Took My Land, Now My Food


Protect our Manoomin sign
Photo by Montana Picard.

“This Straw which I hold in my hands, Wild Rice is what we call this. These I do not sell. That you may not destroy the Rice in working the Timber, Also the Rapids and Falls in the Streams I will lend you to saw your timber.... I do not make you a present of this, I merely lend it to you.” (1837 Treaty)

For the Ojibwe-Anishinaabe people, manoomin (wild rice) plays a central role in our culture, traditions, ceremonies, and spirituality. Long ago, when we lived on the shores of the Great Salt Water (the Atlantic coastline), the Seven Fires Prophecy was given to us. The First Fire reads, “You will know the chosen ground has been reached when you come to a land where food grows on water.” In response, our ancestors set forth on the Great Migration that began over 500 years ago. They traveled down the St. Lawrence River and into the Great Lakes region and entered Anishinaabe Aki, the Land of the Anishinaabe, where they found manoomin—the food that grows on water.


In the early 1800s, explorers who journeyed through Anishinaabe Aki were awed by the vast stands of manoomin that grew in abundance in rivers, streams, and lakes, stands of rice that stretched as far as the eye could see. They appreciated the rice for its nutritional value, and it became a favored commodity item in the fur trade.

With the treaties of 1837 and 1854, ceded tribal lands in Minnesota and Wisconsin opened to white settlement and the ecological habitat of rice changed as settlers built homesteads and farmers developed farmlands.

Despite the depletion of ricing lakes and rivers resulting from white settlement, the manoomin continued to grow in many areas. However, the usufructuary rights in the 1837 and 1854 treaties that guaranteed the Ojibwe the right to harvest rice offreservation, as well as hunting and fishing rights, were denied in both Minnesota and Wisconsin. These usufructuary rights would be reaffirmed through the Voigt decision (1983) in Wisconsin and the landmark Supreme Court decision in Minnesota v. Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe in 1999.

Setting Standards

In the mid-1940s, John Moyle, a biologist for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR), began studying the ricing stands in northern Minnesota. Moyle’s research focused on why rice was depleted in some areas and abundant in other areas.

Moyle found that no large stands of rice occurred in waters having a sulfate content greater than 10 mg/L (parts per million) and that rice generally was absent from water with more than 50 mg/L.

Sulfate is a natural occurrence in nature. Iron ore was formed during the middle Precambrian period, 2.5 to 1.6 billion years ago.

Sulfate is part of the sulfuric salt runoff from rock formations. But the sulfate levels that Moyle discovered were not natural levels, which are minimal. Rather, the high levels that Moyle found were human-made, the legacy of iron ore mining, which has a 125-year history in northern Minnesota.

In 1973, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency used Moyle’s wild rice research to set the Wild Rice Water Quality Standard. Under state law, sulfate levels from mining industries could not exceed 10 mg/L. In addition, 24 ricing lakes, rivers, and streams were protected under the standard.

In 2006, PolyMet Mining announced its proposal for an open-pit, non-ferrous (sulfide) mining operation in northeastern Minnesota. Non-ferrous mining is the extraction of metals that do not contain iron. Non-ferrous metals include copper, lead, nickel, tin, titanium, zinc, and precious metals—gold, silver, and platinum.

Non-ferrous metals exist naturally in the form of sulfide compounds. From the piles of rock waste, the sulfide leaches into the groundwater and finds its way into rivers and streams, where it changes into sulfate. Once in the water, sulfate settles in the sediment, where it forms into hydrogen sulfide. Thus, wild rice is imperiled in two ways: from sulfates and from hydrogen sulfide.

As part of the proposal, PolyMet was required to submit an Environmental Impact Study (EIS). A draft EIS was completed in 2009. Responses to the DEIS included the Minnesota DNR,the U.S. Forest Service, the Environmental Protection Agendy (EPA), and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Because the proposed mine affected off-reservation ceded land (i.e., the 1854 Ceded Territory), tribal respondents included the Fond Du Lac Ojibwe, the Grand Portage Ojibwe, the Bois Forte Ojibwe, the 1854 Treaty Authority, and the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission.

The tribal response did not oppose the mining operation per se, but said that various refining techniques were unsafe to the ecosystem. This included the effects on threatened and special concern species of wildlife, the impact on wetland habitat, effects on endangered species of plants, and the introduction of invasive species of plants. The tribal response also noted that it would take 2,000 years for the water quality to return to premining norms. And the tribes stood steadfastly by the 10 mg/L sulfate standard.

Mobilization: Protect Our Manoomin

Protect Our Manoomin (POM) was established in March 2011 as a grassroots response to the increasing legislative threats to wild rice. Madonna Youngbear, a member of the Mississippi Ojibwe, created a group on Facebook. We currently have 680 members in the group. We have two online petitions with 1,215 worldwide signatories.

