Stories of Wild Rice

When most of us eat, we think of the food as something that tastes good, something that provides us nutrients, sometimes as something that builds community.  But rarely is it something that is a product of our labor, that embodies physical work and longstanding tradition.

In the case of many Upper Midwest Native American tribes and their relationship to wild rice, however, food is most centrally a product of labor.

The Sokaogan Chippewa tribe of northeastern Wisconsin originally came to this land because of an Ojibwe prophecy that they would go to where "the food grows on water." And so, basing their livelihood on wild rice farming was a fulfillment of this prophecy.

This is why the community was able to band together with such power and emotion when their waters were threatened by a proposed zinc-copper mine in nearby Crandon, WI.  Beginning in the 1980s, Exxon-Mobil, the world's largest resource corporation was hoping to build this mine near the Sokaogon Chippewa reservation, which would destroy "many wetlands, Ojibwe wild rice beds, Native burial sites, and prized trout, walleye and sturgeon in the Wolf River just downstream from the site."*

I had the opportunity to hear the story of this proposed mine firsthand last week, when a place-based workshop I was part of came to talk with members of this community as a way of seeing a story of victory--of a small, dedicated group of people being able to overcome the huge giant of Exxon-Mobil. 


Hearing the power and raw emotion with which the activists of the community spoke was very moving for all of us.  Roman Ferdinand, a hydrogeologist, (pictured above, standing on the left) does this work because of a conviction that the modern economy based on resource extraction and shortsightedness leaves us all worse off. Tina Van Zile, a community member and on staff at the Sokaogon Chippewa environmental department (pictured above, seated in the middle) does this work because her father has spent the last 70 years farming wild rice and feeding his family. Glenn Reynolds, a lawyer (picture above, seated at right), does this work because those usually harmed by multinational corporations' mining practices are those with the least power and least access to legal recourse. 

Something as simple as wild rice becomes a symbol for goodness, justice, nurturing.


I got to experience all of this as part of one of the more extraordinary trips of my grad school life. One of my most central homes--both academically and socially--here in Madison is the Center for Culture, History, and Environment (CHE), which is a part of the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies. Each year in the spring, CHE puts on a "place-based workshop" (which Justin refers to as "a glorified field trip"). These workshops take a bus-ful of grad students and faculty to some site in the nearby area, to understand ideas, meet people, and see landscapes around some particular theme or place.  In the past, we've learned about energy in the Upper Midwest, Chicago and its hinterland (see my 2009 post about this trip), and Driftless area agriculture.

This year, the workshop devoted time and attention to Landscapes of Health in Wisconsin, thinking about health in broad, integrated ways, with attention to the environment and justice.  The whole list of sites we visited includes: Badger Ammunitions Plant, International Crane Foundation, La Clinica, Central Wisconsin Environmental Station, Proposed Crandon Mine site at Mole Lake, College of Menominee, Menominee Casino Resort Convention Center, Paper Discovery Center, Lake Park, Linnwood Water Treatment Facility, Milwaukee Health Department, Sixteenth Street Community Health Clinic, and Walnut Way Conservation Corps (all in four days! Let me know if you want to hear more about any particular ones--I'll be writing tomorrow about Walnut Way).

* See more here