Will the Real Wild Wild Rice Please Stand Up?


Commentary by Li Boyd Mille Lacs Band Member

The Anishinaabe and many Minnesotans know that there is wild rice, and then there is wild rice. The Anishinaabe call it manoomin, or bagwaji-manoomin. It’s an entirely unique plant that produces a flavorful grain, has incredible nutritional value, and only grows in the state of Minnesota and parts of Wisconsin. Accept no substitutes.

Awakaani-manoomin is the name given to black paddy rice, which is sometimes translated as “enslaved rice.” This wild rice imposter is cultivated from coast to coast, never really softens with cooking, tastes different, has nowhere near the nutritional value of its preferred cousin, and can’t be mistaken for the real deal.

Except by members of the Minnesota Legislature seeking to make laws about wild rice.

Senator David Tomassoni (D), for example, makes numerous references to wild rice farmers who deliberately add sulfate to their crops to help them grow. This, besides being the opposite of the dictionary definition of "wild" anything, raises red flags for a major issue underlying the sulfate standard debate. There is not yet a legal definition of what actually constitutes wild rice or wild rice waters.

The revamped HF 3422 bill contains language near the end, almost as an afterthought, instructing a wild rice work group to come up with “criteria for identifying” wild rice waters by December 15, 2019. It begs the question: How can legislation be written for something that hasn’t been legally identified yet?

The differences between bagwaji-manoomin and black paddy rice are critical. Most importantly, an estimated 70 percent of manoomin stands have already disappeared. Some believe that number may be as high as 90 percent in Minnesota. Manoomin is spiritually, physically, and economically irreplaceable to the Anishinaabe, and as a plant that grows only in this tiny corner of the world, it is irreplaceable to the environment as well.

Despite years of observation and millions of dollars in studies, those who supported repealing the sulfate standard altogether denied the known science that sulfate adversely affects manoomin. Claims from individuals like Tomassoni cloud the issue with reports of “bumper crops” of wild rice in sulfate-laden waters and allegations of shoddy science.
It all circles back to what kind of rice is really up for debate.

Anishinaabe inclusion in the legislative process might have helped clear things up. The loudest voices at the table were in favor of abolishing the standard in the interest of economics. The Governor’s stakeholder meetings at the end of the process included invitations to tribal leaders but only on very short notice. Calling HF 3280 "the wild rice bill" and frequent reference to the importance of rice to Anishinaabe people gave the impression that Minnesota’s tribes were heavily involved in this legislation. However, tribal consultation on this bill and subsequent revisions was minimal.

With more meaningful consultation, things might have turned out very differently. Tribes stand behind the existing 10m/L standard, because new filtration technologies are under development, and the state’s goal of not increasing pollutant levels is just not good enough. Charlie Lippert of the Mille Lacs Band DNR says we have to restore bagwaji-manoomin to its rightful place in the ecology. “We have a symbiotic relationship with wild rice. So it demands more of us,” Charlie says. “Because we have waged war against it.”

On paper in the state Capitol, this is all a debate about a numeric standard that might affect the numbers in their ledgers. But for many of the rest of us, it’s about having a higher standard — of health, wellness, connection, and life.