In May, we met to formalize our core group of 10 individuals as an unincorporated organization, issued a revised mission statement and declaration, and discussed future goals. Rather than a formalized structure (i.e., president, vice president, etc.), we chose to form as a council, thereby giving equal voice to council members. On important matters, we vote by consensus.

Our council is made up of members of the Mississippi Ojibwe, Red Lake Ojibwe, Sandy Lake Ojibwe, Fond du Lac Ojibwe, Rice Lake Ojibwe, Pembina Ojibwe, and White Earth Ojibwe.

Minnesota currently has a pro-mining legislature. In February 2011, a bill was passed to “streamline” the permit process. The bill also allowed Iron Range Resources (IRR), a state agency, tomake a $4 million loan to PolyMet to buy the land needed for its mine. PolyMet intends to swap the land for a more suitable site located on federal land in the Superior National Forest.

In March 2011, both the House and the Senate introduced bills that would affect the wild rice standard. The House version (HF 1010) raised the standard to 50 mg/L; the Senate version (SF 1029) suspended the standard. HF 1010 became the bill of choice and was sent to the conference committee to draft the language of the final bill.

On May 4, we held our first rally at the state capitol while the conference committee was in session. We had a drum ceremony, an invocation by an elder, and about 30 protesters with signs.

Two days later, three POM members gave public testimony at the capitol before the conference committee. On May 14, we organized a rally for the Governor’s Fishing Opener held at Grand Rapids. On a cold, wet, rainy day, 35 protesters greeted Governor Mark Dayton as he came in off the lake. Senator Al Franken, a member of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, walked by and turned his back on the protesters. Although security segregated POM protestors in an area away from the main landing, media nevertheless filmed and spoke to the protesters. Lakeland PBS of Bemidji featured footage of the protest on its newscast.

On May 13, the EPA responded to a letter submitted by two Minnesota legislators. The letter was a query on EPA standards regarding HF 1010. The EPA response stated: “To the extent that any legislation changes the EPA-approved water quality standards for Minnesota, such revised water quality standards must be submitted to EPA for review and approval.” The EPA pointed out that the sulfate standard could not be suspended while the study was conducted. After completion of the study, it will then be reviewed by the EPA which will then determine if the sulfate standard should be changed.

On May 19, despite the EPA letter, the Minnesota legislature passed HF 1010 and chose to suspend the sulfate standard. Under the bill, the suspension is effective for a two-year period while MPCA completes a wild rice study.

With the passage of the bill, POM posted a form letter to the governor on the group’s website and encouraged our supporters to urge Governor Dayton to veto the bill. Governor Dayton has previously said he would veto any budget bill with policies attached.

The wild rice standard is a policy attached to a budget bill. Although the Minnesota state shutdown has put all bills on hold, the question remains whether Dayton will sign it or veto it when the shutdown ends. Should the bill be signed, the state will have to contend with the EPA regulations.

Although part of POM’s work is tied to legislative issues that affect manoomin, another part of our struggle is tied into the larger issue of sulfide mining. In addition to PolyMet, five more mining companies are expected to file for operating permits. But mining isn’t limited to northeastern Minnesota. Exploratory survey maps reveal deposits of non-ferrous metals all across northern Minnesota, including on the borders of Red Lake, Leech Lake, White Earth, and Mille Lacs Ojibwe tribal lands.

In June, POM was awarded the Grassroots Community Mining Mini-grant from the Indigenous Environmental Network (IEN). The grant will help POM develop outreach programs and host informational forums on reservations. With our IEN grant, we plan to open the forums in September, at the time of the wild rice harvest.

We are also connecting with non-Native environmental groups. The issue of sulfide mining is one of environmental racism, one that includes both Ojibwe and non-Native people. All will be affected by the ecocide unleashed by sulfide mining.

The real strength of Protect Our Manoomin is the support, encouragement, and guidance of our elders. With their direction, we will protect the manoomin—for the present generation to the Seventh Generation.

Hamburger Wild Rice Steaks with Bleu Cheese

1-1/2 cups cooked wild rice
1 egg
2 teaspoons Worcestershire sauce
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon fresh ground pepper
1 1/2 pounds lean hamburger
2 tablespoons butter
1 cup crumbled blue cheese

Combine first five ingredients in a large bowl. Add the hamburger, mix together well, and shape 4 to 6 patties. Fry or grill normally. Just before the patties are done, sprinkle with the crumbled bleu cheese and allow it to melt lightly.

Robert DesJarlait

Robert DesJarlait is a member of the Red Lake Ojibwe-Anishinaabe Nation located in northern Minnesota. He is a co-founder of Protect Our Manoomin—a Minnesota Anishinaabe grassroots organization that educates tribal members on nonferrous mining and its effects on manoomin and the environment.