The migration story of the Ojibwe people tells of following the miigis (cowry shell) west and looking for a place where food grows on the water. That food was manoomin (wild rice), and the place, basically, was northern Wisconsin, Minnesota and Michigan and west-central Ontario.
“It’s considered a sacred plant,” says Peter David, a wildlife biologist for the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission (GLIFWC). The commission, based in Odanah, on the Bad River Reservation in Wisconsin, represents 11 Ojibwe tribes in implementing treaty rights.
The most-common translation for manoomin, he says, is “good fruit” or “good berry.” The word is derived from manitou, or “spirit,” and meenum or “delicacy,” making it a “spirit food.”
Frequent references to wild rice are found in historic texts, voyager and explorer journals and, occasionally, in treaties, “Rice is so important that it really tends to crop up over and over again,” David says. For example, the Treaty of 1837 refers explicitly to “hunting, fishing and gathering the wild rice” among the rights the tribes reserved.
A GLIFWC wild rice brochure, found online through Glifwc.org, reports that no other plant in North America contributed as many geographic names as wild rice: “Numerous lakes, rivers or towns are named Rice or Manoomin, or bear related names such as ‘Poygan,’ derived from the Menominee word for gathering rice.”
While there are species called wild rice in other parts of the world, such as China, manoomin only exists in that north-central region of North America. “It’s really a North American species, and that makes us the global stewards of rice,” David says.
In Wisconsin and Minnesota, cultivated “wild” rice must be labeled as such. Many find the flavor of hand-harvest rice to be superior—including taste-maven Martha Stewart, who has a wild rice cake recipe on her website that states: “Wild rice varies in quality. Most of what is sold as wild rice is actually cultivated and then mechanically harvested and processed. It is worth the extra cost to buy more flavorful hand-harvested lake- or river-grown wild rice.”
“You ought to try the real McCoy once,” David says. “A lot of the flavor in rice can also come in the finishing process [of hand-harvested rice].”
There are concerns about cross-pollination between wild rice and the genetically altered “wild” rice used in cultivation, but David sees a more pressing threat. “My biggest concern is actually climate change. Wild rice is a northern hearty plant.… It requires a real winter [for the seed to break dormancy]. Climate change could have a marked impact in a variety of ways.”
GLIFWC has 20 years of regional harvest data, and reports that 2010 was the poorest regional harvest in recent history. Warmer summers make the rice susceptible to diseases. Too much rain, especially hard, short downpours, also cause problems, over-flooding the rice beds. That was an issue in the past with dam creation—by humans or beavers—along waterways in the region. Now, though, dams are being used to re-create wetlands primed for rice beds and rice has been reintroduced in many traditional ricing areas. “We have a very active seeding program. We’ve increased rice abundance in Wisconsin,” David says, adding that the wild rice has not reached the level it was at prior to European contact, “and I don’t think it ever will be.”
Emphasis on reinvigorating wild rice often centers on human harvest, but David says it is critical for wildlife, too. “I tend to think of wild rice beds as almost their own habitat type. Where rice is abundant, it tends to be one of those plants that drives biological diversity of those sites.” Wild rice feeds waterfowl, such as mallards, wood and ring-necked ducks, blue-winged teals and others, and the beds create habitat for breeding and nesting. A Wisconsin program to reinvigorate its trumpeter swan population, David says, found that “a high proportion of the swans are selecting rice beds to nest on.”
Birds are not the only beneficiaries. From moose to muskrat to minute invertebrates, all feed on or use wild rice. “Wild rice can also help maintain water quality by binding loose soils, tying-up nutrients and slowing winds across shallow wetlands. These factors can increase water clarity and reduce algae blooms,” the GLIFWC brochure explains, concluding, “Wild rice is an ecological treasure.”