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Wild rice sales are booming; threat of contamination looms

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John Shimek uses wooden sticks to knock wild rice into the bottom of his canoe on South Chippewa Lake on the White Earth Indian Reservation. Shimek says wild rice harvesting is important to the local economy. (MPR photo/Tom Robertson)
Observers say Minnesota's wild rice harvest this year is spotty. On some lakes, the harvest is down significantly. One exception is Big Rice Lake on the White Earth Indian Reservation. White Earth tribal members have harvested thousands of pounds of rice from that lake over the past few days. That's good news for people on White Earth who market hand-harvested wild rice. Sales on the Internet and a growing international market have caused wild rice sales to triple in just the past year.

White Earth Indian Reservation — Hand-harvesting wild rice by canoe isn't as popular as it used to be, probably because it's a lot of work. But the Native American tradition is still very much alive.

John Shimek, 22, is paddling at the edge of South Chippewa Lake on the White Earth Reservation. Shimek says his family has been ricing for as long as he can remember. He says a couple of experienced ricers can earn hundreds of dollars in just a few hours' work.

"They establish a rhythm and they just bring it over the side," said Shimek as he demonstrates, using wooden sticks to knock the rice from tall plants into the bottom of the boat. "See how much fell in already?"

Shimek says for many Native American people, wild rice is an important source of income.

"The economy around here does depend on it," said Shimek. "My dad, he put me through school with the wild rice. That's what we would do to make our money to get through the year."

Wild ricers used to have only a few places where they could sell what they harvested. Then in the late 1980s, a new, non-profit organization formed called the White Earth Land Recovery Project. Its goal was to buy wild rice and then resell it to food cooperatives and specialty food stores.

Jennifer Tlumak works for the Land Recovery Project. She says the organization recognized there was greater potential for wild rice. Tlumak says there was wild rice going unharvested.

"Wild rice is quite abundant in this area. There's more rice than we could possibly ever need," said Tlumak. "It's just a matter of getting out there, and having people who are still doing the traditional harvesting and going out in canoes, and providing a market for them to do that."

The White Earth Land Recovery Project was founded by White Earth resident Winona LaDuke. Her goal is to buy back some of the tribe's original lands that were sold off years ago. The organization buys about 50,000 lbs. of wild rice each year from tribal members.

Using profits from the sale of wild rice and other natural products such as maple syrup and jellies, the Land Recovery Project has purchased nearly 1,700 acres. The organization sets those acres aside and protects them for the benefit of the tribe.

LaDuke says sales of wild rice have tripled since last year. The Internet has helped a lot with that. So has a growing European market, especially in Italy and Germany. LaDuke says there's a growing interest in high quality organic foods.

"The markets for our product are growing, because people are interested in the fact that you could have an heirloomed crop that is hand-harvested and parched over a fire. And that represents a certain quality of life, which in the vastness of a fossil-fuel, consumer society, is something that actually people begin to relate to again," said LaDuke.

LaDuke says the organic qualities of Minnesota's natural wild rice are in danger. The University of Minnesota has been researching wild rice for decades. That research has aided the development of some 25,000 acres of machine-harvested, cultivated paddy rice in Minnesota.

LaDuke and others are most concerned with natural wild rice becoming genetically contaminated. LaDuke fears it's only a matter of time before scientists figure out a way to genetically modify the wild rice genome.

"The University of Minnesota has basically said, 'Well, we aren't intending to do it. But we want the right to.' And that's the problem, is that open door," said LaDuke. "I understand academic freedom. I'm a big supporter of academic freedom. But I feel like there should be some academic responsibility."

Wild rice carries enormous cultural and spiritual importance for the Ojibwe people.

This is about our life. This is about a core part of our spiritual understanding and belief. And on this one, it is time to say no. This one's not negotiable.
- Paul Schultz

On the shore of South Chippewa Lake, tribal elder Earl Hoagland sits beside a metal pot that's perched over an open fire. He's stirring several pounds of green rice with a wooden paddle. Hoagland says that's the best way to dry the rice.

"This process was done a long time ago, too," said Hoagland, "the same way we're doing it now."

Hoagland says the Ojibwe tradition teaches that it was the rice that led them centuries ago from the East Coast to their home in Minnesota. He worries genetic contamination might destroy what they cherish so much.

"We consider the wild rice to be a sacred gift from the Creator and it's always been here for us," said Hoagland. "Now, if the rice is altered genetically, it may be a strain that will take over the wild rice, and we will lose what was given to us by the Creator."

Despite the spiritual importance of wild rice, most on White Earth realize its economic importance. Last year, Land Recovery Project sales climbed to $250,000.

Tribal elder Paul Schultz says sharing wild rice with the world is a good thing, as long as it's done with a good heart.

"We need to be careful," Schultz said. "We need to be sure that from the Indian side of the coin, that we don't end up giving in just to marketing and just to rice as a moneymaker. That would be to betray our own beliefs."

Schultz says the cultural and economic value of natural wild rice would diminish if it were contaminated by genetically modified rice. He says the Ojibwe people will fight to convince the state of Minnesota to ban such rice.

"We're not going to whither, we're going to hang in there," said Schultz. "We're going to do everything we need to, because this is about our life. This is about a core part of our spiritual understanding and belief. And on this one it is time to say no. This one's not negotiable. This one's not for sale."

Ojibwe leaders say the wild rice protection issue should be important not just for Native Americans. Wild rice has been recognized as Minnesota's state grain since 1977.

Still, bills offered during the last legislative session banning genetically modified wild rice went nowhere. Those bills are expected to be reintroduced next year.