The Political Economy of Wild Rice: Indigenous Heritage and University Research
By Winona LaDuke

So here we are at the University of Minnesota and it is 2004.

You're Ron Phillips, Regents Professor and McKnight Presidential Chair in Genomics, and you take all the DNA strand segments out of a native strain of wild rice and stick them in some bacteria so you can grow it out in case you want to do some studies, or maybe genetically modify the wild rice by putting some genetic material from white rice into the wild rice, called manoomin. You get some money to keep doing studies on wild rice with names like "Molecular Cytogenics for Plant Improvement, Wild Rice Breeding/Germplasm, and Toward the Identification of Functional Genes in Wild Rice." You work with your colleagues towards creating a genomic library of wild rice, and submit a set of sequence data to Gen Bank, a lab at Cornell University now available for public use.

And then you are startled to find that the Anishinaabeg community of the region--the people who "granted" the land for the University--are concerned, upset and, well, angry.

For the past five years, the Anishinaabeg community of the region has asked the University of Minnesota to stop its genetic work on wild rice.

"We object to the exploitation of our wild rice for pecuniary gain," wrote then-Minnesota Chippewa Tribal President Norman Deschampe to the University of Minnesota in a 1998 letter.

"The genetic variants of wild rice found naturally occurring on the waters in territories ceded by the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe to the state of Minnesota are a unique treasure that has been carefully protected by the people of our tribe for centuries. Rights to the rice have been the subject of treaty and it is a resource that enjoys federal trust protection. We are of the opinion that the wild rice rights assured by treaty accrue not only to individual grains of rice, but to the very essence of the resource. We were not promised just any wild rice; that promise could be kept by delivering sacks of grain to our members each year. We were promised the rice that grew in the waters of our people, and all the value that rice holds. A sacred and significant place in our culture."

Virtually every tribal government and Native organization in the region has repeatedly called on the university to stop genetic work on wild rice.

Finally, after attorneys for the Ojibwe filed a set of Freedom of Information Act requests, Dean Muscoplat at the University of Minnesota began a "dialogue" on the issue with Native organizations.

The research in contention, however, continues unabated.

It was about a hundred years ago that the University of Minnesota dispatched its first anthropologists to the reservations in the north.

Albert Jenks came, joining his colleague from the Smithsonian Institute, Ales Hrliska, a physical anthropologist who specialized in comparing Indigenous peoples' heads to monkeys. The two came to White Earth and other reservations with scapulars in hand, and measured the heads of the Anishinaabeg of White Earth as part of tests designed to show a genetic basis for Natives' alleged intellectual inferiority.

Then University Board of Regents member and U.S. Representative Knute Nelson introduced an act "for the Relief of the Chippewa Indians of Minnesota." The passage of the act allowed for the allotment of the White Earth reservation and, with the assistance of university researchers, paved the way for the rapid appropriation of Anishinaabeg land.

In a "blood quantum scandal," physical anthropologists claimed that individuals from full-blood Indigenous people in Minnesota were mixed-bloods, a demarcation that under the act allowed for them to "sell their land." The subsequently coerced sales cost the White Earth Anishinaabeg most of the reservation lands.

So began what would become a rather dysfunctional relationship between the University of Minnesota and the Anishinaabeg and other indigenous people of Minnesota and the world.

It turns out that Jenks not only measured Anishinaabeg heads, but came up later to study wild rice. He noted with disdain the Ojibwe harvesting practices.

"Wild rice, which had led to their advance thus far," he wrote, "held them back from further progress, unless, indeed, they left it behind them, for with them it was incapable of extensive cultivation."

In what would become the prevailing thought at the University of Minnesota throughout the twentieth century, Jenks surmised that Ojibwe production systems were inadequate.

