• Wild rice or manoomin is an ecologically important and culturally revered wetland species native to the Great Lakes region of the United States and Canada, which once covered thousands of acres and was a staple for Indigenous peoples.
  • Over the past two centuries, indiscriminate logging, dam building, mining, and industrial pollution have decimated the wild rice beds, and today climate change and irregular weather patterns threaten the species’ future.
  • In recent years, native tribes and First Nations, working with federal and state agencies, scientists and funding initiatives, have led wild rice restoration programs that have successfully revived the species in parts of the region and paved the way for education and outreach.
  • Experts say more research and investments must be directed towards wild rice, and such initiatives need the support of all stakeholders to bring back the plant.

In the late summer of 2023, thick stands of wild rice stood tall and shimmered gold in some of Lac du Flambeau’s lakes. The plant has been virtually absent in these lakes for decades, so for Joe Graveen, the sight of grain-filled stalks was a thing of joy, he says. As the wild rice program manager for the Lac du Flambeau Band of Lake Superior Chippewa Indians, a tribal band in northern Wisconsin, Graveen was seeing the fruits (or grains, literally) of hard work he and his tribe’s members had put in over the past six years.

“It was the first time that I think a lot of us saw wild rice in a while, in about 20 years or maybe longer,” Graveen says. “It always brings a smile to my face to see our harvesters’ reaction.”

The wild rice only grew here after years of grit and endurance. In late 2017, the band launched a new program to revive wild rice in some of the 260 lakes on their reservation. Leading the program is Graveen, a “ricer” and knowledge keeper who learned about the plant and harvesting methods from his elders. The restoration involved seeding the lakebeds with tons of rice seeds, monitoring water quality, fending off geese from gobbling the young rice plants, and keeping tabs on the lakes’ water levels.

Across the Great Lakes Basin in the U.S. and Canada, there’s a growing interest among many tribes and First Nations to lead efforts to revive wild rice. Closely intertwined with Indigenous culture and identity, wild rice was decimated after the arrival of European settlers. But today, many partners are supporting initiatives to restore wild rice, including federal agencies, state agencies, intertribal agencies, funding initiatives, universities, and NGOs, recognizing the grain’s cultural and ecological significance and vulnerability to climate change.

Wild rice restoration site at Walleye Alley Bay in St. Louis River estuary in 2017 without significant wild rice presence.
Wild rice restoration site at Walleye Alley Bay in St. Louis River estuary in 2017 without significant wild rice presence. Image courtesy of 1854 Authority.
Wildrice restoration site at Walleye Alley Bay in St. Louis River estuary in 2023 after restoration work by 1854 Authority.
Wildrice restoration site at Walleye Alley Bay in St. Louis River estuary in 2023 after restoration work by 1854 Authority. Image courtesy of 1854 Authority.

Manoomin: Gift of the Creator

Northern wild rice (Zizania palustris) is an annual wetland plant native to the Great Lakes. Called manoomin in Anishinaabemowin, it translates to “good berry” or “food that grows on water.” Legend has it that the Anishinaabeg people — a cultural-linguistic group that includes the Ojibwe, Chippewa, Odawa, Potawatomi, Algonquin, Mississauga and other Indigenous peoples — once living near the mouth of the St. Lawrence River, walked south in search of this grain following a prophecy.

“Wild rice is very important to us because of the teachings,” says Roger Labine from the Lac Vieux Desert Band of Lake Superior Chippewa Indians in Michigan, who hails from the Fish Clan of the Ojibwe Chippewa Nation. “We honor wild rice as a sacred gift from the Creator to identify where we needed to be on Mother Earth.”

The plant grows in the muddy bottoms of shallow, slow-flowing lakes and rivers. The seeds germinate in the spring after being submerged under ice and snow in the winter. By summer, flowers develop into seeds, which are harvested in late summer and early fall. The nutty flavor and long shelf life made the light-brown grain a staple in the Anishinaabe people’s diet.

“We had this in our wigwams when it was too cold to go hunt and fish and gather,” Labine says. “We could stay in and have nourishment.” A distant relative of domesticated rice (Oryza sativa) from Asia, wild rice is highly nutritious and is packed with more proteins, vitamins and dietary fiber than the former.

As a wetland species, wild rice creates a unique ecosystem, says Jonathan Gilbert, director of biological services for the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission (GLIFWC), an intertribal agency comprised of 11 Ojibwe tribes. “It has a whole bunch of plants and animals and nutrients and energy flow, and it’s diverse.”

The grain is an important food source for many migratory and non-migratory waterfowl, including the locally threatened rusty blackbird (Euphagus carolinus), trumpeter swan (Cygnus buccinator) and common loon (Gavia immer). Wild rice beds serve as fish nurseries: juvenile fish feed on the insects and take cover from predators. Wetland mammals like beavers (Castor canadensis), muskrats (Ondatra zibethicus) and river otters (Lontra canadensis) all call the rice beds home. The plants maintain water quality by absorbing nutrients in the sediments and preventing their buildup.

