Wild Rice Waters

The long decline of wild rice in Minnesota tells a story of settler colonialism, tribal displacement, and resource extraction. The resurgence of the harvest seeks to tell another story, one of tribal kinship and ecological stewardship.

Hands holding grains of rice.
Leonard Thompson examines rice grains for ripeness. [Unless otherwise noted, all images are by Emily Hicks and Melody R. Stein, 2018]

On a map, the St. Louis River Estuary in suburban Duluth appears as a narrow, jagged line connecting the St. Louis River to Lake Superior. But from the water’s edge, the distance from shore to shore seemed vast. We arrived on a chilly May afternoon in 2018 with Darren Vogt, Resource Management Division Director for the 1854 Treaty Authority in the state of Minnesota. Vogt is a leader in the movement to restore wild rice in the estuary; at the time we were master’s students in landscape architecture researching a collaborative thesis on wild rice. That day, we were tagging along on a wild rice surveying expedition. Working with wild rice at the 1854 Treaty Authority was Vogt’s first job out of college, almost 25 years ago. Since then, the restoration and protection of wild rice have become his life’s work. “It has become a part of me,” he tells us. “That is true for most people who work with wild rice: They fall in love with it.” 1

Two centuries of colonization — now exacerbated by climate change — have left wild rice on ecological life support.

We had stopped earlier at Kettle Lake, some 50 miles from Duluth, where we watched Vogt unload his monitoring tools — measuring stick, density-measurement square, GPS locator, clipboard — from a green pickup emblazoned with the 1854 Treaty Authority logo. The rack in his truck bed held several canoes, his preferred mode of transit on the water, and having loaded up, we paddled out between cattails to the first survey point. These surveys are carefully choreographed. Each point is located by GPS. Then the density-measurement square is laid flat on the water’s surface, and the stalks of wild rice framed within it are counted. A single plant is pulled up and measured from leaf tips to waterline, and again from roots to waterline. The presence and intensity of fungal spots are recorded. Then it’s on to the next survey point.

Plastic square on the surface of lake with plants.
Wild rice density survey square in use at Kettle Lake.

Man paddling canoe.
Darren Vogt paddling on the St. Louis River Estuary.

By the time we arrived at the estuary, the wind was rising. But here we were not counting stalks; we wanted simply to see a site that is the focus of a comprehensive wild rice restoration program. The St. Louis River Watershed funnels water from the Mesabi Iron Range in northeastern Minnesota south into the St. Louis River Estuary. This once luxurious riparian ecosystem is now mostly open water, dotted with islands of invasive purple loosestrife. Vogt speculated that the last time there was harvestable wild rice here in the Allouez and Pokegama Bays must have been in the 1950s or ’60s. Since then, rising sulfate levels from taconite mining upstream and the fallout of almost two centuries of industrialization have destroyed what remained. Where wild rice shoots do emerge, climate change diminishes their chances of survival. Warmer winters mean that hungry Canada geese arrive earlier each spring, ready to peck at wild rice just as it germinates. Midseason, plants are uprooted by water-level fluctuations that are themselves exacerbated by more frequent and severe storms. The remaining wild rice in the estuary is wild rice on ecological life support.

In this once luxurious riparian ecosystem, industrialization has rendered tribal sovereignty all but meaningless.

Vogt’s organization, the 1854 Treaty Authority, works for tribes who in 1854 signed the Treaty of La Pointe with the United States government, including the Fond du Lac, Grand Portage, and Bois Forte Bands of Lake Superior Chippewa. 2 The Authority is tasked with preserving treaty-protected species, as well as the rights to hunt, fish, and gather on ceded territory — which, for the Fond du Lac Band, extends up the western edge of Lake Superior, crossing into Wisconsin where it touches the estuary. 3 The Band now manages their rights independently, but collaborates extensively on Authority initiatives.

The present-day Fond du Lac Reservation lies approximately 30 miles to the west. But these estuary waters are part of their homeland, and the Band still owns property here as well, on Wisconsin Point at the edge of Allouez Bay, and at several locations around Spirit Lake — a wide point at the estuary’s center. Ownership implies control. Restoration of wild rice here remains a priority in the Band’s off-reservation environmental program. Yet tribal sovereignty here has been rendered all but meaningless by industrialization, which has been transforming the Great Lakes since colonization.

