28 Sep 2015: Report

For U.S. Tribes, a Movement to
Revive Native Foods and Lands

On ancestral lands, the Fond du Lac band in Minnesota is planting wild rice and restoring wetlands damaged by dams, industry, and logging. Their efforts are part of a growing trend by Native Americans to bring back traditional food sources and heal scarred landscapes.

by cheryl katz

Two by two, the wild rice harvesters emerge from the grass-filled lake and drag their canoes to shore. The harvesters, Lake Superior Chippewa, are reaping their ancestral food in the traditional way — one poling the boat through the waist-high tangle, and the other bending the stems and gently brushing ripe seed loose with a pair of batons. It’s hard, dirty work on a steamy Minnesota late-summer day. They’re caked with chaff and sweat.

View Gallery

Cheryl Katz
Traditional wild rice harvesting on a restored Fond du Lac reservation lake in northern Minnesota.
But the canoes are loaded with the sacred grain they call manoomin. It was a good harvest, they say.

For decades, this lake on the reservation of the Fond du Lac band of Lake Superior Chippewa, near Duluth, was choked with weeds and produced little of the so-called wild rice that once blanketed the upper Great Lakes. Huge swaths of the nutritious native plant — not actually rice but an annual aquatic grass (genus Zizania) — were reduced to remnants by dams, industry, logging, and other disruptive land uses over the past century-and-a-half.

But with a blend of ancestral knowledge, modern equipment, and cutting-edge expertise, Fond du Lac natural resource specialists are bringing back the “food that grows on water.” Reservation lakes will yield an estimated 30,000 pounds this year, feeding families and hosting ceremonies with the delicacy that tribal legend says was prophesied to their ancestors. Their approach has been so successful that the band is now leading the first major state, federal, and non-profit collaboration to restore part of Lake Superior’s former vast wild rice ecosystem.

The earthy grain prized by epicureans is fundamental to the indigenous people, also called Ojibwe or Anishinaabeg, who flank the Great Lakes from Michigan to Minnesota. “It’s in every bit of our way of life,” says Thomas Howes, the Fond du Lac natural resources manager, sitting on the gunwhale of a canoe filled with the bright green spikelets he has just
One group is restoring mountain meadows that tribes maintained for generations in California’s Sierra National Forest.
finished harvesting. “That’s why you see Ojibwe people make this degree of effort.”

Similar efforts are underway by native communities across North America. From restoring salmon nurseries in the Pacific Northwest, to rebuilding caribou herds in the Canadian Rockies, to removing New England dams blocking alewives and sturgeon from their historic runs, tribes are reviving traditional food sources and healing scarred lands, both on and off reservations. The path isn’t easy — tribal projects face daunting obstacles, including a crazy-quilt of property rights, circumscribed jurisdictions, and conflicts with neighbors over visions for the land. But their centuries of practical knowledge and cultural focus provide valuable guidance for stewards of the environment today.

“There has been a new movement by indigenous people to restore tribal lands and resources,” says Darren Ranco, an anthropology professor at the University of Maine in Orono, and a member of the Penobscot Nation, which is realizing an ambitious goal of reopening fish freeways on the dam-choked Penobscot River. “There’s also been a reimagined focus on food and food sovereignty.”

The movement was bolstered by 1970s court decisions increasing tribal resource rights, 1980s expansion of environmental quality legislation, and an infusion of money after Indian gaming was legalized in 1988. Now, a new generation of Native American scientists, attorneys, and politically savvy advocates are bringing their expertise back to the reservation, joining government and conservation coalitions and procuring grants.

“That’s brought some really important solutions to the table that probably weren’t there before,” says Ranco, who directs the university’s Native American Research program. “The Western tradition was continually marginalizing indigenous knowledge and values, and no longer is that happening. ... At least it’s not happening as much.”



Near the union of the St. Louis River and Duluth — the Great Lakes’ largest industrial port — Fond du Lac resource specialist Terry Perrault is coaxing the waters into producing their first wild rice harvest in

View Gallery

Cheryl Katz
Wild rice (Zizania) is actually not rice, but a native aquatic grass.
more than 100 years. The site of former Ojibwe villages, this was once the largest single wild rice stand in the region, holding an estimated 3,000 acres.

Perrault stands on the deck of the tribe’s fan boat in a tapering rain, showing young Minnesota Conservation Corps workers how to spread rice seed over a choppy gray expanse. “You used to do all this by canoe,” he tells them. “Paddle all the way out, paddle all the way back. It’s a lot easier now.”

