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A struggle to protect biodiversity and a Native American way of life

by Winona LaDuke

Published in the July/August 2007 issue of Orion magazine

Photograph by Bob Sacha

AS FALL TEMPERATURES CHANGE on the White Earth Reservation and the mist lifts off the lakes, the Ojibwe take to the waters. Two people to a canoe, one poles through the thick rice beds, pushing the canoe forward, while the other, sitting toward the front of the boat, uses two long sticks to gently bend the rice and knock the seeds into the canoe. The sounds of manoominike, the wild rice harvest, are the gliding of the boat through the water and across shafts of rice, the soft swish of the rice bending, the raining of the rice into the canoe. They are soothing sounds, reminding my people of the continuity between the generations. We have been harvesting rice here for centuries.

Each year, my family and I join hundreds of other harvesters who return daily with hundreds of pounds of rice from the region’s lakes and rivers. We call it the Wild Rice Moon, Manoominike Giizis. On White Earth, Leech Lake, Nett Lake, and other Ojibwe reservations in the Great Lakes region, it is a time when people harvest a food to feed their bellies and to sell for zhooniyaash, or cash, to meet basic expenses. But it is also a time to feed the soul.

FIFTEEN HUNDRED MILES AWAY, in Woodland, California, a company called Nor-Cal has received a patent on wild rice. Conceptually, it seems almost impossible—patenting something called wild rice. The Ojibwe now find themselves at the center of an international battle over who owns lifeforms, foods, and medicines that have throughout history been the collective property of indigenous peoples.

An estimated 90 percent of the world’s biodiversity lies within the territories of indigenous peoples, whether the Amazon, the Indian subcontinent, or the North Woods. A new form of colonialism, known as biocolonialism, is reaching deep into the heart of these communities. As Stephanie Howard wrote for the Indigenous People’s Council on Biocolonialism, “The flow of genes is primarily from indigenous communities and rural communities in ‘developing countries’ to the Northern-based genetics industry. Ninety-seven percent of all patents are held by industrialized countries.”

In 1994, for example, two researchers at the University of Colorado were able to secure a patent on quinoa, much to the surprise of native farmers in the Andean region of Bolivia and Ecuador who had been cultivating and stewarding the grain for thousands of years. The patent gave the university exclusive control over a traditional Bolivian sterile male variety called Apelawa, and also extended to hybrids developed from the breeding of forty-three additional traditional varieties. In 1998, the Bolivian National Quinoa Producers Association, with support from other groups internationally, was able to convince the researchers to drop the patent. But similar patents were issued on the neem tree, ayahuasca (a medicinal plant of the Amazon), and many other medicinal plants. Some of these were also eventually revoked. In September 1997, RiceTec, a Texas-based company, even won a controversial patent on the famed basmati rice. When the Indian government filed a complaint with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, RiceTec was forced to give up fifteen of twenty patent claims.

It was within this climate that University of Minnesota plant geneticist Ron Phillips, along with a few colleagues, mapped the wild rice genome in 2000. According to Phillips, this work is considered “important as a foundation for genetic and crop improvement studies.” The Ojibwe believe that these studies, bearing names such as “Molecular Cytogenetics in Plant Improvement,” could have far-reaching implications. The wild rice gene map is now filed with GenBank, a database operated by the National Institutes of Health, and its availability essentially sets the stage for genetic modification.

Traditional breeding techniques attempt to enhance certain traits of the wild rice and to repress others, but with genetic engineering, it becomes possible to insert DNA from other plants into the wild rice. The Ojibwe are alarmed by this possibility, viewing it as an attack on the essential nature of the rice itself.

THOUSANDS OF YEARS AGO, according to our oral histories, the Anishinaabeg—called the Ojibwe or Chippewa by the federal government—followed a shell in the sky from the great waters of the East to the place where the food grows on the water. That food was wild rice, the only grain indigenous to North America, and it has been a central food in ceremony and sustenance for our people ever since. “The[y] gain their livelihood by fishing, hunting, gathering berries and wild rice and making maple sugar, which constitutes their chief means of support,” Indian agents would write, noting that the Ojibwe also relied on wild rice as a source of trade with the white settlers, and later as a source of credit and cash.

The rice was so significant to the Ojibwe that the lands with the best wild rice stands—including Big Rice Lake, Rice Lake Refuge, Lake Winnibigoshish, Nett Lake, and other mother lodes of the great grain—were reserved. Beyond the reservation borders, land was transferred to the U.S. government, but the rice was not. In an 1837 treaty, the Ojibwe ceded nearly 14 million acres of Wisconsin and Minnesota but retained “the privilege of hunting, fishing, and gathering the wild rice upon the lands, the rivers and the lakes included in the territory ceded.” Federal and Supreme Court cases, including the 1999 Mille Lacs Supreme Court case, have upheld the rights of the Ojibwe to traditional land-use outside the reservations. 