"In civilization," he theorized, "one class of people at least must have comparative leisure in which to develop short-cut methods of doing old things, of acquiring the traditions of the race, and of mastering new thoughts and methods. Such leisure is impossible with a precarious food supply. But, in spite of these facts, for barbaric people during the period of barbarism, the most princely vegetal gift which N. America gave her people without toil was wild rice. They could almost defy nature's law that he who will not work shall not eat."

In the 1950s, University of Minnesota researchers decided that it was time to correct the laziness and created a new domesticated crop for the state: paddy grown wild rice.

Another researcher at the University of Minnesota, Ervin Oelke, began the process of domesticating wild rice. The germplasm that was used for most of the studies came from 24 natural stands across the state. The Ojibwe would contend that those natural stands belonged to them. Absent any tribal consent, Oelke and his researchers continued with their domestication. They succeeded. Domesticated wild rice was soon produced and then overproduced. The wholesale wild rice price dropped from $4.44 per pound in 1967 to $2.68 a pound in 1976.

"University of Minnesota research changes lives and improves communities," proclaims the University of Minnesota website.

The state's indigenous population might disagree. Recently, the International Wild Rice Association met in the basement of the Eldorado Casino in Reno, Nevada.

University of Minnesota Extension agent Raymond Porter presented on the issues of agronomy and research, seeking to dispel some of the criticism levied at the university by tribal representatives. Suggesting that the criticisms have been based, in part on "misunderstanding and faulty conclusions," Porter said that researchers have concluded that most of the issues raised by the tribes are not real problems.

His essential argument was that the more the Native community understands about modern science and plant genomics, the more that community will be happy with the research.

Raymond Porter's turf is the heart of Minnesota cultivated wild rice research: an agricultural extension and experiment station in Grand Rapids, Minnesota. The research station has received hundreds of thousands of dollars to develop paddy grown wild rice varieties. In 1963, the Bureau of Indian Affairs provided funds to the Agricultural Experiment station to begin work on wild rice. Subsequent funding increased beginning in 1964 and kept on rising, with $100,000 a year allocated to wild rice research largely at the university extension offices. By the 1990s, that amount had increased, with generous support from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and elsewhere.

The university researchers did produce: Over the years of research, the Minnesota agricultural extension office "created" several strains of "wild rice."

This has led to fear among the Anishinaabeg: Might the varieties developed by the University of Minnesota researchers possibly contaminate the Anishinaabeg's wild rice stands? There are around 6,000 bodies of water with significant wild rice beds in Minnesota, or around 60,000 acres of rice. And there are approximately 20,000 acres of cultivated wild rice paddies within close proximity of the many lakes of Northern Minnesota.

Anishinaabeg in the region have long contended that paddy rice stands are contaminating the natural lake stands. Ron Phillips claims there is little chance of cross pollination as long as approximately 660 feet separate the two kinds of wild rice. However, university extension office research appears to lend credence to Ojibwe fears. In summer 2002, wild rice researchers undertook a study of possible pollen drift from paddy rice stands into wild stands. They concluded that there was a 1 to 5 percent chance that pollen drifted up to two miles from the test plots, and maybe further. Two miles--10,560 feet--is a whole lot more than 660 feet.

Then there is the problem of the zhiishiibig, the ducks. It turns out there have been no systematic studies simulating duck and waterfowl movement in the wild rice area. Ducks and wild rice are a part of traditional Anishinaabeg stories, and will likely be in the future. Ducks and waterfowl do not differentiate between paddy rice plots and natural stands of wild rice, and move freely between them both, carrying the rice from one into the other.

Then you take the domestication work in California, where the NORCAL Wild Rice Company has patented "cytoplasmic male sterility."

Could the injection of this patented sterility into domesticated seeds impact Native rice stands in a negative manner?


Some of the concerns about the cytoplasmic male sterility in the NORCAL seed and patent have historical foundations. After 15 percent of the U.S. hybrid corn crop was wiped out in 1970, scientists discovered it was a southern leaf blight fungus which had done the damage. The plants most susceptible were those with a genetic trait called "Texas cytoplasmic male sterility factor, which had been inbred to eliminate expensive corn detasseling."