The 1,600 pounds of seed they’re spreading this early September day were harvested by Fond du Lac ricers just a day earlier. The band’s rice experts selected this particular strain for hardiness in the estuary’s tide-like water fluctuations, called seche, which can raise and lower water by two or more feet daily.

Changes in water level can uproot or drown young rice plants at their tender “floating leaf stage” before they stand upright, explains Perrault, who had spent the bulk of the summer hacking through pondweed, arrowhead, and other tenacious weeds with a truck-sized aquatic mower. They’ll do it again next year, and the rice could take up to five years to become established. The 150-acre project, which will expand to perhaps 1,500 acres eventually, is part of the massive, multi-agency Great Lakes Restoration Initiative. The St. Louis River, which includes a Superfund site contaminated by steel and cement manufacturing, along with former coal
For tribes, one of the biggest challenges is that their restoration vision is not always shared by their neighbors.’
docks, chemical plants, ship building and more, was designated one of the nation’s 10 Most Endangered Rivers this year by the conservation group American Rivers.

Bringing back wild rice is integral to the St. Louis River project because it’s a “really key component” of the wetlands ecosystem in the upper Midwest, says Daryl Peterson, director of restoration programs for the nonprofit Minnesota Land Trust, a project partner. It’s a critical food source for migrating waterfowl, ripening just in time for the fall migration. And for local wildlife, “it’s a keystone species because it’s such a prolific seed producer,” Peterson says.

Numerous other environmental efforts around the country are also taking cues from native traditions. One is bringing back mountain meadows that tribes maintained for generations in what’s now California’s Sierra National Forest. The moist, fire-resistant clearings — critical in the region’s current matchstick conditions — have become crowded with invasive young pines, firs, and cedars that provide “a step-ladder for fire,” says Ron Goode, North Fork Mono tribal chairman. Moreover, the thirsty conifers soak up water and keep it out of the watershed, he adds.

So Goode and tribe members launched a demonstration meadow restoration for the U.S. Forest Service and local officials. The former meadow “was overgrown with scotch broom, invasives, and people dumping their trash there,” Goode says. “Over the years it had become quite a mess.” It took nearly a month to clean up, hauling off truckload after truckload of trash and wood. But in the end they opened the 5-acre meadow and revealed steams. The success brought grant money and requests for more restorations, he says. The tribe has now restored three meadows, covering 15 acres, and has several more restoration projects underway.

In the Pacific Northwest, indigenous communities have been working for years to bring back the salmon and trout that once teemed in the Columbia River basin. The Columbia, one of the most heavily dammed and industrialized rivers
‘Rice supported our lives for generations, and so you’re doing things right if it’s around,’ says one tribal member.
on the continent, is also on American Rivers’ top ten endangered list. The Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, a coalition of tribes with fishing rights on the river, has adopted a “gravel-to-gravel management approach concerned with all the issues impacting salmon throughout their life,” says Sara Thompson, spokeswoman for the commission. The tribes, working with state and federal biologists and conservation groups, have restored habitat and taken other steps that have helped Chinook populations rebound.

Despite mounting success stories, Native American environmental endeavors face a number of hurdles.

“For tribes, one of the biggest challenges is that their restoration vision is not always shared by their neighbors,” says Catherine O’Neill, a law professor and senior fellow at Seattle University’s Center for Indian Law and Policy. State pollution laws are often inadequate for native people, whose diets can expose them to far higher levels of toxic contaminants than the general population, so some tribes have set tougher standards in their jurisdictions, she said. Washington’s Spokane tribe, for instance, whose members eat much more fish than state water-quality regulations take into account, has established the nation’s strictest standards for its own waters. But a bid to increase the amount of pollution discharge allowed in neighboring Idaho now threatens the Spokanes’ downstream fishery, she says.

Tribes can also butt heads with activists on both sides of the environmental spectrum.

“Some of the conservation groups don’t want any [fish and animal] harvest,” says Barbara Harper, a public health toxicologist and professor at the Oregon State College of Public Health in Corvallis, who has worked on a number of tribal projects. “And of course the sportsmen

ALSO FROM YALE e360

How Weeds Could Help Feed
Billions in a Warming World

People or Parks
Scientists in the U.S. and elsewhere are conducting intensive experiments to cross hardy weeds with food crops such as rice and wheat. Their goal is to make these staples more resilient as higher temperatures, drought, and elevated CO2 levels pose new threats to the world’s food supply.
READ MORE
groups, that’s all they’re interested in. And the tribes are kind of in-between.”