Wild rice also plays a vital role in the ceremonies of native tribes and First Nations.  “We are spiritually connected to it,” Graveen says. “It’s always been a part of who we are as Anishinaabe people.”

A harvester using ricing sticks or knockers to knock down mature rice grains from the stalk.
A harvester using ricing sticks or knockers to knock down mature rice grains from the stalk. Image courtesy of 1854 Authority.
Freshly harvested manoomin from Lac Vieux Desert Band’s harvest.
Freshly harvested manoomin from Lac Vieux Desert Band’s harvest. Image by Todd Marsee / Michigan Sea Grant.

Too hot for wild rice?

Historical accounts suggest that until the 1800s, wild rice covered tens of thousands of acres of lakebeds in the region. However, intense logging in the Great Lakes area in the 19th century clogged waterways and changed the chemistry of the water. Dams altered the water levels in areas with wild rice. Railroads, farmlands and other developments destroyed nearly two-thirds of wetlands in the region — a critical habitat for wild rice. Mining and manufacturing industries spewed toxic chemicals like mercury into the water bodies.

While some of these threats, such as dams and pollution, still exist, wild rice is today most threatened by climate change and the resulting irregular weather patterns it brings: rainstorms, floods, tornadoes, and loss of snow cover. A 2018 GLIFWC climate change vulnerability assessment of species important to the tribes identified manoomin as “extremely vulnerable.”

“Almost all of the concerns [that wild rice face today] tie directly to climate change,” Gilbert says. “I think one of the reasons why the tribes are so concerned about climate effects on wild rice is because they see it as kind of like an existential threat to their identity.”

Rising temperatures are conducive to wild rice diseases, such as brown spot disease, which can reduce seed production by 90%, and pests like rice worms (moth larvae). A lack of snow cover and ice, increasingly common due to climate change, favors invasive and native aquatic plants such as pondweeds, water lilies, hybrid cattails and flowering rush, which can outcompete wild rice.

The race is on to save the beloved manoomin from these threats before the plant and its knowledge keepers vanish.

Wildrice restoration site at Duck Hunter North Bay in St. Louis River estuary in 2023 showing expansion of wild rice beds by the 1854 Authority.
Wildrice restoration site at Duck Hunter North Bay in St. Louis River estuary in 2023 showing expansion of wild rice beds by the 1854 Authority. Image courtesy of 1854 Authority.

Reseeding hope with restoration

For centuries, the Anishinaabe people have stewarded wild rice by perfecting harvesting techniques that ensure the annual crop returns every year. A typical harvest starts in the late summer or early fall and is a monthlong affair. It involves two people on a canoe; no motorboats, as they can destroy the rice stands. With a push pole, one steers the canoe through the thick beds, and the other bends each stalk over and taps it with a ricing stick. The ripened grains fall into the bottom of the canoe, while the unripe seeds are left behind to mature.

Although a good rice bed acre can yield more than 500 pounds of seeds, or about 560 kilograms per hectare, hand harvesting captures only a tenth of this amount. The remaining seeds fall to the bottom of the lake, some of which are eaten by the birds and fish, while others grow into new plants. But with thriving rice beds gone, seed banks have vanished, too.

Today, restoration at Lac Vieux Desert involves manually seeding the rice beds, regularly monitoring water quality and level, measuring the stem density of rice beds, and educating owners of summer cabins around the lakes not to destroy wild rice beds. The tribe has also actively engaged with federal and state agencies for monitoring, funding and enforcement against vandalism of wild rice beds.

“We’re going out there like Johnny Appleseed” — an American nurseryman fabled for spreading apple seeds wherever he went — “throwing rice out there on an annual basis,” says Labine, who is also the water resource technician for the Lac Vieux Desert Band. “Last year we put 4,500 pounds [about 2,000 kg] of rice back in.” Restorers must be patient; rice seeds can take up to seven years to germinate.

The work has resulted in 14 sites of thriving beds where members can harvest manoomin. The band has restarted ceremonies involving the sacred grain. While yields vary annually, the effort has gained momentum, with all 12 tribes in Michigan having similar restoration programs. “There’s a big movement, just like reviving our language,” Labine says.

Reseeding involves spreading freshly harvested rice back into rice beds.
Reseeding involves spreading freshly harvested rice back into rice beds. Image by Joe Graveen.

In late 2023, Michigan recognized wild rice as the state’s native grain after years of tribes pursuing protections for it. Labine says he hopes this recognition can further education and outreach efforts. The Michigan Wild Rice Initiative, a tribal collective, is working toward developing a statewide wild rice stewardship plan by the end of February 2024.

