A Rice by Any Other Name

The University of Minnesota's genetic research on wild rice goes against the grain

A and B Wild Rice Processing, on the western edge of the Leech Lake Indian Reservation, is, to put it gently, a modest operation. On a typical late-summer afternoon, a clump of men are gathered in the shade of A and B's long, open-sided barn, talking over the rumble of machinery. A pickup growls into the driveway, kicking up a cloud of dust and big, black flies, while a skittish Labrador with one ear in a bandage--the souvenir of a recent spat--limps warily around the periphery. Inside, John Persell is examining a batch of rice that he and his colleague, Steve Smith, harvested a few days earlier. "See," Persell says as he watches a handful of the grain sift through his fingers. "It's like oats or wheat when it's green. When you parch it by hand, there's even more coloration."

As ecologists for the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe (MCT), Persell and Smith are intimately acquainted with the intricacies of Minnesota's official state grain. By glancing at a given batch, they can determine which area lake it comes from, as well as when it was harvested. Persell, in fact, authored a management plan for the tribe in which he meticulously recorded the conditions of wild-rice beds throughout northern Minnesota. He is versed, also, in the rice's unique significance to the area's Native American population.

"Originally," he explains, "the Ojibwe would set up camps right by the rice beds. You have to understand that aside from being a primary food source, the rice has spiritual associations with the traditional Ojibwe culture and its connection to Mother Earth. You can't separate that from the economics of it."

A rice is a rice is a rice? University of Minnesota professor George Spangler doesn't think so.
Tony Nelson
A rice is a rice is a rice? University of Minnesota professor George Spangler doesn't think so.

Like the majority of ricers on the reservation, Persell and Smith harvest in the traditional way, setting out in canoes and gently brushing the ripe kernels into the boat's bottom with a paddle. And, like most Ojibwe ricers, they are disdainful of nontraditional harvesting, which uses floating combines to pick rice cultivated in flooded paddies. Persell likes to repeat an adage popular on the reservation: "If you're gonna cook paddy rice, throw some rocks in the pot. When the rocks are done, so is the rice."

The distinction might seem academic. Rare, after all, is the consumer who can tell the difference between hand-harvested wild rice and its domesticated cousin. But the humble grass, called "manomin" in Ojibwe, has long been serious business in northern Minnesota. It was the area's rich rice beds that first drew the migratory Ojibwe people from southern Canada. Later, the tribe actually fought battles with the neighboring Lakota over rights to the beds. And it remains an economic windfall for the state's largely impoverished reservations: The estimated 500,000 pounds harvested from area lakes annually are a primary source of income for many residents.

Yet according to Persell and many other area ricers, the reservation's most valuable export is again in jeopardy. The territorial aggressors this time are geneticists from the University of Minnesota, who, critics charge, are tampering with the area's wild-rice stock without regard to the effects their research might have on Native American harvesters. Native rice producers voiced their fears about the research more than two years ago; since then, Persell claims, the university has alternately dragged its feet and ignored their protests. Now, after a flurry of increasingly heated exchanges, he's hopeful that the university might finally be ready to listen.

The taming of wild rice has caused discord since at least 1968, when Uncle Ben's first began selling it as a mass-market product. As demand for wild rice grew, researchers at the U of M, funded by federal grants, began experimenting with "non-shattering" strains--rice that could easily be grown in paddies and harvested by machine. Wild rice, once a relatively unknown specialty product grown only in the upper Midwest, was soon much in demand, and farmers in California began growing paddy rice, which was easier and cheaper to produce than the traditionally harvested variety. (California is now the country's leading producer, despite the fact that wild rice does not grow naturally in such a warm climate.)

At the same time, the value of "wild" wild rice dropped precipitously; where Ojibwe harvesters once commanded as much as ten dollars per pound, paddy rice began selling for as little as two dollars. Supply outstripped demand, and the market for lake-harvested wild rice collapsed.

Beth Nelson, president of the Minnesota Cultivated Wild Rice Growers Association, which represents the approximately 50 paddy-rice farmers throughout the state, now estimates that of the five million to seven million pounds of rice produced in the state annually, less than three percent is lake-harvested on reservations. According to Nelson, who supports the university's research, cultivated rice brings in more than $40 million annually. Though she says that her organization respects the concerns of the native harvesters, she argues that paddy rice is no different from other domesticated crops. "There may be those who wish it didn't exist," she says tactfully. "There's always been controversy around paddy rice."

The issue might have remained a source of dormant but simmering discontent among Ojibwe harvesters, however, if not for a turn of events in late 1998. In September of that year, Norman Deschampe, then president of the tribe, sent a letter to university president Mark Yudof that was also forwarded to Minnesota's senators and Joel Smith, state superintendent of the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs. In it, Deschampe expressed his concern over rumors that university researchers were endeavoring to decode the rice's genome, potentially paving the way for genetically altered hybrids. "We object to anyone exploiting our treaty rice for pecuniary gain," he wrote. "Should any party be allowed to genetically manipulate the rice and mass-produce the rice in paddies, that would result in harm to our reservations and membership just as surely as if the rice were stolen directly from our rice camps."

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