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Great Lakes Article:

Pollution, development take toll on ancient rice beds
By Peter Rebhahn
Green Bay Press Gazette
06/18/03


MOLE LAKE - Sokaogon Chippewa tribe elder Fred Ackley learned everything he needed to know about wild rice from his grandmother. "That was our life at one time out here," said Ackley with a nod at nearby Rice Lake, home to the Chippewa’s ancestral rice beds.

Gaming now occupies the place in the lives of Native Americans once filled by hunting and gathering. Times change.

The rice beds remain, but the ancient knowledge Ackley learned from his ancestors may not be enough to guarantee the beds’ future. The Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission is studying wild rice here with the aim of saving what’s left of Wisconsin’s native rice beds and seeding promising wetlands that may never have been home to the plant.

Members of the Native American Journalists Association, in Green Bay this week for the organization’s 19th annual convention, are taking a tour of ecological points of interest in or near some of the Indian reservations in the state. The visit to Rice Lake Tuesday was part of the tour.

"We know we’ve lost a lot of rice beds in the historical perspective," biologist Peter David of the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission said. ‘‘It’s harder to know what’s happening in the near term.’’

The commission was formed in 1984 in the wake of confrontations between native and nonnative populations over Indian fish spearing and other off-reservation treaty rights.

Scientists have learned much about wild rice, or "manoomin" in the Chippewa language, since the commission began a database on the plant 15 years ago.

"By and large, for rice, it hasn’t been good," David said.

David estimates Wisconsin has lost at least half the wild rice beds the state’s wetlands once held. Wetland loss, pollution and shoreline development have all taken a toll.

Even motorized boat traffic harms the plants, especially now, in mid-June, when the tender leaves float on the water surface. "People may not know what it is growing off the end of their dock," David said.

Wild rice is an annual plant that grows anew from seed every year. It’s very sensitive to changes in water levels. The plants grow best in water 1 to 2 feet deep. Some year-to-year fluctuation in water level is good for the plants, as long as it’s moderate.

"You can drown a rice bed very easily," David said. Many dams across the state have done exactly that.

David said the Chippewa and other tribes have been a "catalyst" in a reseeding effort that has planted from three to seven tons of seed in promising Great Lakes wetlands annually in recent years.

"We’re just trying to hold on to what we have here," Ackley said.

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