Winona LaDuke's Campaign to Save Native Rice
By Gar Smith / The-Edge
November 15, 2002

Author, activist and Green Party Vice Presidential Candidate Winona LaDuke recently chatted with The-Edge during a tour promoting her latest book, The Winona LaDuke Reader (Voyageur Press, PO Box 338, Stillwater, MN 55082,

Winona was eager to point out that two of the essays included in the Reader (including the lead essay) were first published in
Earth Island Journal. But there was something more important than the new book that was on Winona’s mind: She was more concerned with her new campaign to protect Minnesota’s wild lake rice. Here is the story.

Winona LaDuke and Lucky, "TheHorse with no Brakes." Photo © by Hulleah Tsinhnahjinnie.
According to the oral history of Winona LaDuke’s people, the Ojibwe left their original home on the continent’s Eastern Seaboard after a sacred vision instructed the ancestors to “follow the shell in the sky to the land where the food grows on the water.EThat ancient migration to the west brought them to northern Minnesota Ethe land of wild rice.

There are more than 10,000 lakes in Minnesota but Manoomin, the unique strand of grass that produces wild lake rice, grows only in the one small region where the Ojibwe settled.

Winona LaDuke may be an activist, organizer, Harvard graduate, author (Last Standing Woman, All My Relations) and a vice presidential candidate (with Ralph Nader on the 2000 Green Party ticket), but she is also an enrolled member of the Mississippi band of the Anishinabe. As such, every year during the “rice-ingEseason, she can still be found in a canoe helping her neighbors and family beat the grains of wild lake rice from their shinning strands.

Harvesting wild like rice requires long hours with two people in a canoe navigating the lake with a long pole and beating the rice with wooden sticks called “knockers.E

Harvesting wild rice is labor intensive, LaDuke agrees, but there are some concessions to mechanization. Case in point is the 1947 flailing machine the tribe continues to operate.

“We’re sorta like Cuba,EWinona jokes. “We have all these ancient machines that we keep running.EShe recalls with a chuckle how one state inspector came upon the 1947 machine during a visit. “His response was a typically Minnesotan expression. He took one look and said, ‘Holy Buckets!’”

But despite tradition and ingenuity, Minnesota’s wild rice is threatened.

“The University of Minnesota is trying to map the genome,EWinona said. “A word of advice: Never let them ‘map your genome.ELike the basmati rice in India, this is being done to claim a ‘patentEon the rice. Patents belong on toasters. Patents don’t belong on wild rice or other living things.E

The university spent millions of dollars producing eight different hybrids of Manoomin. These varieties Eincluding Johnson, Voyager and Purple Petrowske Ehave been planted in 25,000 acres of rice paddies across the state.

Not content with developing new hybrids through traditional cross-pollination, researchers are now attempting to create new varieties of rice through genetic modification. The fear is that if these GMOs (genetically modified organisms) were ever brought out of the researchers sterile labs and planted in the wild, it could produce the genetic equivalent of an oil spill. If this were to happen, LaDuke warns, “It could pollute and damage our lake rice forever.E

While university scientists tinker with the pursuit of genetically modified versions of traditional wild rice, there is another threat that has come from the other side of the country.

“Today, three-quarters of the ‘wild riceEgrown for market comes from Chico, California,ELaDuke revealed. Using hybrids devised by the University of Minnesota commercial growers have turned northern California into the nation’s “rice basket.EBut in order to do this, LaDuke points out, they are growing rice in paddies “in a desert, using subsidized water, and usually quite a few chemicals.E

The chemicals most often used around industrially grown paddy-rice include pesticides like Malathion, fungicides like Propiconazole and the herbicide 2.4-D. Instead of relying on teams of hand-harvesters in canoes, industrial rice farms engage the services of large mechanized combines. Industrial farms not only consume vast amounts of chemicals, they also consume vast amounts of electricity and fossil fuels. And the toxic runoff from there operations pollutes the land and water downstream.

During a trip to California in August, LaDuke visited the sprawling holdings of Indian Harvest rice farm in Chico. “I discovered it is actually owned by a Dutch guy,Eshe reported. “They should really be calling it ‘Dutch Rice.EAnd it shouldn’t be called ‘wildErice. It’s really something more like ‘teamErice.E

"The words 'wild' and 'patented' do not belong in the same phrase." Photo by D. Tenney.
Unlike nature’s wild rice, which comes in incredible varieties (some grains are fat, some are short, some ripen early and some late) hybrid paddy-rice has had all of nature’s nuances “engineered outEto produce a totally uniform product that can be harvested by totally uniform machinery.

The agribiz answer to wild rice failed to excite LaDuke’s palate. After tasting some of Chico’s Dutch treat, she shook her head in disappointment and declared: “It doesn’t taste like a lake.E

Meanwhile, a California company called NORCAL has been granted two patents on wild rice, an act that LaDuke sees as both a crime against nature and an offense against the language. “The words ‘wildEand ‘patentedEdo not belong in the same phrase,Eshe insists.

Until a truth-in-labeling law comes along to guarantee the legitimate use of the term “wild rice,ELaDuke wants shoppers to know that the real deal is available from native gatherers under the product name “Harvest Rice.E

Rice isn’t the only native food that is under threat. Climate change has disrupted the production of maple syrup. “This year the snows came after the buds!ELaDuke marveled. The result was a disaster for the maple tree harvest. “The sap didn’t taste like maple syrup this year. It tasted more like molasses.E

While convincing George W. Bush to sacrifice the profits of the oil industry to prevent catastrophic climate change may take some time (or, more likely, a “regime changeEin Washington), there are several short term actions that people can take to protect the true wild rice that has grown for millennia and evolved over eons. Winona’s action list reads as follows:

  • Labeling: “We need a new labeling law that clearly separates paddy rice from natural, wild lake rice.E

  • Protect wildlife habitats: “By protecting real wild rice, we protect the fish and game that make out lakes so special.E

  • Decommercialize university research: “We’ve done enough research for the paddy rice industry. Let’s have out University do research that will protect our natural rice stands.E

  • Fight rice patenting: Support the Ojibwe’s legal challenge to genetic research and patenting of wild rice.

  • Vote with your dollars: “Don’t by paddy rice! Support Minnesota ricers!E/ul>For more information, contact: The White Earth Land Recovery Project, 32033 East Round Lake Road, Ponsford, MN 56575, (888) 779-3577,,

    For more information contact:
    Please contact the websites and resources in the above article.

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