Fourth year of Upper Peninsula wild rice planting delayed by low water levels

Story and Photos by Greg Peterson, Cedar Tree Institute Manoomin Project

Marquette, Michigan (NFIC) 11-07

Delayed six weeks due to extremely low water levels, teenagers, an American Indian guide and volunteers during November held the fourth annual planting of wild rice in a project aimed at restoring the once abundant grain to northern Michigan.

The groundbreaking Manoomin Project has teamed hundreds of at-risk teens with American Indian guides who have planted over a ton of wild rice since the summer of 2004.

Manoomin means the good seed or wild rice in Ojibwa.

Wild rice disappeared from Michigan over a century ago and is a vital part of Native American ceremonies and traditions.

“You are the first ones to bring wild rice back to the area,” the teens were told by Native guide Dave Anthony of Marquette, who is in his first year as a Manoomin project volunteer. “I am pleased that you are here – and what you are doing today is very important” for nature and American Indian tribes.

“This is very, very significant – this is a gift from the creator – it’s food grown on the water,” said Anthony, who attends Northern Michigan University and belongs to the Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa (Ottawa) Indians based in Harbor Springs, MI. “Wild rice is the original North American grain and is very nutritious.”

The importance of the project was not lost on the teens who picked up a few Ojibwa words.

“Megwiich,” said Danny Carello, 13, of Ishpeming saying “thank you” to nature in Ojibwa while carefully tossing wild rice seeds into a small pond along the Dead River.

Shawn Molda, 15, of Gwinn said he learned that wild rice develops in stages including the “floating stage.”

Anthony taught a special blessing of thanks to the teenages and adult volunteers like Marquette County Juvenile Court child care counselor Jim Rule.

After a prayer, Anthony passed out a small amount of crumbled leaf tobacco to each participant who then sprinkled the flakes into the river as a symbol of thanks for the planting.

This year’s planting was delayed from mid-September because wild rice seeds were not available from Wisconsin tribes due to extremely low water levels that have had a major negative effect on this year’s crop.

Manoomin Project volunteer Tom Reed of Marquette, left, who has a bachelors degree in social work, watches Danny Carello, 13, of Ishpeming tosses wild rice seeds into the Dead River in Negaunee Township during the 2007 Manoomin Project Planting.

On Nov 4, the teens planted four pales of wild rice – about 40 pounds – a half a handful at a time by carefully tossing the seed into slow spots in the Dead River near Marquette.

The Manoomin Project recently secured the rice seed from Minnesota that were planted less than 48 hours before an approaching major winter storm.

Manoomin Project volunteer Tom Reed said the at-risk youth volunteer to plant and study wild rice “in lieu of community service.”

“This is about educating the kids and not about punishment,” said Reed.

The record-breaking summer drought in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula have not created the best growing conditions for the grain, Reed said.

However, Reed said any seeds that reach maturity will have the harsher “weather encoded in their genetics” making it more likely the wild rice with thrive in future years.

The teens have planted over 2,100 pounds of wild rice during the past four years at sites in the central Upper Peninsula. A favorite food of geese and other wildlife, the sensitive crop needs perfect growing conditions to take root.

The teens are taught respect for themselves, nature and tribal customs while planting wild rice at seven remote lakes and streams in Marquette and Alger counties.

The project is sponsored by the Superior Watershed partnership and the Cedar Tree Institute, both Marquette, MI., based non-profits; and the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community (KBIC).

“We have representatives of the KBIC tribe at every stage of the Manoomin Project including the tribe's cultural committee, the identification and monitoring of wild rice planting sites, and rituals of tobacco and prayer,” said project founder Rev. Jon Magnuson, Cedar Tree Institute director.

“I think it’s cutting-edge,” Reed said. “We are healing the Earth through the planting of wild rice – it’s a coordinated attempt to restore a lost balance to peoples and animals and nature.”

The teens are exposed to various tribal beliefs and customs, and also have the opportunity for religious and spiritual learning - but it is not forced upon the youths.

A former Manoomin Project Native American guide said the adjudicated teens were not always happy about the project until they found out it was fun.

“Some of the teens were angry just to be there because it was something they had to do,” said Don Chosa a KBIC member who recently moved back to International Falls, Minnesota.

“But as soon as we started and the teens started learning – they started to enjoy it – and by the time they were done with one year planting wild rice they were willing to come even on a volunteer basis the following years,” Chosa said. “We had a good time planting wild rice.”

“They learn how to plant, harvest and cook wild rice and how to take water samples,” Chosa said. “A lot of them hadn’t been outside very much, so for them it was a good experience because it was miles and miles of hiking.”

“The teens learned about the importance of wild rice and the importance of it spiritually,” said Chosa.

After helping out with surveys and plantings in the Upper Peninsula, Chosa always returned every September to Minnesota to harvest wild rice on pristine Nett Lake surrounded by the Boise Forte Reservation.

“Wild rice is used in all ceremonies including naming ceremonies, funerals and gatherings throughout the year,” said Chosa, a former Native American Studies adjunct professor at Northern Michigan University who helped with the first three rice plantings.

“We have helped plant a food that our ancestors relied on for their survival,” said KBIC President and CEO Susan LaFernier. “Because of these plantings we can continue to enjoy this food and remember our ancestors that way.”

In July 2007, KBIC elder Glenn Bressette met with at-risk teens and explained how he had similar problems when he was young but overcame issues like racism, abusing alcohol, and scrapes with the law like being shot at by police during the petty theft of gas.

During the summer KBIC elder Glen Bressette spoke to at-risk teens at Marquette’s Presque Isle Park about overcoming problems he dealt with at their age like racism, scrapes with the law, and alcohol abuse.

Bressette explained “there was a lot of prejudice in Marquette” in the 1940s and 1950s when his family was one of only three Native American families in the small Upper Peninsula town tucked along the Lake Superior shoreline.

“I grew up with that prejudice – I was a dirty Indian – I was a stupid Indian,” Bressette said. “I grew up in a lot of hate.” That hatred turned Bressette against whites:

“Drinking helped me cope with that” prejudice and hatred, Bressette said. “After I sobered up I found out there were other things in the world than alcohol and drugs – and that was doing things for the people.”