In the 1960s, paddy wild rice became a commercial crop in Minnesota. In the 1970s, Minnesota declared it the State Grain, and production of paddy grown wild rice took off. Shortly thereafter, however, production in California--where farmers did not have to contend with hail, wind, a fickle water supply and inclement weather--started to outstrip Minnesota. By 1983, California was producing 8.5 million pounds, to Minnesota's 5 million pounds. In 2002, California produced 18 million pounds of paddy rice, to Minnesota's 5 million pounds.

But the University of Minnesota's interest in the domesticated wild rice industry remains undiminished. During the last five years, the university has spent more than $1 million on its wild rice research programs, not counting the budgets for large wild rice breeding and genetics projects. This money, which comes mostly from the USDA, has been spent to continue the work to benefit 20 paddy rice farmers; Minnesota's 50,000 Indian people have been pushed aside once again.

In reality, the University of Minnesota's history of work with seeds has had a significant impact worldwide.

Norman Borlaug, the so-called Father of the Green Revolution, and whom the university fondly refers to as "the Peaceful Revolutionary" was a plant agronomist at the University of Minnesota.

The Green Revolution brought about both a huge growth in production of foods, and a huge loss of biodiversity. The crops produced by the Green Revolution were pushed by corporate and international aid agencies into all corners of the world, pushing out traditional varieties. The combination of fertilizers and new plant varieties that defined the revolution increased the total amount of food available per person around the world by 11 percent, though critics have long charged it is unequal food and wealth distribution, not food shortages, that create hunger.

In order to grow the hybrid seeds developed by entities like the Rockefeller Foundation in the 1950s, farmers needed to buy mountains of expensive and dangerous pesticides and fertilizers, particularly to sustain the monocultures advocated by the revolution's promoters. Critics say the Green Revolution has caused a worldwide loss of agricultural biodiversity as new plants were moved into small farming communities. Only four species--wheat, corn, rice and potatoes--account for more than half of the calories consumed by humans.

It turns out as well that there is a huge overlap between cultural diversity and biological diversity.

Indigenous peoples are at the epicenter of a storm between the biodiversity which exists, much of it in indigenous territories, and those interested in profiting and privatizing that genetic material--universities and corporations alike. Internationally, it appears that 90 percent of the biological materials being patented come from indigenous and Third World communities, and at least 90 percent of the patent holders are multinational corporations from rich countries.

These are the same companies that through breeding, biotechnology and their worldwide control of seed commerce are contributing to a massive reduction in agricultural biodiversity.

The Manoomin Ogitchidaag Coalition is comprised of representatives from most of the Anishinaabeg bands in the Northern Minnesota region. In September 2003, the Coalition made clear its demands to the University of Minnesota. The Coalition's demands include:

* A moratorium on genomic research and genetic research of wild rice at the University of Minnesota, beginning December 31, 2004;

* Protection of Anishinaabeg intellectual property rights to wild rice, including a ban on selling these rights;

* A cultural consultation program to be set in place by the university to examine the ethics of research on cross cultural issues; and

* Mutually agreed upon beneficial research to be done on behalf of Anishinaabeg people, equal to that done on behalf of the cultivated wild rice industry.

It is a hundred years after the head-measuring doctors came to the Anishinaabeg community and made a huge mess. The Anishinaabeg assert that it is past time for universities to start recognizing the responsibility that goes along with their academic freedom.

The Anishinaabeg community remains hopeful that the University of Minnesota will bring ethics into its relationships with indigenous people and others in the new millennium, to stop the destructive patterns of research, and work towards a positive future for all children.

Winona LaDuke, a longtime environmentalist and Indigenous rights activist, is founding director of the White Earth Land Recovery Project, a reservation-based land acquisition, environmental advocacy and cultural organization. She is the author of All Our Relations: Native Struggles for Land and Life.

© Multinational Monitor April 2004