Members of the Bad River Band fear threats to sacred wild rice harvesting as new mining begins in Northern Wisconsin.
The slender canoe slowly snakes through the water of the Kakagon Bad River Sloughs, just off Lake Superior. The sloughs looks like a large lake surrounded by marshland.
One person stands in the canoe slowly pushing the boat with a long pole while another sits, gently tapping a cedar stick on the bent green stalk.
A gentle and unmistakable sound beats.
Shh-shhh, shh-shhh. Pause. Shh-shhh, shh-shhh. Pause. Shh-shhh, shh-shhh.
Wet green kernels fall from the ricing stalk and gather in the bottom of the canoe.
Shh-shhh, shh-shhh. Pause. Shh-shhh, shh-shhh.
It continues in the sloughs as the early September sun beats down from a crystal clear blue sky.
It’s a delicate process, the harvesting of “the food that grows on water.” It’s the Anishinaabe term for Manoomin, also known as wild rice.
Manoomin is a sacred food to many northern Wisconsin Native American tribes. Since their arrival to Wisconsin, the Anishinaabe, also known as Ojibwe, have harvested wild rice on and off reservation land. This practice enables them to continue their way of life using Manoomin as a prominent nutritional, spiritual and medicinal food. But today, the Anishinaabe people of the Bad River Band fear for the future and preservation of wild rice.
According to the elders from the Anishinaabe community, their people lived on the East Coast before they were instructed to go to the land where “food grows on water.” Anishinaabe, which translates into “original people,” eventually found Manoomin in the northern Great Lakes area.
“Our people came here because we were told to come to the spot where food grows on water … and we have been here ever since,” says Dylan Jennings, a 22-year-old Bad River Tribe member and Great Lakes Indian Fish & Wildlife Commission employee.
In the Kakagon Bad River Sloughs, the wild rice season occurs in late August until early September. According to the Great Lakes Indian Fish & Wildlife Commission, the process of harvesting Manoomin is elaborate and requires heavy labor. Other tribes and people off the reservation have their own unique processes of harvesting Manoomin, creating different types of wild rice.
Wild rice is not the same as white rice or brown rice. Manoomin is labor-intensive and more costly. Uncooked wild rice has more protein than white rice and most grains.
On the Bad River Reservation, wild rice is harvested the real way.
“The rice in Bad River is different than off-reservation rice,” Jennings says. “We’ve got one of the most special places on the Earth up here. It’s called the Bad River Sloughs.”
Jennings and other tribal members are proud of their rice beds and how their rice is harvested. Before knocking off wild rice from the green stalks, the tribe first uses Asemaa, which translates to tobacco. Asemaa is their way of praying and giving thanks for the ability to harvest wild rice and to the rice they are about to receive.
“We take that tobacco and we offer that to the spirits, to those rice spirits, to the spirits of the water, to all those things that are watching over us as we do and practice these things,” Jennings says.
As traditions and techniques get passed down, the Bad River tribe continues to harvest wild rice. However, it has been difficult for them to harvest because of environmental changes.
Manoomin is a delicate crop and is usually grown in about a half-foot to three feet of clear water. If the water is dark then it limits the amount of sunlight penetration, and if it is too deep, the crop will not grow. The weather and temperature of the water also affects the growth.
“Wild rice is one of those indicator species that the ecosystems around the Great Lakes area are in excellent working order,” says Bad River Tribal Chairman, Mike Wiggins Jr.
A bigger change looms for the harvesting of wild rice. In 2013, Gogebic Taconite created a pre-project proposal to mine in the Penokee Hills. The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources approved permits for the company to research with exploratory drilling. As their research of the land continues, they realize the complexities that surround the Penokee Hills.
“The Penokees is such a special area because it’s the headwaters to our Bad River,” Jennings says.
Tracy Hames, executive director of Wisconsin Wetlands Association, says there are various watersheds and forests located in the Penokee Hills. Every time those watersheds are filled by rain or snow, the water eventually flows downstream, reaching Lake Superior. The Bad River and Lake Superior meet at the Kakagon Bad River Sloughs.
“The Kakagon Bad River Sloughs, where the wild rice is, a large estuary of 16,000 acres, has been recognized as a globally important wetland because of the condition it’s in and because of all the wild rice that’s growing there,” Hames says.
Gogebic Taconite plans to submit an application to develop a $1.5 billion iron mining operation, but are delaying the process in order to continue researching.
Hames says the mine will remove watersheds and the forests located in the Penokee Hills. This will make it difficult for forests and watersheds to slow down the water streaming to Lake Superior. With no forests or watersheds, the water will quickly rush into the sloughs creating flood peaks and increasing sediment.
Wiggins has seen the transformation of areas in Wisconsin where either wild rice is not growing or is not growing as thick as before.
“That mine right there will not only destroy rice. It will destroy us,” Wiggins says.
Despite the obstacles, the Bad River Tribe continues to preserve the tradition of harvesting Manoomin, but in order to preserve it, they need to pass the practice on to younger generations.
“It’s really important to expose them to it, but it’s where they are [going to] take it. It’s their choice,” Jennings says.
The knowledge of harvesting wild rice can start at a young age, but the heart of the Anishinaabe people in the Bad River Reservation is the Kakagon Bad River Sloughs.
Harvesting wild rice occurs annually with a sound. Shh-shhh, shh-shhh. Pause. Shh-shhh, shh-shhh. That takes them back in time to when there was nothing but the natural land of Wisconsin. To the time where their people, the Anishinaabe people, found “the food that grows on water.”