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Indigenous efforts help restore ecologically important plant: 'We are spiritually connected to it'

"It's always been a part of who we are as Anishinaabe people."

"It's always been a part of who we are as Anishinaabe people."

Photo Credit: 1854 Treaty Authority

Great Lakes tribes are reviving the wild rice population, an ecologically important wetland species, after two centuries of decline. 

According to reporting in Mongabay, wild rice, native to the Great Lakes, is an important plant to the Anishinaabe people, who are composed of Ojibwe, Chippewa, Odawa, Potawatomi, Algonquin, Mississauga, and other Indigenous peoples. Natively known as manoomin or "food that grows on water," it grows in muddy, shallow lakes and rivers and is harvested in the late summer and fall. 

Wild rice covered thousands of lake beds in the Great Lakes region in the 1800s. Then, in the 1900s, human interference caused the wild rice population to decline. Logging, dams, railroads, and farmlands changed the water chemistry and destroyed almost two-thirds of the wetlands. Mining and manufacturing also polluted the water with toxic chemicals. 

Today, rising temperatures threaten the rice's future. The seeds are supposed to grow while submerged in snow and ice, but the lack of snow coverage has made that difficult. In addition, flooding, tornadoes, and other storms have made the species vulnerable. 

That is starting to change, per Mongabay. Joe Graveen, a ricer who learned from his elders, is the program manager of the Lac du Flambeau Band of Lake Superior Chippewa Indians in Wisconsin. The group launched a program in 2017 to restore wild rice on the reservation. 

Late last summer, their work had paid off. Wild rice was once again in the Lac du Flambeau's lakes. Graveen believes it was the first wild rice grown there in 20 years. 

This is also good news because wild rice plays a vital role in their ceremonies. Graveen explained: "We are spiritually connected to it. It's always been a part of who we are as Anishinaabe people."

Lake Superior Chippewa Indians aren't the only tribes reviving the wild rice. Others in nearby states and Canada are doing so with the help of partners like federal, state, and intertribal agencies, as well as funding initiatives and nongovernmental organizations. 

This rice also plays a huge part in biodiversity, as Mongabay reported. It's a food source for many birds, including the vulnerable rusty blackbird, trumpeter swan, and common loon. The rice beds are also a home for juvenile fish who eat insects and are sheltered from predators, while wetland mammals such as beavers, muskrats, and river otters inhabit the beds. 

In addition, wild rice plays an integral part in the environment by maintaining the water quality by absorbing nutrients and preventing buildup. 

Wild rice isn't the only wetland species being revived. Because of conservation efforts in Pakistan, mangroves tripled in population between 1986 and 2020. Elsewhere in California, an endangered frog is thriving thanks to a multiyear restoration program.

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