In the mist of a chilly October morning, Anakwad Migizi, who also uses the name Wendy Stone, pushes her family’s canoe into a tiny lake in the Crooked Creek watershed in east central Minnesota. The wild rice, or manoomin, is so tall and thick that, for a while, everything is obscured except the patch of blue sky overhead. Holding a pair of cedar knocking sticks in her hands, Stone, a Crane clan Anishinaabe writer and educator, pulls the top of the rice stalks over the boat and gently taps them to release some of the grains into the boat.
As the morning passes, the canoe fills up with rice and with the many small worms and insects that live on the rice as it grows in the shallow lake water. While Stone does the knocking, her nephew pushes the heavy canoe through the tall rice with a long pole. Wild rice grows in deep muck, and the danger of capsizing or falling out of the canoe is ever-present, so the pair moves cautiously and Stone grabs on to the rice stalks on both sides of the boat to hold it steady.
For Stone, and thousands of other Anishinaabe people (or Anishinaabeg), ricing is both a source of sustenance and a spiritual event that takes place every year. It begins with a ceremony that includes singing and other forms of paying respect to their rice relatives. It always includes knocking some grains into the water for animals and other beings, and to ensure there is seed for the following year’s rice.
At the end of the day, Stone will let the rice rest so that birds and other animals can feast on the insects. Even though much of the processing these days is done mechanically, Stone’s family always hand-processes some of it in the traditional way, and that rice is saved for ceremonies. Her family will parch it with fire to preserve it, while they gently dance on it in special moccasins made of elk or moose hide.
“Ricing is a family reunion and a celebration of what allows us to live on the earth,” says Stone.
Now, this sacred tradition is at risk, as the Canadian energy giant Enbridge has moved to expand and essentially reroute its tar sand pipeline through a region of Minnesota that has been described by activists as “untouched wetlands and the treaty territory of Anishinaabe peoples.” The construction of Line 3 began in December 2020 and was halted while the rivers were frozen, but Enbridge says it is expected to pick back up on or around the first of June. Meanwhile, construction of pumping stations has been ongoing.
The plan involves drilling under 22 river crossings in Minnesota’s pristine northern lake region, and Anishinaabeg and other “water protector” activists have been protesting the construction for years. But in the last six months, their response has been ramping up to include a number of camps, hunger strikes, blockades, and direct appeals to President Biden. In March, Jane Fonda flew in to show her support for the protesters, and dozens of water protectors have been arrested.
In April, Canada’s National Observer reported that Enbridge had been accused of paying police in Minnesota to harass activists by deploying drones, disrupting prayer ceremonies, and detaining them in cages. And while it hasn’t yet received the level of media coverage that the resistance to the Dakota Access Pipeline at Standing Rock did, the resistance to Line 3 isn’t likely to die down any time soon. In fact, Rising Tide—a network of environmental activists working on five continents—is planning a week of action in response to Line 3 in early June.
Environmental advocates point to the fact that Line 3’s expanded capacity would add 50 new coal plants’ or 38 million additional cars worth of greenhouse gas emissions to the atmosphere every year for the next three to five decades. But for the Anishaanabeg, it’s also a matter of legal rights, as the construction would violate a series of treaties with the U.S. government that grant them rights to hunt, fish, and gather food in the region. And for them, wild rice—both the food and the cultural symbol—is at the center of the fight.
“We are defined by manoomin. It is the whole reason we were sent here by Creator,” says Stone. “So, when the rice is destroyed, it is modern-day genocide. When the rice is gone, we cease to be who we have been for thousands of years.”
Rice as Sustenance and Identity
The Great Lakes region of the north central U.S. is home to wild rice or manoomin. It is an ecological keystone species in the region, and a sensitive aquatic plant that has been eradicated from many areas by water quality changes due to development.
Now, activists worry that the remaining rice lakes will be impacted by the compaction of wetland soils by heavy equipment use in the watersheds as well as inevitable leaks in the pipeline itself.
“There has never been a pipeline that did not leak,” is a warning frequently delivered by Indigenous environmental activist Winona LaDuke, who is helping lead the resistance to Line 3.
Elizabeth Skinaway, a member of the Sandy Lake Band of Ojibwe, hails from a watershed in northern Minnesota that is home to a confluence of rivers and streams, and the state’s premier wild rice lakes. She is very concerned about the potential for an oil spill from the construction of Line 3.
“All of these lakes, rivers, flowages, and rice beds are connected,” says Skinaway. “Wild rice is very, very delicate. Any change in the weather, water quality, and chemicals in the water really affects the rice in all of the connected waters in our territory,” she said.
Skinaway has been harvesting rice for 41 years. She does it in part to sustain her family throughout the year. “We supply our grandparents, parents, brothers and sisters, cousins as well as selling some to pay for basics like my son’s school clothes,” she said.
It’s also an important part of her cultural identity; her father, the late hereditary chief of the Sandy Lake Band, made traditional rice knockers out of cedar, which he used until she became proficient at harvesting, and he passed them on to her.
“This is part of our cultural teaching—our young ones know how to rice and they can feed themselves. If the rice is gone, what will we live on?” she asks.