It was this close bond between a people and a food that University of Minnesota professor Albert Jenks encountered when he came to White Earth and other reservations to study wild rice in the late 1800s. He noted with disdain the Ojibwe harvesting practices. “Wild rice, which had led to their advance thus far, held them back from further progress,” he determined. His perception of the Ojibwe wild rice harvest as a bastion of primitiveness would become the prevailing opinion at the University of Minnesota throughout the twentieth century—indeed, a sort of battle cry for industrializing agriculture.

In the 1950s, University of Minnesota researchers decided it was time to liberate the rice from the indigenous people. So they set out to domesticate wild rice. A university scientist named Ervin Oelke began the process, using germ plasm collected from twenty-four natural stands within the 1837 treaty area. Over the years, the Minnesota Agricultural Extension office was able to “create” several strains of “wild” rice: Johnson in 1968, M1 in 1970, M2 in 1972, M3 in 1974, Netum in 1978, Voyager in 1983, Meter in 1985, Franklin in 1992, and Purple Petrowski in 2000.

In effect, what the Creator gave to the Anishinaabeg has become a profit-making enterprise for others. These domesticated varieties are engineered to ripen at the same time and, with a harder hull, can be harvested mechanically. They are cultivated in paddies, flooded fields that are drained to allow access with a combine. By 1968, Minnesota’s paddy wild rice production already represented some 20 percent of the state’s yield. This increase in production, along with growing national demand for wild rice and subsequent interest from corporations such as Uncle Ben’s, Green Giant, and General Foods, permanently altered the market for traditionally harvested wild rice. Lake rice could no longer compete with the mass-manufactured paddy crop. The wholesale wild rice price dropped from $4.44 per pound in 1967 to $2.68 a pound in 1976, destabilizing the wild rice economy of the Ojibwe.

Then, in 1977, the Minnesota state legislature designated wild rice the official state grain—a tragic turn of events for the lake harvest. With an outpouring from the state coffers, the University of Minnesota began to aggressively market a domesticated version of wild rice. By the early 1980s paddy-grown wild rice had outstripped the indigenous varieties in production. 

Ironically, greed knows no state boundaries. Minnesota lost control over production of its official state grain to California, which by 1983 produced over 8.3 million pounds, compared to Minnesota’s 5 million pounds. By 1986, more than 95 percent of the wild rice harvested was paddy grown, the vast majority produced in California. As this glut of wild rice hit the market, prices plummeted. Many Ojibwe lost their source of livelihood. But to add insult to injury, many of the paddy rice companies were selling their product as if it were wild wild rice, in some cases even using Ojibwe images in their advertising.

The Ojibwe fought back. In 1988, Wabizii v. Busch Agricultural Resources, a lawsuit on the issue of false and misleading advertising, was filed. Busch Agricultural Resources (a division of the beer conglomerate) was marketing a product called Onamia Wild Rice, which plaintiffs Mike Swan and Frank Bibeau charged was in fact a California-grown paddy product disguised as Minnesota lake rice. “They had two Indians on a canoe who appeared to be picking wild rice. They were taking a California-grown product, trucking it to Minnesota, where it was packaged and designated as a Minnesota product,” Bibeau, a White Earth tribal member, recalls. The case was settled out of court, and eventually the state passed a law forcing paddy wild-rice producers to label their product as such, with the words “paddy rice” no less than half the size of the words “wild rice.” Still, the Minnesota labeling law does not apply to California-grown wild rice, so three-quarters of the nation’s domesticated crop can be described as “wild” without qualification.

WILD RICE, OR Zizania palustris, is actually a grass, sharing only some genetic traits with other rice crops internationally. The differences in wild rice beds are well known to local harvesters. Some plants grow tall and live in deep water; others have adapted to shallow water. Some strains have fat grains; others have long grains. They range in color from purple to light brown to greenish. That biodiversity is the staff of life, and it is essential to the security of the rice. That same biodiversity served as the genetic basis for the domesticated varieties, an agricultural monocrop.

The Anishinaabeg believe there is a real possibility that wild rice stands could be contaminated by the domesticated varieties. There are around six thousand bodies of water with significant wild rice beds in Minnesota, containing around sixty thousand acres of rice. And there are around twenty thousand acres of cultivated wild rice paddies in close proximity to most of those native beds. Ron Phillips claims there is little chance of cross-pollination as long as approximately 660 feet separate the two kinds of wild rice. However, in the summer of 2002, university researchers noted the possibility of between 1 and 5 percent of the pollen from test plots drifting up to two miles.

