That Food Which Grows on the Water: The threats and the hope for Minnesota’s wild rice

November 16, 2011

Jennifer Martin-Romme
Zenith City Weekly

According to Anishinaabeg oral history, wild rice is the reason the land we now call Minnesota was first populated. Woven into a series of prophecies was a westward call to a place in which food grows on the water.

Archaeological evidence suggests there were human settlements in North American wild rice territory dating back more than 9,000 years.

In the 1700s, the Ojibwe (a large subgroup of the Anishinaabeg), drawn by food fish migrations and forced by European colonization, moved northwestward—directly into the habitat of Zizania palustris, Northern wild rice, manoomin in Ojibwe—the seed of a water grass that grows in the lakes and streams of the boreal forests.

Stories vary as to how it came to be consumed as food, staving off hunger during lean winter months. In one, the hunter Nanaboozhoo, returning empty-handed to his fire, found a duck sitting on the kettle. The duck flew away, leaving behind grains of wild rice in the pot, resulting in the best soup Nanaboozhoo had ever tasted.

In another story, Waynaboozhoo was worried that everyone was going to starve, so he headed out into the woods until he found what looked like dancers on the surface of a river.

The northern Ojibwe bands have harvested wild rice for over 350 years, the plant becoming a centerpiece of social and spiritual customs, as well as a source of inter-tribal skirmishes, cultural appropriation, and bitter misunderstandings.

In 2002, the White Earth Band objected to a University of Minnesota research project into breeding wild rice for optimum commercial traits. When White Earth representatives expressed concern that genetic engineering could affect the remarkable immunity that makes wild rice almost impervious to disease, University researcher Raymie Porter dismissed this as “religious beliefs” that should not be allowed “to shut down scientific inquiry.”

The plants have a narrow window for harvest in September when the seeds can be brushed off with small poles. Its root systems develop in sedimentary mud deposits, forming thick, strong mats that can often bear the weight of humans walking across them.

Wild rice’s distinctive boom-and-bust growth cycles are what initially attracted the attention of John Pastor, a biology professor at the University of Minnesota Duluth and a former senior researcher with the Natural Resources Research Institute.

In 2004, with funding from the National Science Foundation, Pastor began studying the population fluctuations of wild rice, collaborating with the Grand Portage Band, which has maintained a long-term record of regional patterns.

“Wild rice looked like a model plant to look at this,” says Pastor. “Its life cycle is only about four years. Natural population booms are followed by a crash. The annual life cycle is relatively quick compared to, say, trees.”

Nitrogen turned out to be key. “Wild rice takes up all the nitrogen it needs in two to three weeks in the spring, before the old plants have thoroughly decomposed. So the new plants are starved for nitrogen, causing the bust part of the cycle. Two years later, the population starts to recover.”

Pastor didn’t set out to study wild rice specifically nor did he intend to get involved with the controversial questions surrounding wild rice, water quality, and copper/nickel mining.


But then, he says, he was approached by Nancy Schuldt, a water quality specialist with the Fond du Lac Environmental Program.

Schudlt did not return repeat requests for comment.

“Nancy came to me and said, ‘This has all been great, but there’s this mining issue coming up.’”

So, three years ago, Pastor began growing wild rice in buckets with increasing amounts of sulfur in each. Sulfates—one sulfur atom surrounded by four oxygen atoms—are a major byproduct of taconite and copper/nickel mining. They are an environmental contaminant regulated by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA).

Pastor found that as sulfur levels in the water increased above 10 milligrams per liter—the MPCA’s current sulfate standard—the plants became smaller and produced fewer and smaller seeds. At sulfur levels above 300, there was a 15 to 20 percent decline.

“We saw less root we know the natural plants aren’t limited by the amount of sulfur, but by the amount of nitrogen. If they don’t have enough root growth, they can’t pick up the nitrogen.”

Wild rice needs oxygen for its roots to “breathe” and for decomposition in the sediment to produce nitrogen. When there’s no oxygen available, something else must perform that function—enter sulfates.

As the plants remove the oxygen they need from sulfates, they leave behind sulfide, which combines with hydrogen to form a toxin to the roots.

“The mines aren’t releasing sulfide; they’re releasing sulfate...Sulfate itself is not the problem; sulfide is the problem. This stuff is poison. Don’t do it.”

Pastor says he was approached about his findings by the MPCA after the agency was sued by the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce in December 2010.

The complaint alleges that Chamber members—namely, taconite and copper/nickel mines—are being held by the MPCA to a “vague,” “arbitrary,” and “unfair” standard.

Responding to questions about the lawsuit in August, Shannon Lotthammer of the MPCA said: “[Our] position is we have a valid water quality standard and we’re undertaking additional study to determine whether we need to re-evaluate that standard...We’re looking to get additional information on the effects of sulfate or sulfide on wild rice plants.”

The MPCA received funding from the legislature for two years of study, at which point the standard may be adjusted according to whatever the committee finds.

The Wild Rice Standards Study Advisory Committee began meeting last summer and includes scientists, tribal members, environmentalists, and representatives of the mining industry, according to Len Anderson, a local biologist tapped to sit on the committee.

“Behind every scientist on there sits a very high-paid lawyer, instead of guiding the careful design of honest science,” says Anderson. “I have nothing to fear from good science, but these rascals? They had no comments. The whole day was spent discussing who makes the research proposals. They don’t like John Pastor. It’s just that legal finagling that’s so hateful.

“One indication [the MPCA is] doing a good job is the taconite attorneys were attacking the MPCA at every turn. When [the attorneys] had a chance to be aggressive and pushy, they were. I thought that was a good sign.

“But the MPCA has said when it comes to [mining], they’re using 10 milligrams per liter [as the standard], but they’re leaving some wiggle room”—specifically, the difference between “numeric” and “narrative” standards, cited in the lawsuit as an example of the MPCA allegedly applying the sulfate rules inconsistently.

Ed Swain with the MPCA did not return request for comment by press time.

A numeric standard is self-explanatory, but a narrative standard allows evaluation on a case-by-case basis and is “very poorly defined,” according to Anderson.

“They will go down the Partridge River and define [wild rice] stands that have to meet one standard. Then, the next stand will have to meet another. Then, they’ll go down the Embarrass River and do the same thing.

“The narrative standard will give them a lot of wiggle room around the [federal Environmental Protection Agency]...To come up with a believable standard is beyond what any scientist is capable of, because the ecosystems are highly variable.”

Wild rice has been at the center of conflicts between Ojibwe governments and the State of Minnesota since the 19th century. At first, European immigrants had little interest in wild rice, mistaking it for tares, which plagued the wheat fields of the Old Country.

When flooding in 1850 led to a massive wild rice crop failure, driving the Leech Lake Band into Fort Gaines (now Crow Wing), begging for food, the Commissioner of Indian Affairs blamed the Ojibwe for insisting upon eating weeds.

A few years later, a dam built across the Rum River flooded the Mille Lacs Band’s crop, all the way to Lake Onamia, for over 50 years.

Today, wild rice no longer grows at all on the St. Louis River within the Fond du Lac Reservation.

However, Anderson is heartened by the outcome of a 2007 study on Isle Royale by the American Chemical Society, which found that as fewer sulfates were deposited, their overall levels began to drop—essentially, the island’s ecosystem began to heal and recover.

“I’ve been preaching this stuff for five years, but I’ve been getting my numbers from the laboratory. We have on Isle Royale almost like a pristine laboratory. As we get down to sulfate levels that are adequate to protect wild rice, the same thing that happened on Isle Royale will happen here.”

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