The Importance of Manoomin, our Wild Rice.
WHITE EARTH RESERVATION, Minn. — Todd Thompson stood at the end of a handmade wooden pier, some of the planks cracked and bowed. He stared out onto the lake. Under the bright blue sky, a dozen or more fat cumulus clouds cast shadows on the water. Short green stalks of wild rice poked up from the depths, covering the surface like a thick carpet, swaying gently with each passing breeze.
Aspens lined the lake’s edge, and birds sang from their hiding places in the reeds. Mosquitoes whined in their search for fresh blood.
“It might be a good year this year,” said Thompson, referring to the upcoming wild rice harvest. “It don’t look patchy, like it’s been.”
His father, Leonard Thompson, agreed as he made his way to the edge of the pier to stand next to his son and eye the growing green stalks. By fall, the rice would be at least waist high, and when rice harvesting was at its peak, there were up to 500 canoes out on the lake, each harvesting as much as 200 pounds of wild rice per day.
“I would imagine this lake has been riced on for the last two or three thousand years, at least,” said the elder Thompson. “It’s just a part of our identity.”
But those ancient rice beds face an unsure future: The proposed $2.6 billion Sandpiper crude oil pipeline, if built, will carry petroleum from the Bakken oilfields in North Dakota through Minnesota to refineries in Wisconsin, cutting through the heart of the White Earth Nation’s wild rice beds.
To secure the route, Enbridge Inc., the company overseeing the pipeline, hopes to exercise the power of eminent domain, the right to take land from owners who refuse to sell to them — in this case, the White Earth Nation.
To stop the pipeline, the White Earth Nation is invoking its treaty rights. Building the Sandpiper pipeline, its members say, in addition to possible breaks and spills, would violate their rights to use the land for hunting, fishing or harvesting wild rice — rights established by treaty.
The fundamental divide between Enbridge and the White Earth Nation reflects the increasingly combative debate over oil pipelines and Indian Country, from the Keystone XL to the Prince Rupert in Canada. And on White Earth, the Sandpiper, in some circles, has become a surrogate for a broader fight to protect wild rice, the environment and the Anishinaabe way of life.
“It’s an iron spike through the heart of the wild rice beds,” said Bob Shimek, the executive director of the White Earth Land Recovery Project. “It is an iron spike through the heart of the Anishinaabe and the way of life that wild rice supports. That is what is at stake here.”