The Fond du Lac band’s projects face several obstacles, natural resource manager Howes says. Rebuilding the reservation wetlands, which were confined to ditches during a state push to increase farmlands in the early 1900s, is hindered by a checkerboard of state, county, and private land ownership. Old dams continue to disrupt water flow. And tribal attorneys and scientists have been keeping a watchful eye on proposed copper-nickel mining in the nearby Duluth Complex, which they fear could release sulfides and other pollutants harmful to wild rice and the watershed.

Looking out over wild rice-studded waters, where a wood duck dabbles and blackbirds flit through the prolific stalks, Howes says, “This supported our lives for generations, and so we see it as like a debt to repay, to take care of it. ... You’re doing things right if it’s around.”



POSTED ON 28 Sep 2015 IN Biodiversity Business & Innovation Climate Policy & Politics Science & Technology Sustainability Sustainability North America 

COMMENTS


This excellent article was forwarded by our USEPA counterparts because the topic is so near and dear to our environmental hearts.
Posted by Anne Moore on 29 Sep 2015


Greatest news today.
Posted by Glennis Whitney on 05 Oct 2015


A good news week.
Posted by Glennis Whitney on 07 Oct 2015


POST A COMMENT

Comments are moderated and will be reviewed before they are posted to ensure they are on topic, relevant, and not abusive. They may be edited for length and clarity. By filling out this form, you give Yale Environment 360 permission to publish this comment.

Name 
Email address 
Comment 
 
Please type the text shown in the graphic.


cheryl katzABOUT THE AUTHOR
Cheryl Katz is a San Francisco Bay Area-based science writer covering energy, environmental health, and climate change. She has reported from Iceland to Africa on issues ranging from geothermal power to flood control. Her articles have appeared in Scientific American, National Geographic.com, and Science News. Reporting for this article was supported in part by a fellowship from the Institute for Journalism and Natural Resources. Previously for Yale Environment 360, she reported on a possible weakening of the oceans’ heat-buffering ability and on California's booming renewable energy landscape.
MORE BY THIS AUTHOR

 
 

RELATED ARTICLES


How Nations Are Chipping
Away at Their Protected Lands

Winning protected status for key natural areas and habitat has long been seen as the gold standard of conservation. But these gains are increasingly being compromised as governments redraw park boundaries to accommodate mining, logging, and other development.
READ MORE

New Green Challenge: How to
Grow More Food on Less Land

If the world is to have another Green Revolution to feed its soaring population, it must be far more sustainable than the first one. That means finding ways to boost yields with less fertilizer and rethinking the way food is distributed.
READ MORE

In Flint Crisis, A New Model
For Environmental Journalism

Curt Guyette is an investigative reporter who dug deeper into the Flint water crisis. In an interview with Yale Environment 360, he explains his work as a journalist employed by a Michigan nonprofit and how it could be a model for in-depth, local reporting on the environment.
READ MORE

Can Data-Driven Agriculture
Help Feed a Hungry World?

Agribusinesses are increasingly using computer databases to enable farmers to grow crops more efficiently and with less environmental impact. Experts hope this data, detailing everything from water use to crop yields, can also help the developing world grow more food.
READ MORE

How Forest Loss Is Leading
To a Rise in Human Disease

A growing body of scientific evidence shows that the felling of tropical forests creates optimal conditions for the spread of mosquito-borne scourges, including malaria and dengue. Primates and other animals are also spreading disease from cleared forests to people.
READ MORE

 

MORE IN Reports


As Drought Grips South Africa,
A Conflict Over Water and Coal

by keith schneider
Facing one of the worst droughts in memory, South Africa’s leaders have doubled down on their support of the water-intensive coal industry. But clean energy advocates say the smartest move would be to back the country’s burgeoning wind and solar power sectors.
READ MORE

Saving Amphibians: The Quest
To Protect Threatened Species

by jim robbins
The decline of the world’s amphibians continues, with causes ranging from fungal diseases to warmer and drier climates. Now, researchers are looking at ways to intervene with triage measures that could help save the most vulnerable populations.
READ MORE