St. Louis River Watershed map.
The St. Louis River Watershed.

Estuary map.
Islands of the St. Louis River Estuary, 1989. [Minnesota Department of Natural Resources]

The 1854 Treaty Authority is one of three intertribal natural-resource management agencies in northern Minnesota. 4 These organizations see the challenge of restoration somewhat differently than state and federal agencies do, though they too are concerned with regional water quality and wetland ecology. Rather than aiming simply to reestablish wild rice in these waters, intertribal stakeholders seek to restore it as a harvestable resource. The line between remediation and restoration is occasionally blurry; still, the distinction is important, because the story of decline in wild rice in Minnesota is also a story of the displacement of wild rice’s human harvesters. The story of its resurgence may yet be told through the transformation of human engagement, from forms of settler-colonial harm to renewed practices of harvest, stewardship, and kinship with these lands and waters.

Restoration begs the question, ‘Restored to what?’ and inevitably, ‘Restored for whom?’

Today, the estuary is still very much a postindustrial ecosystem, although, as Vogt explains, “progress in these last ten or fifteen years has been immense.” 5 Much of this improvement has amounted to remediation, i.e., the removal or neutralizing of contaminants. A longer and more complex journey toward real ecological wellness lies ahead. As we were told by Nancy Schuldt, a biologist who serves as Water Projects Coordinator at the Fond du Lac Reservation, “Remedial work does not equal restoration. Remedial work makes a clean slate for restoration.” Restoration, in turn, begs the question, “Restored to what?” and inevitably, “Restored for whom?” 6Typical restoration models operate through counts of individual entities, be they of large mammals or seedlings of an endangered plant. Success is considered achieved when more individuals have been added, returning a site to some former ecological condition. “You could look at everything that has been lost and try to put it back,” observes Dr. Joel Hoffman, chief of the Ecosystems Services Branch at the Mid-Continent Ecology Division of the Environmental Protection Agency. “But restoration is a human endeavor. It’s value-laden.” 7

Schuldt and Vogt would agree; they are concerned not with abstract ecology understood in isolation from human communities, but with the restoration of cultural practices that have shaped this estuary since the Ojibwe people arrived in what is now Minnesota over a thousand years ago. 8 (Historic references and official documents describing these populations use the name Chippewa, coined by French fur traders; the synonymous term Ojibwe is now also commonly used. 9) The return of harvestable wild rice today would thus signal not just the recovery of a functioning ecosystem, but the reclamation of a cultural heritage.

Restoration, in other words, must be thought of as the repair of relationships rather than the replacement of objects. Relational repair in the St. Louis River Estuary would span scales as vast as the watershed itself, and as minute as the instant when a ricer in a canoe swings her knocking stick against a panicle of ripened rice, sending grains flying. Restoring wild rice would mean replanting the white pine forests that once dipped toward the water’s edge, to mitigate the massive erosion that the logging and construction industries have left behind. Relational repair would mean opening more publicly accessible space along the increasingly privatized shoreline, where ricers could pitch camps and launch canoes. Can new attention to a plant whose use was written into treaties — albeit treaties that continue to be broken — change the course of postindustrial development and real estate speculation along these waters and in the city of Duluth? Schuldt thinks so. “If we’re protecting wild rice,” she reminds us, “we’re protecting resources that are important to everyone.” 10

A City on The Estuary

An estuary is defined by the intersection of two currents: in most cases, the freshwater force of a river meeting the salt tides of the sea. But the St. Louis River Estuary is a freshwater estuary, one of only a few in the world. It earns its place in the category because of the relationship between the river and Lake Superior, which is so massive that it generates its own tide-like rhythm called a seiche. The St. Louis River wraps through eastern Minnesota, running 192 miles from its origin at Seven Beaver Lake to its terminus at Lake Superior, where it meets the seiche to create a bidirectional flow that shapes meandering banks and eddies. The mixing of lake and river waters makes the estuary chemically distinct from both its sources, marked by a complex habitat gradient between estuarine wetland and lacustrine ecosystems, interspersed with ephemeral islands and bars of land. These conditions make the estuary ecologically unique, and just 200 years ago, it was blanketed with wild rice.

