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Settlers nearly destroyed Michigan’s wild rice beds. Native tribes are restoring them.

Barbara Barton and Roger LaBine
Barbara Barton
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Barbara Barton and Roger LaBine navigate a large wild rice bed on Tawas Lake.

 

There is a rich tradition of wild rice in our state, especially for Michigan's first people. The plant plays a big role in the culture of Anishinaabe tribes, who call it manoomin. 

Vast rice beds used to sit at the mouths of Michigan’s rivers. Some were thousands of acres in size. When European settlers arrived, they nearly destroyed the resource.

Now only one large bed remains in Michigan, but there is work afoot to restore and protect wild rice. 

Roger LaBine is a member of the Lac Vieux Desert Band of Lake Superior Chippewa Indians. Barbara Barton is an endangered species biologist and author of Manoomin: The Story of Wild Rice in Michigan. The two joined Stateside’s Cynthia Canty to discuss the history of wild rice. 

Wild Rice
Credit Barbara Barton
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Barton says wild rice has likely grown in Michigan for thousands of years.

Up until 10 years ago, Barton, a career biologist, didn't even know wild rice grew in Michigan.

“Most non-tribal people don’t know that wild rice grows wild here. It's not farmed, it's not an agricultural crop here, it's wild,” Barton said. 

According to Barton, European settlers regarded the rice beds as a nuisance to travel. In the 1800s, the Army Corp of Engineers dredged rivers in an effort to ease transportation. This spurred development and pollution along the shorelines, which led to the destruction of wild rice beds. 

LaBine adds that this was all happening during a time the U.S. government was trying to assimilate Native Americans and force them onto reservations. 

“The importance of manoomin is just as important as trying to maintain our language. So we need to bring and maintain and keep that manoomin here because this is the only place on Mother Earth that it grows," said LaBine. 

Listen above to hear Barton and LaBine discuss some of the restoration efforts and the progress they have made in restoring wild rice in Michigan. 

This post was written by Stateside production assistant Sophie Sherry. 

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Stateside is produced daily by a dedicated group of producers and production assistants. Listen daily, on-air, at 3 and 9 p.m., or subscribe to the daily podcast wherever you like to listen.
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