How Rising CO2 Levels May
Contribute to Die-Off of Bees

by lisa palmer
As they investigate the factors behind the decline of bee populations, scientists are now eyeing a new culprit — soaring levels of carbon dioxide, which alter plant physiology and significantly reduce protein in important sources of pollen.
READ MORE

Can Uber-Style Buses Help
Relieve India's Air Pollution?

by jason overdorf
India’s megacities have some the deadliest air and worst traffic congestion in the world. But Indian startups are now launching initiatives that link smart-phone apps and private shuttle buses and could help keep cars and other motorized vehicles off the roads.
READ MORE

Trouble in Paradise: A Blight
Threatens Key Hawaiian Tree

by richard schiffman
The ʻohiʻa is Hawaii’s iconic tree, a keystone species that maintains healthy watersheds and provides habitat for numerous endangered birds. But a virulent fungal disease, possibly related to a warmer, drier climate, is now felling the island’s cherished 'ohi'a forests.
READ MORE

Climate Change Adds Urgency
To Push to Save World’s Seeds

by virginia gewin
In the face of rising temperatures and worsening drought, the world’s repositories of agricultural seeds may hold the key to growing food under increasingly harsh conditions. But keeping these gene banks safe and viable is a complicated and expensive challenge.
READ MORE

As World Warms, How Do We
Decide When a Plant is Native?

by janet marinelli
The fate of a tree planted at poet Emily Dickinson's home raises questions about whether gardeners can — or should — play a role in helping plant species migrate in the face of rising temperatures and swiftly changing botanical zones.
READ MORE

With New Tools, A Focus
On Urban Methane Leaks

by judith lewis mernit
Until recently, little was known about the extent of methane leaking from urban gas distribution pipes and its impact on global warming. But recent advances in detecting this potent greenhouse gas are pushing U.S. states to begin addressing this long-neglected problem.
READ MORE

Is Climate Change Putting
World's Microbiomes at Risk?

by jim robbins
Researchers are only beginning to understand the complexities of the microbes in the earth’s soil and the role they play in fostering healthy ecosystems. Now, climate change is threatening to disrupt these microbes and the key functions they provide.
READ MORE

As Electric Cars Stall, A Move
To Greener Trucks and Buses

by cheryl katz
Low gasoline prices and continuing performance issues have slowed the growth of electric car sales. But that has not stymied progress in electrifying larger vehicles, including garbage trucks, city buses, and medium-sized trucks used by freight giants like FedEx.
READ MORE


e360 digest
Yale
Yale Environment 360 is
a publication of the
Yale School of Forestry
& Environmental Studies
.

SEARCH e360



Donate to Yale Environment 360
Yale Environment 360 Newsletter


CONNECT


ABOUT

About e360
Contact
Submission Guidelines
Reprints

E360 en Español

Universia partnership
Yale Environment 360 articles are now available in Spanish and Portuguese on Universia, the online educational network.
Visit the site.


DEPARTMENTS

Opinion
Reports
Analysis
Interviews
Forums
e360 Digest
Podcasts
Video Reports

TOPICS

Biodiversity
Business & Innovation
Climate
Energy
Forests
Oceans
Policy & Politics
Pollution & Health
Science & Technology
Sustainability
Urbanization
Water

REGIONS

Antarctica and the Arctic
Africa
Asia
Australia
Central & South America
Europe
Middle East
North America

e360 VIDEO

“video
Tribal people and ranchers join together to stop a project that would haul coal across their Montana land.
Watch the video.

e360 MOBILE

Mobile
The latest
from Yale
Environment 360
is now available for mobile devices at e360.yale.edu/mobile.

e360 PHOTO ESSAY

“Alaska
An aerial view of why Europe’s per capita carbon emissions are less than 50 percent of those in the U.S.
View the photos.

e360 VIDEO

“Battle
The 2015 Yale e360 Video Contest winner documents a Northeastern town's bitter battle over a wind farm.
Watch the video.

e360 VIDEO

Food waste
An e360 video series looks at the staggering amount of food wasted in the U.S. – a problem with major human and environmental costs.
Watch the video.

e360 VIDEO

Colorado wildfires
An e360 video goes onto the front lines with Colorado firefighters confronting deadly blazes fueled by a hotter, drier climate.
Watch the video.

e360 SPECIAL REPORT

“Tainted
A three-part series Tainted Harvest looks at the soil pollution crisis in China, the threat it poses to the food supply, and the complexity of any cleanup.
Read the series.

OF INTEREST



Yale