Ojibwe Lifeway: Wild Rice Harvesting (“dagwaagin”-fall)

Freshly harvested wild rice. GLIFWC photo

In this unit you will investigate impacts of a warming climate on wild rice or “manoomin,” as it is called in the Ojibwe language. Manoomin is different from brown or white rice. It grows in coastal wetlands and inland lakes and rivers in the Great Lakes region which includes the Ceded territories are lands transferred from tribes to the federal covernment by treaty. Ceded Territory of the Lake Superior Ojibwe. It is high in protein, yet very low in fat. Its nutritional value is higher than many other grains, making it an important source of food for people and wildlife.

Manoomin is considered a “sacred” food to the Lake Superior Ojibwe. Harvesting manoomin is an important cultural practice that occurs in late summer to early autumn. As you work through this unit, think about how the same climate change impacts affecting the sustainability of mannomin could be an indicator of how climate change might affect the activities and traditions you enjoy.

Key species: Manoomin (Wild rice)

Possible climate change related stressors: Water level changes, increased storm events, increased disease and insect pest outbreaks, inadequate overwinter period.

Impacts include: Loss of wild rice habitat; decreased vigor, growth and abundance of wild rice plants; increase in invasive plants that take over habitat; destruction of rice beds by invasive species like carp.

LEARNING OBJECTIVES

  • Understand the cultural importance and inter-relationship between manoomin and Ojibwe people, historically and today.
  • Understand the life cycle of manoomin and be able to identify habitat conditions needed for its sustainability.
  • Identify specific climate change stressors that could impact the sustainability of manoomin based on an evaluation of scientific climate change trends and Evidence that you can see, feel, or experience based on what you observe around you. place-based evidence.
  • Develop and test a hypothesis to determine how these climate change stressors are affecting Wisconsin’s ecosystems and cultures.
  • Implement a service learning project to educate others about how to reduce climate change impacts.

BACKGROUND

Myron Burns, elder from the Bad River Ojibwe, explains the importance of manoomin

Myron Burns, elder from the Bad River Ojibwe, explains the importance of manoomin

Manoomin means “good berry” in the Ojibwe language. This plant has played a major role in the lives of the Ojbwe people, historically and today.

According to their oral tradition, prophecies directed the Lake Superior Ojibwe to migrate from their historic homeland on the Atlantic coast and travel west until they found the “place where food grows on the water.” They were instructed to stop when they found this place, as it would be their new home.

Stories tell of the travels of the Ojjbwe people as they followed the sacred Megis Shell to find this special place. The food they found was manoomin (wild rice) growing on the water in the tributaries, lakes, and coastal areas of Lake Superior. They established a new homeland here. They depended on the annual harvest and preservation of this precious and nutritious food to survive the long winters.

Today, manoomin remains a staple of Ojibwe diets. It is culturally and spiritually important to the Ojibwe people and a necessary item to be served at important community feasts and ceremonies. High in protein, yet low in fat and calories, wild rice has a very high nutritional value. It can be stored for a very long time which is an added advantage when other sources of food are scarce. Wild rice is sacred to the Ojibwe people who still live in the Great Lakes region.

Manoomin is also an important food source for waterfowl, and it provides food as well as habitat for other species.

Manoomin is not really rice, but an aquatic grass. It is not related to white or brown rice. It is harvested in late summer to early autumn. Harvesting using traditional methods helps to promote its sustainability. As it is harvested to provide food for people, some rice kernels drop back into the water, helping to re-seed manoomin. Both people and manoomin benefit.

Traditional wild rice harvesting by Ojibwe

HABITAT

Manoomin grows best in shallow water areas, with soft mucky bottoms with a slight water current. Rivers, lakes that have an inlet and outlet, and Lake Superior coastal wetlands can be ideal.

Water depth is critical for plant survival. Manoomin grows in water depths ranging from 0.5-3 feet, with 1-2 feet being optimal. Very dark or turbid water caused by sedimentation limits sunlight penetration and may hinder early plant development. Wild rice can tolerate water lever fluctuations as long as they are not too great.

Wild rice grows to the water surface usually by mid-June. This is called the “floating leaf” stage because the buoyant leaves lay flat on the water. During this stage, the plant is able to exchanges gases and literally “breathe” underwater. It is at this time that manoomin is extremely susceptible to water level fluctuations. Plants can be uprooted, washed away due to increased water levels, or drowned. By mid-July, manoomin undergoes a physiological change from breathing under water to growing upright and exchanging gases with the air.

DISTRIBUTION

Northern Great Lakes Region. Wild rice is a northern hardy plant. In Wisconsin, it is located at the southern edge of its A geographical area where an animal normally lives range of abundance.

Several factors have significantly decreased the abundance of manoomin in the region. These include competition from invasive species and human alterations to its preferred habitats such damming rivers, dredging, and filling of shallow wetland areas.

Efforts to restore wild rice within its historic A geographical area where an animal normally lives range are being taken by tribal governments and others who are reseeding suitable habitats and working to restore historic water hydrologies.

Wild rice is also farmed in ponds called “paddies.” This type of rice is called “cultivated” or “paddy wild rice” and should not be confused with manoomin.

Climate Related Issues

Water Level Fluctuations: Too little or too much water can harm wild rice. Low water levels caused by drought conditions can dry out wetland soils and kill plants.

Intense Rainfall Events: Increased intense rainfall events can uproot or drown wild rice plants, especially when they are in the critical “floating leaf” stage of their development.

Invasive Species: Invasive species such as narrow leaf cattail and Eurasian water milfoil are taking over wild rice habitat.

Disease and Damaging Insects: Brown spot disease of wild rice appears to be increasing as a warming climate creates the warm, humid air that favors fungal diseases. Fungal disease, together with intense rain events, markedly reduced the 2010 wild rice harvest to the lowest level observed in 25 years. Warm summers and mild winters may also be resulting in higher populations of insects, especially “rice worms” which are a type of moth larvae. Rice worms can reduce the seed production in manoomin.