Then there is, in Donald Rumsfeld’s vernacular, the unknown unknown of the zhiishiibig, the ducks. Ducks and other waterfowl do not differentiate between paddy rice plots and natural stands of wild rice; they move freely between them, carrying rice from one to the other. Phillips himself acknowledges a problem: “It depends on what you are willing to accept as a threshold of risk. You can’t guarantee . . . that a bird won’t pick up a weed and take it twenty miles away,” he said.

As for Nor-Cal Wild Rice, U.S. patent number 5955648 secures its rights to a traditional breeding process which uses something known as “cytoplasmic genetic male sterility” to produce hybrid varieties. John Pershell of the Water Quality Research Department of the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe read all thirty pages of the patent. “Nowhere did it mention anything about the wild rice being wild or coming from somewhere,” he said. The rice has basically been co-opted. But what’s worse, those confusing words, “cytoplasmic genetic male sterility,” are essentially a fancy way of saying that these varieties cannot reproduce. They are sterile. The Ojibwe are concerned that, like the notorious “terminator” seeds, Nor-Cal’s strain of wild rice could negatively affect the vitality of wild lake rice.

These fears were validated by two major contamination incidents in August 2006. In the first, genetically engineered bentgrass escaped its testing ground in Oregon. Three years earlier, farmers had joined with environmentalists and the Center for Food Safety in pursuing a lawsuit against the USDA, which had, in their assessment, failed to properly regulate varieties of creeping bentgrass and Kentucky bluegrass that had been genetically engineered to resist the weedkiller Roundup. In February 2007, U.S. District Judge Henry H. Kennedy Jr. ruled in favor of the plaintiffs, citing evidence that field tests had the potential to be harmful to other crops, and instructing the USDA to cease approval for field tests of genetically engineered crops until it can give more scrutiny to applications.

Last August as well, news was released that a German company was responsible for the contamination of a vast portion of the U.S. long-grain white rice crop by a genetically engineered variety never intended for human consumption. When the news spread, European and Asian markets began strictly limiting their importation of all U.S. long-grain white rice. Japan banned the white rice crop outright. The European Union demanded that expensive genetic tests be conducted to guarantee no presence of genetically engineered organisms. Rice futures prices tumbled $150 million in a single day and rice exports are estimated to decline by as much as 16 percent in 2007. Following this fiasco, farmers from Arkansas, Missouri, Mississippi, Louisiana, Texas, and California filed a lawsuit against Bayer CropScience, charging the corporation with tainting the domestic crop and damaging the U.S. export market. Industry responded by filing a petition to deregulate its untested, genetically engineered product. Meanwhile, scientists are still trying to figure out how an experimental crop that was discontinued years ago, and was apparently grown at distances beyond what the USDA considered adequate to prevent contamination, managed to become commingled with long-grain white rice harvested from many different locations.

Though no one has yet attempted to grow genetically engineered wild rice in the out of doors, a similar contamination scenario would be devastating. Tainted lake rice would be virtually unable to compete in international markets, and over half of all wild rice is sold internationally.

FOR THE PAST NINE YEARS, the Anishinaabeg community has repeatedly requested that the University of Minnesota stop its genetic work on wild rice. “We object to the exploitation of our wild rice for pecuniary gain,” wrote Minnesota Chippewa Tribal President Norman Deschampe in a 1998 letter to the University of Minnesota. He continued: “We are of the opinion that the wild rice rights assured by treaty accrue not only to individual grains of rice, but to the very essence of the resource. We were not promised just any wild rice; that promise could be kept by delivering sacks of grain to our members each year. We were promised the rice that grew in the waters of our people, and all the value that rice holds.”

In September 2003, a coalition of Ojibwe tribal governments and members demanded the following concessions from the university: a moratorium on genomic research and genetic research of wild rice at the university, to be effective December 31, 2004; protection of Anishinaabeg intellectual property rights to wild rice, including a ban on selling these rights; a cultural consultation program to be set in place by the university to examine the ethics of research on cross-cultural issues; and mutually agreed upon beneficial research to be done on behalf of Anishinaabeg people, equal to that done on behalf of the cultivated wild-rice industry. A satisfactory response is still pending. More recently, the White Earth and Fond du Lac bands of Ojibwe have adopted ordinances banning the genetic modification of wild rice, following the lead of several California counties and a host of international ordinances on GMOs.