In Lac du Flambeau, the tribe seeded 3,500 lbs (about 1,600 kg) of wild rice in the last two years, resulting in the 2023 bumper yield. The return of wild rice in the reservation has meant restarting manoomin feasts, where community members gather to celebrate harvests. Now, the tribe is looking at how to ensure the yields stay.

“We’re looking at trying to get good data, and then, eventually, we’ll develop a management plan for wild rice,” says Graveen, who’s seeking the help of computer engineering researcher Josiah Hester from the Georgia Institute of Technology.

Using sensors and artificial intelligence, Hester’s team is building wild rice monitoring infrastructure that captures real-time data on water quality, waterfowl activity, water levels, wakes from boat activity, and ice sheet thickness in the lakes. Machine-learning algorithms then churn through the sensor data, images and audio to predict the environmental trends, which, combined with Graveen’s traditional ecological knowledge, can determine if the rice beds can sustain an abundant harvest in the coming year.

Roger Labine showing steps to hand-process wild rice at 2019 Wild Rice Camp, Alberta, MI.
Roger Labine showing steps to hand-process wild rice at 2019 Wild Rice Camp, Alberta, MI. Image by Todd Marsee / Michigan Sea Grant.

“We’re building this for this urgent critical problem around rice and climate disaster mitigation,” says Hester, who adds he understands the importance of traditional ecological knowledge as a Hawaiian native. For Graveen, the real-time monitoring system means spending less time in the field. “If we can cut down our time, I’m all for it — I’m just a one-man operation right now.”

In Minnesota, the 1854 Authority, an intertribal agency working with the Bois Forte and Grand Portage bands, began a wild rice restoration program in the St. Louis River estuary. By 2025, the program aims to restore at least 275 acres (111 hectares). Besides monitoring water quality, the agency has installed nearly 50 enclosures around the beds to prevent ducks and geese from eating the plants. So far, more than 80,000 lbs (36,300 kg) of wild rice has been seeded, covering 260 acres (105 hectares). In 2023 alone, the agency seeded 12,547 lbs (5,691 kg) of the grain, covering 61 acres (25 hectares).

The agency has also started wild rice camps for students and resource managers to learn more about Minnesota’s state grain, a status conferred on wild rice in 1977. “In addition to restoring rice, we are trying to restore people’s knowledge and appreciation of rice,” says Darren Volt, director of resource management at the 1854 Authority.

The Keweenaw Bay Indian Community in Michigan has similarly seeded thousands of pounds of wild rice seed in lakes within Baraga county over the past decade, reviving rice beds in lakes ravaged by pollution. On the Canadian side of the border, Plenty Canada, a local NGO working with First Nations in Eastern Ontario, has seeded a few lakebeds in the region with wild rice since 2018 under pilot projects.

While the ecological benefits of wild rice restoration have yet to be scientifically measured, Graveen, who fishes, hunts and traps, says he’s seen the return of waterfowl and other wildlife in the lake after restoration.

Eric Greenlee, Hester’s student from Georgia Tech, installs water-level sensors in lakes at Lac du Flambeau to help monitor wild rice beds.
Eric Greenlee, Hester’s student from Georgia Tech, installs water-level sensors in lakes at Lac du Flambeau to help monitor wild rice beds. Image by Naomi Blinick.

The way forward

Despite tasting success, restoration programs face funding challenges and are dependent on periodic grants for which there’s lots of competition. Often, the natural resources departments at the tribes, which usually run such programs, are short-staffed, with a handful of people managing many species, including manoomin. As most wetlands have been lost, very little land is available for restoration. But the tribes’ persistence has meant wild rice restoration is now the focus of federal and state departments.

“I’m seeing a lot more attention being paid to wild rice these days, from not only the tribes but the states as well,” Gilbert says.

For the tribes, being at the discussion table with federal and state agencies, university researchers, and funders — something that wasn’t the case for several decades — is a win. While Graveen says he’s convinced that wild rice may not return to its past glory, success for him is tribes working together on policy and management at the state and federal levels.

“It’s going to take everybody to bring back wild rice,” Labine says.

Rice stands in the lakes of Lac du Flambeau due to the tribe’s restoration efforts.
Rice stands in the lakes of Lac du Flambeau due to the tribe’s restoration efforts. Image by Eric Greenlee.

Banner image: A harvester navigating the wild rice beds on the canoe. Image courtesy of 1854 Authority.

Tribe and partners light up a forest to restore landscape in California

Biodiversity, Community Forests, Conservation, Conservation Solutions, Culture, Ecological Restoration, Environment, Happy-upbeat Environmental, Indigenous Communities, Indigenous Culture, Indigenous Cultures, Indigenous Peoples, Landscape Restoration, Restoration, Traditional Knowledge

Canada, North America, United States

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