Sawmill workers on floating logs.
Lumberjacks and river log drive on the St. Louis River near Duluth, 1888. [University of Minnesota Duluth, Kathryn A. Martin Library, Northeast Minnesota Historical Center Collections]

Logging put the city of Duluth on the map in the late 1800s. The estuary was used as a shipping channel, and quickly became a site for paper mills and tar-product manufacturers, whose refuse accumulated on the gently sloping banks. Then, in 1907, the United States Steel Corporation arrived. They built their mill strategically just 70 miles south of the Mesabi Iron Range, the largest source of iron ore in the United States. Over the next six decades, U.S. Steel Duluth Works transformed the estuary’s intricate oxbow system of bays and lakes, turning its slow-moving currents and soft, muddy substrate into a hardened waterfront of dredged channels, immense docks, and buzzing factories. Blast furnaces and mountains of coal, benzole, and ore separated city residents from the water.

Over the course of a century of unregulated dumping, the St. Louis River became one of the most polluted in the country. Sediment runoff from construction and logging, and toxins ranging from mining sulfates, to factory waste, to mercury (deriving from 19th-century household use as an all-purpose medicament) tainted some 500 acres of land and 100 acres of river sediment. Finally, in 1984, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, or MPCA, declared U.S. Steel Duluth Works a Superfund site. 11 Local fish were inedible, and estuary waters were too contaminated to swim in or even to touch. Not a stalk of wild rice was left.

Logging put the city of Duluth on the map in the late 1800s. Then the United States Steel Corporation arrived.

In 1987, the EPA established the St. Louis River Area of Concern, one of 31 U.S.-based sites created under the terms of the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement. 12 The Area of Concern declaration set goals to restore habitat and remediate Superfund sites and other sources of pollution and degradation on the river. This has been largely successful: in many areas, waters are now clean enough to fish. Duluth has been revitalized as an outdoor-recreation destination with initiatives in the works to develop parkland along the estuary. The success of these remediation efforts has gone a long way toward reestablishing the habitat that is a precondition for wild rice restoration.

Grain elevator and grain boat emitting smoke.
John Vachon, “Loading grain boat, Duluth, Minnesota,” 1941. [Library of Congress]

The 1854 Treaty Authority has worked with multiple partners, including the Fond du Lac Band and the MPCA, as well as the Departments of Natural Resources in both Minnesota and Wisconsin, the Great Lakes Indian Fish & Wildlife Commission, and the Minnesota Land Trust to coordinate an extensive wild rice restoration initiative throughout the St. Louis River Estuary since the late 1990s. 13 This ambitious plan aims to establish 275 acres of wild rice at some fifteen locations, restored to minimum densities maintained over multiyear spans, in order to allow for normal fluctuations in the plant’s growth patterns. So far, however, just one location has achieved this minimum density in three of the past five years, and no location has come close to harvestable levels. 14The Fond du Lac Band has undergone constant dispossession and exploitation since colonization. Yet, as Schuldt affirms, “The Fond du Lac Band is still very much alive and still very much engaged in this place.” 15

Even so, she and her colleagues worry that the enduring presence of the Ojibwe people and the importance of the estuary to their communities — and vice versa — will continue to be left out of decision-making processes as remediation efforts go forward. 16 For these reasons, the cleanup of the U.S. Steel Superfund site is perhaps only a half-victory. The approved plan allows for the construction of in-river confined disposal facilities that would leave contaminated sediment in the estuary, a solution that the Fond du Lac Band opposes as a desecration of Spirit Lake. “It’s one thing that the estuary is polluted,” Schuldt says. “It’s another that, from the Band’s perspective, the solution continues to contaminate the estuary.” 17

The Food That Grows on Water

Wild rice is an annual aquatic grass, one of several dozen species that sprout from the riparian edges of the thousands of lakes and meandering rivers across the postglacial landscape of northern Minnesota and Wisconsin. For the Ojibwe people, the plant is tied to a millennium of technics, politics, and epistemology. When the tribe’s forebears migrated to the Great Lakes region from the Atlantic seaboard in approximately 800 A.D., they were following the Seven Fires Prophecy: “You will know the chosen ground has been reached when you come to a land where food grows on water.” 18 Wild rice, says Ojibwe historian Brenda J. Child, “is a sacred food intertwined in countless ways with Ojibwe spiritual practices, kinship relations, economies, gender roles, history, place, and contemporary existence.” 19

Wild rice is a pivotal character in a complex history; it is a source of income and a habitat in which fish spawn and muskrats hide.