In the spring of 2006, a letter signed by over seventy Minnesota state legislators promoting the protection of wild rice was secured by state representative Frank Moe, whose constituents include two Ojibwe bands, but only after a pitched battle with the biotech industry and the University of Minnesota. At the legislative hearings, representatives for both the industry and the university testified against protecting wild rice from genetic engineering, pushing instead for an open-door policy for the future. Biotech giant Monsanto, unsurprisingly, argued that such protection would send a “chilling message” to the biotech industry, and perhaps diminish its investment in the state.

Despite this opposition, a protection bill for wild rice was signed into law in early May 2007. The legislation requires that any entity wanting to grow genetically engineered wild rice in Minnesota must file an environmental impact statement with the state. It also requires that state entities notify the tribes of any permits granted to grow genetically engineered wild rice in other states, and that they engage in studies to better understand the threat that genetic engineering poses to wild rice.

The controversy over wild rice is similar to a recent dispute over taro, a sacred food of Native Hawaiians. Since January 2006, Hawaiians had been pressuring the University of Hawai’i to give up patents it held on three varieties of taro, arguing that taro, the “elder brother” of Native Hawaiians, should not be subject to transgenic experimentation. Gary Ostrander, vice-chancellor for research and graduate education at the University of Hawai’i at Manoa, describes how the three disease-resistant taro strains were created after a leaf blight wiped out 90 percent of Samoan taro in the 1990s. University scientists had used traditional breeding techniques to cross Palauan and Hawaiian taro, and the university had obtained plant patents on the resulting strains in 2002. However, after negotiations with Native Hawaiian taro farmers and legal counsel, the university filed “terminal disclaimers” with the U.S. Patent Office, dissolving its proprietary interests. And in June 2006, the university literally tore up its patents. “It is as if the patents were never filed,” said Ostrander in an article in the Honolulu Star-Bulletin, adding that he had come to appreciate the Native Hawaiians’ point of view on the issue.

Earlier that spring, the pueblos of New Mexico had joined with Hispanic communities in a historic declaration of seed sovereignty, reaffirming seed-saving traditions and rejecting patents and genetically engineered seed. The declaration states that the traditional farmers of Indo-Hispano and Native-American ancestry in northern New Mexico “consider genetic modification and the potential contamination of our landraces by GE technology a continuation of genocide upon indigenous people and as malicious and sacrilegious acts toward our ancestry, culture, and future generations.” In October 2006, the declaration was passed by the National Congress of American Indians, an organization comprised of the elected tribal leadership of federally recognized tribes. And in early 2007, the New Mexico state legislature passed a memorial “recognizing the significance of indigenous agricultural practices and native seeds to New Mexico’s cultural heritage and food security.” Even though several clauses concerning the threat of genetic engineering were deleted due to pressure from Monsanto and the State Department of Agriculture, the final version resolved that the House of Representatives “supports efforts to prevent genetic contamination of native seeds.”

Rowen White, a Mohawk seed saver and farmer, explains what’s at stake: “A cultural community that persists in its farming tradition does not simply conserve indigenous seed stock because of economic justifications. The seeds themselves become symbols, reflections of the people’s own spiritual and aesthetic identity, and of the land that shaped them.”

“We stand to lose everything,” says White Earth tribal member Joe LaGarde, who has harvested wild rice since he was a small child. “If we lose our rice, we won’t exist as a people for long.” This is why tribal entities in the North Country are determined to differentiate the wild rice that is harvested from lakes and rivers from the corporatized version, and are seeking national and international markets for their rarefied product. Through work that is somewhat like the fair-trade struggle of coffee farmers, the Ojibwe are beginning to regain an economic foothold with the wild rice economy. The key is to keep the rice and protect it; to remain connected to a traditional way of life and the land.

It was in that spirit that I took my fifteen-year-old son out ricing on the Ottertail River last year, far from the din of television, Game Boys, NASCAR, and big cities. I let him pole for the first time. He’s quite a bit larger than I, and in the past I would do the poling out of fear that he would dump the boat—and his mother—into the lake. But over time he’s become more steady, and I’ve become more docile. We watched the wabiziwag, the trumpeter swans, lift off the river and listened to the sound of rice falling in the canoe.

There is something irreplaceable about following the canoe path of your ancestors through the rice beds. It’s sort of a miracle in this millennium that this age-old tradition continues. But it does. And it will.

Apane. Always.

This article, along with other landmark Orion essays about transformative action, are collected in a new anthology, Change Everything Now. Order your copy here.

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Winona LaDuke, a member of the Mississippi Band of Anishinaabeg (Ojibwe), is executive director of Honor the Earth. Her most recent book is Recovering the Sacred.

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