LaDuke: Minnesota’s Manoomin gets legal state protection

by Winona LaDuke
Special to News From Indian Country

After a three year battle at the legislature and a long set of meetings with the University of Minnesota, Manoomin, or wild rice, finally received protection, and is once again recognized, as not only the most sacred food of the Anishinaabe or Ojibwe peoples, but also the cherished state grain.

On May 8, 2007, Governor Pawlenty approved the Omnibus Environment and Natural Finance Bill (H2410/S2096). Included in this bill was protection for wild rice.

Andrea Hanks, the Wild Rice Campaign coordinator for the White Earth Land Recovery Project, expressed great relief that the bill had passed, thanking all of those who supported it. “Protection for Wild Rice has been a long time coming for Anishinaabeg communities, many people on all levels contributed to moving this legislation, the tribes of Minnesota, tribal leaders, allied organizations, citizens and legislators, I’m thankful for the help and support that was given.”

Spurred initially by the work at the University of Minnesota to map the DNA sequence of wild rice, the Anishinaabeg became concerned about possible genetic modification of wild rice in 2002. Anishinaabeg concerns were heightened when scientists revealed that ancient varieties of corn, deep in Mexico, had been contaminated by genetically engineered seed varieties hundreds of miles away. The White Earth Land Recovery Project, joining with all members of the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe, and in 2005, the Red Lake Tribal Council ( which grows paddy rice, but opposes genetic engineering) lobbied the University of Minnesota to forgo it’s right to genetically engineer wild rice. That controversy has been ongoing, since the University of Minnesota has the “test plots” which would be the most likely site for this type of seed modification. The University opposed the Ojibwe proposals as a limitation to “academic freedom,” frustrating much of the Ojibwe leadership and the wild rice harvesters.

White Earth Tribal Chairwoman Erma Vizenor also requested a moratorium on genetic engineering at the University of Minnesota, underscoring the value of wild rice to the White Earth Reservation, one of the largest producing tribes.

Unable to secure an agreement with the University, legislation was introduced at the Minnesota legislature to protect wild rice and secure a moratorium on genetic engineering. The initial legislation intended would have been a 10 year moratorium prohibiting any genetic engineering of wild rice, over the years this was reduced to a two-year ban.

At the start of the 2007 legislative session, Rep. Frank Moe (DFL- Bemidji) rewrote the bill, subsequently HF 1662 and HF1663. Combined they would become SF 2103 (Sen. Satveer Chaudhary).

Testifying this spring, George Goggleye Jr., Chairman of Leech Lake tribal government urged, “The committee to honor the first people of this state by letting this pass.”

“Wild rice is integrated into our lives,” added Bois Forte Tribal Chairman Kevin Leecy in his testimony. Leecy is also chair of the Indian Affairs Legislative Council. “History has shown that it is hard to contain these things in test plots, Leecy explained, noting, “Supposed improvements in white rice led to (genetic contamination) which cost the white rice industry $l00 million in the southern U.S.”

In turn, the bill was opposed by biotech lobbyists Thomas Kelliher and Phil Griffin, arguing that the state’s soybean and corn crops would be impacted by requiring an environmental impact statement and other precautions for wild rice, recognizing that the majority of these fields are genetically engineered.

The University of Minnesota did not oppose the legislation, and a number of senators (Steve Dille, R- Dassel) and others suggested that they would prefer to just make the use of genetically modified wild rice seed illegal.

The final bill was a merger of several efforts: HF 1662 asked to implement a study of the environmental threats to natural wild rice stands including development pressure, water levels, pollution, invasive species, and genetic strains. The study would have to include recommendations for the state to act to increase natural stands of wild rice and future protection.

HF 1663 amended the state statute to require an environmental impact statement be conducted in advance of open-air tests of GE wild rice and puts the matter under the authority of the Environmental Quality Board.

The Environmental Quality Board would also be required to notify the state’s wild rice industry, the Legislature and federally recognized tribes within Minnesota if a permit to release genetically engineered wild rice was issued anywhere in the United States.

These bills were amended to be combined into one bill, HF 1663 and SF 2103, and included in Omnibus Bill S2096 H2410.

“The decision to drop the two-year moratorium and go with the revised legislation was a gamble but both bills combined protect wild rice,” Allen Richardson, a WELRP intern with the Organizing Apprenticeship Project explained, after his second year of working on the legislation.

Richardson is hopeful, noting, “This bill establishes a precedent to protect wild rice. I hope it encourages other states such as Wisconsin to consider seeking legislation to protect wild rice.” The next steps for wild rice are to convene a committee to begin studying the span of threats to wild rice, including lake shore development, habitat decline and genetic engineering. This report is due back in 2008.