Date: Jul 31, 2007 1:42 AM
A struggle to protect biodiversity and a Native American way of life
by Winona LaDuke
Published in the July/August 2007 issue of Orion magazine
AS FALL TEMPERATURES CHANGE on the White Earth Reservation and the mist lifts off the lakes, the Ojibwe take to the waters. Two people to a canoe, one poles through the thick rice beds, pushing the canoe forward, while the other, sitting toward the front of the boat, uses two long sticks to gently bend the rice and knock the seeds into the canoe. The sounds of manoominike, the wild rice harvest, are the gliding of the boat through the water and across shafts of rice, the soft swish of the rice bending, the raining of the rice into the canoe. They are soothing sounds, reminding my people of the continuity between the generations. We have been harvesting rice here for centuries.
Each year, my family and I join hundreds of other harvesters who return daily with hundreds of pounds of rice from the region’s lakes and rivers. We call it the Wild Rice Moon, Manoominike Giizis. On White Earth, Leech Lake, Nett Lake, and other Ojibwe reservations in the Great Lakes region, it is a time when people harvest a food to feed their bellies and to sell for zhooniyaash, or cash, to meet basic expenses. But it is also a time to feed the soul.
FIFTEEN HUNDRED MILES AWAY, in Woodland, California, a company called Nor-Cal has received a patent on wild rice. Conceptually, it seems almost impossible—patenting something called wild rice. The Ojibwe now find themselves at the center of an international battle over who owns lifeforms, foods, and medicines that have throughout history been the collective property of indigenous peoples.
An estimated 90 percent of the world’s biodiversity lies within the territories of indigenous peoples, whether the Amazon, the Indian subcontinent, or the North Woods. A new form of colonialism, known as biocolonialism, is reaching deep into the heart of these communities. As Stephanie Howard wrote for the Indigenous People’s Council on Biocolonialism, "The flow of genes is primarily from indigenous communities and rural communities in ..developing countries’ to the Northern-based genetics industry. Ninety-seven percent of all patents are held by industrialized countries."
In 1994, for example, two researchers at the University of Colorado were able to secure a patent on quinoa, much to the surprise of native farmers in the Andean region of Bolivia and Ecuador who had been cultivating and stewarding the grain for thousands of years. The patent gave the university exclusive control over a traditional Bolivian sterile male variety called Apelawa, and also extended to hybrids developed from the breeding of forty-three additional traditional varieties. In 1998, the Bolivian National Quinoa Producers Association, with support from other groups internationally, was able to convince the researchers to drop the patent. But similar patents were issued on the neem tree, ayahuasca (a medicinal plant of the Amazon), and many other medicinal plants. Some of these were also eventually revoked. In September 1997, RiceTec, a Texas-based company, even won a controversial patent on the famed basmati rice. When the Indian government filed a complaint with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, RiceTec was forced to give up fifteen of twenty patent claims.
It was within this climate that University of Minnesota plant geneticist Ron Phillips, along with a few colleagues, mapped the wild rice genome in 2000. According to Phillips, this work is considered "important as a foundation for genetic and crop improvement studies." The Ojibwe believe that these studies, bearing names such as "Molecular Cytogenetics in Plant Improvement," could have far-reaching implications. The wild rice gene map is now filed with GenBank, a database operated by the National Institutes of Health, and its availability essentially sets the stage for genetic modification.
Traditional breeding techniques attempt to enhance certain traits of the wild rice and to repress others, but with genetic engineering, it becomes possible to insert DNA from other plants into the wild rice. The Ojibwe are alarmed by this possibility, viewing it as an attack on the essential nature of the rice itself.
THOUSANDS OF YEARS AGO, according to our oral histories, the Anishinaabeg—called the Ojibwe or Chippewa by the federal government—followed a shell in the sky from the great waters of the East to the place where the food grows on the water. That food was wild rice, the only grain indigenous to North America, and it has been a central food in ceremony and sustenance for our people ever since. "The[y] gain their livelihood by fishing, hunting, gathering berries and wild rice and making maple sugar, which constitutes their chief means of support," Indian agents would write, noting that the Ojibwe also relied on wild rice as a source of trade with the white settlers, and later as a source of credit and cash.
The rice was so significant to the Ojibwe that the lands with the best wild rice stands—including Big Rice Lake, Rice Lake Refuge, Lake Winnibigoshish, Nett Lake, and other mother lodes of the great grain—were reserved. Beyond the reservation borders, land was transferred to the U.S. government, but the rice was not. In an 1837 treaty, the Ojibwe ceded nearly 14 million acres of Wisconsin and Minnesota but retained "the privilege of hunting, fishing, and gathering the wild rice upon the lands, the rivers and the lakes included in the territory ceded." Federal and Supreme Court cases, including the 1999 Mille Lacs Supreme Court case, have upheld the rights of the Ojibwe to traditional land-use outside the reservations.
It was this close bond between a people and a food that University of Minnesota professor Albert Jenks encountered when he came to White Earth and other reservations to study wild rice in the late 1800s. He noted with disdain the Ojibwe harvesting practices. "Wild rice, which had led to their advance thus far, held them back from further progress," he determined. His perception of the Ojibwe wild rice harvest as a bastion of primitiveness would become the prevailing opinion at the University of Minnesota throughout the twentieth century—indeed, a sort of battle cry for industrializing agriculture.
In the 1950s, University of Minnesota researchers decided it was time to liberate the rice from the indigenous people. So they set out to domesticate wild rice. A university scientist named Ervin Oelke began the process, using germ plasm collected from twenty-four natural stands within the 1837 treaty area. Over the years, the Minnesota Agricultural Extension office was able to "create" several strains of "wild" rice: Johnson in 1968, M1 in 1970, M2 in 1972, M3 in 1974, Netum in 1978, Voyager in 1983, Meter in 1985, Franklin in 1992, and Purple Petrowski in 2000.
In effect, what the Creator gave to the Anishinaabeg has become a profit-making enterprise for others. These domesticated varieties are engineered to ripen at the same time and, with a harder hull, can be harvested mechanically. They are cultivated in paddies, flooded fields that are drained to allow access with a combine. By 1968, Minnesota’s paddy wild rice production already represented some 20 percent of the state’s yield. This increase in production, along with growing national demand for wild rice and subsequent interest from corporations