall into the water … where they’ll sink to the bottom to germinate and grow back next year.

In our canoe, I had some knockers as well. I was getting into a rhythm with it, gently brushing the stalks as you do hair, and showering Patrick in seeds. Your legs were covered in manoomin.

SHEA: Yeah they were. It was sticking to the gray windscreen on my microphone, too.

And I pointed that manoomin-mic towards Mari, who says she always makes a point of being seen when she harvests.

Manoomin sticks to the windscreen of a microphone. Photo by Patrick Shea - Interlochen Public Radio.
Interlochen Public Radio
Manoomin sticks to the windscreen of a microphone. (Photo by Patrick Shea - Interlochen Public Radio.)

RAPHAEL: We take a lot of pictures when we’re out here. And the reason why I do it and then document it on Facebook [is] because it lets people see that we are actually out here, practicing our treaty rights.

SHEA: Mari’s referring specifically to the 1836 treaty of Washington. It ceded most of what’s now known as Michigan to the federal government. And in exchange, sovereign tribal nations were guaranteed certain rights in all of that territory.

CLARK: Rights like hunting, fishing and gathering traditional foods like manoomin. Mari says when people see her practicing these rights, she hopes it’s a reminder the treaty was an exchange. That we’re still honoring our way of life here in our homelands.

RAPHAEL: And so that’s why it’s so important for us to take pictures and let people know that we actually are doing traditional things. And we’re doing it in the way our ancestors did it, too. We still have that knowledge and we’re still practicing our traditional ways.

SHEA: Roger Labine – who you heard in the intro – says like the rice itself, some of that knowledge has been lost.

LABINE: I’ve went into some communities where some of the people have very little, if any recollection. They just say, ‘I don’t remember it.’ You talk about the boarding schools – shipping our youth off to boarding schools. [They] were not able to continue with their culture. And they were taken from their communities to not be aware of what was going on with the wild rice camp and a lot of other things.

CLARK: To help restore that knowledge, Roger is part of an effort to establish wild rice as the official state grain of Michigan.

NAT SPURR: It’s a bipartisan effort. So of the total 38 state senators, we had 27 as co-sponsors.

SHEA: That’s Nat Spurr, a member of the Nottawaseppi Huron Band of Potawatomi. He’s also vice-chair of the Anishinaabek Caucus of the Michigan Democratic Party.

SPURR: When you look at the people of the three fires - the Ojibwe, the Odawa and the Potawatomi – the three major tribes which once inhabited the entire Great Lakes region – wild rice accounted for at least one sixth of our whole economy, and accounted for about half the calories that we needed to make it through the winter as a people.

SHEA: Manoomin is already the state grain of Minnesota, where regulations are in place to protect wild rice from damage. For example – Minnesota has rules about how long of a boat you can use to harvest, so you’re not damaging the plants. There are rules about the length of poles you can use, too. There are also certain times of year and times of the day when ricing isn’t allowed at all – that’s meant to prevent overharvesting. Wisconsin also has some similar rules in place.

SPURR: We don’t have those in Michigan. In Michigan, there’s absolutely no laws and no regulation when it comes to wild rice.

SHEA: Nat wants to see that change. He says for that to happen, the state first has to acknowledge the grain’s importance.

SPURR: I think people should embrace that it has not only a historical significance to our people and a spiritual significance, but it’s important to the whole history of Michigan, all the way from top to bottom.

CLARK: I’m standing in Tera John’s kitchen. The smells of sautéed vegetables and meat engulf the room as Tera prepares a manoomin and venison casserole.

TERA JOHN: We’ve got some chicken stock going and I just put the rice in.

CLARK: Tera is also Anishinaabe from the Grand Traverse Band, and she works in food sovereignty with the tribe's agriculture department.

She discusses the process of manoomin: from harvesting, to parching and winnowing, so the chaff separates from kernels. As she reaches the final stage – cooking and eating the manoomin – she compares it to a close friend.

Mari Raphael shows a handful of harvested manoomin. Next, it will be parched and winnowed to separate the kernels from the chaff. Photo by Mike Krebs - Traverse City Record-Eagle.
Mike Krebs/Record-Eagle/Mike Krebs
Record-Eagle/Mike Krebs
Mari Raphael shows a handful of harvested manoomin. Next, it will be parched and winnowed to separate the kernels from the chaff. Photo by Mike Krebs - Traverse City Record-Eagle.

JOHN: Just like a person. When you see a person go through stages of their life, you grow closer to them and you understand them better. And it’s the same thing with our plant relatives. Because I’ve watched this grass grow from seed all the way up through its maturity, and now I’m going to be harvesting and processing and feeding the people of my community with it. Like, My ideal dream is to be able to feed our people.

CLARK: Since time immemorial this plant has given our people what we needed to survive. Now, we’re working to do the same for manoomin.

In doing so, we’re honoring a sacred reciprocal relationship.

Patrick Shea was a natural resources reporter at Interlochen Public Radio. Before joining IPR, he worked a variety of jobs in conservation, forestry, prescribed fire and trail work. He earned a degree in natural resources from Northland College in Ashland, Wisconsin, and his interest in reporting grew as he studied environmental journalism at the University of Montana's graduate school.