LANSING, MI -- The Michigan legislature is currently considering a bill to name Manoomin (Wild Rice) as Michigan’s State Native Grain, yet many people are surprised to learn it grows here and that is due in no small part to it decline in the past 150 years.
Michigan House Bill 6323 to designate Manoomin (wild rice) as Michigan's State Native Grain has been introduced by Representative Ronnie Peterson and co-sponsored by 15 other legislators during the 2020 lame duck session. This is a high point of over a decade of work by tribal and non-tribal people bringing awareness about one of Michigan’s most beautiful and culturally significant wetland plants.
In Michigan, there were once rice beds thousands of acres in size along the Great Lakes’ coastlines and smaller but significant beds on inland lakes and rivers. Since the time of European colonization, many of Michigan’s wild rice beds were destroyed due to dredging, draining of wetlands, logging, and the creation of dams. Today, the Manoomin faces new challenges due to climate change, mining, water quality concerns, and competing uses of lakes.
Lansing resident and endangered species biologist Barbara “Barb” Barton discusses the history, ecology, cultural history, restoration, and importance of wild as a food in her book “Manoomin: The Story of Wild Rice in Michigan”, published by Michigan State University Press (2018). The unique book features introductions to each chapter written by Anishinaabe people and presents a bi-cultural perspective on the story of this remarkable plant. “Manoomin: The Story of Wild Rice in Michigan” has received high honors, winning a 2018 Michigan History Award, 2019 Michigan Notable Book Award, 2019 American Library Association Choice List of Outstanding Academic Titles, and the 2020 Independent Publishers Bronze Medal (Great Lakes Region).
Wild rice is called Manoomin by the Anishinaabe people, which means “good berry”. It is considered a sacred plant in tribal culture because of its ties to their traditional migration stories. In the introduction to the first chapter of Barton’s book, traditional ricer Roger LaBine of the Lac Vieux Desert Band of Lake Superior Chippewa describes the sacredness of the Manoomin to the Anishinaabek:
“Many seasons have passed since our Ancestors inhabited the area around the entrance of St. Lawrence Seaway. There the Confederacy of Three Fires members lived in balance and harmony with Mother Earth. It is said the campfires could be seen in all four directions and as far as one could see. It is at this time the Great Spirit delivered Prophecies with instructions to our Spiritual Leaders that we were to migrate in the direction of where our Grandfather sets at the end of the day. If we stayed, we would be confronted with death and destruction. The Anishinaabe people were further instructed to follow the Megis until we found the land where the food grows on the water. The Megis guided them to the rich land and pristine waters of the Great Lakes and to the settling point on Madeline Island. Throughout the region on the watersheds which feed the Great Lakes and along its vast shorelines the Sacred Manoomin could be found and harvested. This Gift from the Creator once found fulfilled he prophecies and became one of the staple foods of the Anishinabek. The Manoomin beds are considered to be the Great Spirit’s Gardens and are a source of medicine and food. Manoomin is respected, honored, and feasted and has become part of the identity of the native communities in the Great Lakes region.”
“Manoomin: The Story of Wild Rice in Michigan” is available at the author’s website at www.barbbarton.com, or at booksellers everywhere.
Editor’s note: Since this book was published it has won many awards. Barbara “Barb” Barton continues to educate the community about homemade goodies like maple sugar, maple vinegar and maple nuggets. She resides in Lansing, MI and we are proud of her accomplishments. Barb practices and teaches traditional living skills of self-sufficiency, a lifestyle she says keeps her in close relationship with nature. On any given day, you can find her gathering wild foods and medicines, processing acorns to make flour, tapping black walnut trees for syrup, making maple sugar and vinegar, turning cream into butter, shelling nuts, making hominy, or harvesting and processing wild rice. If you have a cup of coffee with her, you should know she roasted the beans herself. That coffeecake you were served with your drink is from 40 -ear-old sourdough starter Barb inherited from her Grandmother. When she is not doing all that, she may be out shooting film for her next documentary or writing a new song for her next album. Then there is her day job as a water quality specialist with the Michigan Department of Transportation. One of her greatest joys is the women’s circle she founded in 2009 called the Gathering Society, a circle of women dedicated to keeping traditional knowledge alive and building bridges between tribal and non-tribal cultures. Through all of her adventures, the common thread is weaving connections between all people and our Earth.