Indigenous communities push to name wild rice as Michigan's official native grain
200 years ago, wild rice grew in almost every waterway in Michigan.
Indigenous communities in the Great Lakes have been hand harvesting it for more than a thousand years. Now, it’s mostly gone.
But there are efforts from tribes to restore rice beds and bring more recognition to the grain statewide.
Wild rice is included in the Anishinaabek migration story
Harvesting wild rice starts with two people and a canoe.
Roger LaBine belongs to the Lac Vieux Desert Band of Lake Superior Chippewa Indians in the Upper Peninsula.
He says one person would stand in the boat and use a 16-foot-pole to navigate through the thick rice beds.
"It's like trying to push a canoe through a hay field because, I mean, the rice is standing up, and it kind of builds up resistance."
The other would then use two knocking sticks to bump the ripe rice into the canoe. LaBine remembers his grandparents and uncle teaching him as a teen to sit completely still in the boat.
"You just kind of pretend to do, like, a backstroke and, you know, pulling that rice over," he said.
"And they told me to actually hit one stick against the other because I needed to learn how much force it would take just to take the ripe rice."
After that, the rice would be collected from the canoe, air dried for several days, then threshed to begin to remove the grain from the husk, and finally winnowed.
But those early trips LaBine remembers actually took place across the state border in Wisconsin.
"The rice had disappeared from our traditional lands and village, so we went to get the wild rice from where it was," LaBine said.
It was part of our migration story. It was how Native people ended up in Michigan and in the Great Lakes region.
Anishinaabek tribes throughout the Great Lakes consider wild rice, or manoomin, as it’s known in their language, not only a traditional food source, but also something ingrained in their history. Nat Spurr, a member of the Nottawaseppi Huron Band of Potawatomi explains:
"It was part of our migration story. It was how Native people ended up in Michigan and in the Great Lakes region," Spurr said.
In that story, more than a thousand years ago, nomadic tribes moving from the Atlantic coast were told by a prophet to stop and settle where the food grows on water.
LaBine says there’s no question that could be anything other than manoomin when you see it from the edge of a lake.
"Even though it's an aquatic annual grass. It looks like you’re standing on the edge of a field," LaBine said.
Even though it's an aquatic annual grass. It looks like you’re standing on the edge of a field.
But Michigan’s wild rice has been devastated by pollution, damming and climate change. Starting in the 19th century, the United States government took more aggressive approaches to remove Indigenous communities from their land. Religious organizations and federal agencies also put in place assimilationist policies designed to erase Native culture.
Push for restoration and recognition
Since the 1980s, LaBine has spent most of his life working to bring rice back to the state. He is a water resource technician for his tribe and belongs to the Michigan Wild Rice Initiative, a group dedicated to the protection and proper harvest of the plant.
Decades later, all federally recognized tribes in Michigan now have their own wild rice restoration programs.
"I've been blessed that the Creator gave me the patience not to throw my arms up and give up on it because since then, our success has been shared across the state of Michigan."
Both LaBine and Spurr say more needs to be done to make sure wild rice is protected and allowed to repopulate the state’s waterways.
Spurr is the Vice Chair of the Michigan Democratic Party's Anishinaabek caucus. He says since 2018, there have been efforts in the legislature to designate manoomin as the state native grain.
"Since ... it's a sacred food source for Native people, Anishinaabek people, we thought, you know, why not have it as a state grain?"
Spurr hopes the designation will open up opportunities for funding and grants for further restoration. Beyond that, he says it’s also about non-Indigenous Michiganders becoming more familiar with it.
"I encounter people all the time that mistake it for, you know, some type of invasive species or something along the lines of a cat tail or, you know, weed, and they're not even aware of what it is," Spurr said.
Advocates say solidarity is one of the best ways to protect wild rice
Democratic State Senator Adam Hollier of Detroit is one of the lawmakers involved in the effort. He says other state symbols aren’t as connected to Michigan’s Indigenous communities.
"They do not often honor our history and our heritage," he said. "This was an opportunity to change that and to be a part of something that really I think is meaningful."
By recognizing it and naming it and making it relevant to people, then they also have to think, 'Well, are we doing things that support the growth and development of wild rice?'
As Muscogee Creek and Choctaw, wild rice doesn’t have the same cultural significance to him, but Hollier says the designation is an entry point to doing more to protect it.
"By recognizing it and naming it and making it relevant to people, then they also have to think, 'Well, are we doing things that support the growth and development of wild rice? Or are we not?'"
For LaBine, restoring manoomin can’t just be up to tribes or state agencies. He says non-Indigenous people need to be advocates for the grain’s importance as well.
"It's going to take the general public's assistance to bring this resource back, not as an agricultural crop, but to make it available to them, to bring it back so that everybody can benefit."
Hollier plans to introduce a state Senate bill to designate wild rice as Michigan’s native grain by the end of the year.
A House version was referred to the Government Operations committee in the spring.