It's a misty morning on Big Chippewa Lake. An Anishinabeg couple drags their canoe toward the water's edge. The woman boards in front and sits on her haunches. The man pushes the canoe offshore and jumps in behind her. As they pole toward the wild rice beds, they can feel the crisp dampness of September on their faces. The man rises to stand, head just above the tall stalks of rice. The woman pulls the rice over her lap with one stick and gently raps it with a second.
There are many wild rice lakes on the White Earth reservation in northwestern Minnesota, my community. The Chippewa Indians, or Anishinabeg as we refer to ourselves, call the rice "Mahnomin," or gift from the Creator. More than half our people on the reservation harvest wild rice, depending on it for as much as 40 percent of their yearly incomes.
But just how long the Anishinabeg can continue to harvest wild rice is questionable. We face two challenges that increasingly threaten our cultural and economic relationship with wild rice. The first is the degradation of the wild rice ecosystem by industrial society. Pollution is reducing yield and destroying natural rice beds. Altered water levels resulting from the damming of rivers and the draining of wetlands for development have also taken their toll on rice production.
The second challenge is the development of a conventionally farmed, paddy-grown "wild" rice. This cheaper imitation rice now dominates the market and has pushed the price of real wild rice so low that until we organized, we could not make a living as we used to. All of these concerns rest against a backdrop of inequitable land-ownership patterns.