Wild rice is a food. It is also a pivotal character in a complex history; a source of income; and a habitat in which fish spawn and muskrats hide. In the Ojibwe language, it is manoomin, “the good berry.” Scientifically, it is Zizania palustris, a sensitive indicator species whose healthy presence signifies that levels of pollution are low, water levels reasonably consistent, and relationships stable between predators and prey, and among competing types of vegetation. Z. palustris is not a cultivated crop in the traditional sense; it is foraged, rather than planted in fields or paddies. Agronomists have bred a strain now widely grown in California and Minnesota in much the style of paddy rice, but this farmed version of “wild” rice emerges from an entirely different set of ecological and cultural conditions than a self-seeded plant gathered from lakes and rivers. Wild rice has always been ubiquitous in the land of 10,000 lakes, and it remains powerful in the cultural imaginary of Minnesota.

Watercolor of three figures in canoe.
Seth Eastman, Gathering Wild Rice, watercolor, 1849-1855. [Minneapolis Institute of Art, Gift of the W. Duncan and Nivin MacMillan Foundation]

If treaty-protected resources become unharvestable, then the rights of the Ojibwe have been violated.

The Treaty of 1854 was not the first mechanism of dispossession wielded by the U.S. government against the Ojibwe Nations. An earlier document, the Treaty of 1837, was signed before Minnesota became a state. Also known as the White Pine Treaty, this agreement was driven by the emerging logging industry, which was taking hold in the forested center of what would become Minnesota and Wisconsin. The Treaty of 1854 was also triggered by interests in resource extraction, in this case the discovery of a vein of copper on the north shore of Lake Superior. The treaties effectively sold, or ceded, millions of acres that are home to Ojibwe and Dakota tribes, and set the stage for decades of profound loss, coercion, and displacement. However, these documents of cession also secured usufructuary rights for Ojibwe people on the lands in question. Article 5 of the White Pine Treaty states: “The privilege of hunting, fishing, and gathering the wild rice upon the lands, the rivers, and the lakes included in the territory ceded is guaranteed.” 20 These rights remain binding. If treaty-protected resources such as fish, game, and wild rice become extinct or otherwise unharvestable, then the rights of the Ojibwe to fish, hunt, and gather have been violated.

The harvest of wild rice is not possible in the estuary today; there just isn’t enough of it. Nevertheless, the practice, known as “ricing,” remains common in much of northern Minnesota, drawing thousands of both native and non-native Minnesotans at the end of summer when the best rice lakes turn gold with ripening grain. Unlike other forms of foraging, such as for mushrooms or berries, wild rice harvests can feed a family through the winter; a day of ricing can yield 100 or more pounds of processed grain. Historically, annual ricing camps were important facilitators of social life and diplomacy, drawing disparate Ojibwe bands together to gather provisions for the coming winter.

Woman in canoe harvesting rice.
Fred Morgan, “An Ojibwa woman, Francis Mike, harvesting wild rice in a boat on Totogatic Lake,” ca. 1960. [Wisconsin Historical Society]

Leonard Thompson, an Ojibwe ricer from White Earth Reservation, took us with him to Lower Rice Lake, where he described the ricing camps that, in his youth, would converge on the shore, with canoes coming in off the lake, and crackling fires and billowing woodsmoke scenting the air as grain was parched. Thompson believes that Lower Rice Lake remains one of the best rice lakes in the state, explaining that water levels here are managed for optimal wild rice growth. Decades ago, the Army Corps built a dam on Lower Rice Lake, but White Earth now operates it, raising and lowering the water level as needed. Rice requires shallow water when germinating, but at harvest, the water must be high enough for canoes. In this sense, “ricing” occurs year-round, encompassing an entire system of management decisions and maintenance routines, including structures such as ditches and beaver dams.

Thompson reflects that this type of maintenance nothing new. “We’ve always had dams; we’ve always had beavers; we’ve always had ways of controlling water.” 21The practices of harvesting, parching, eating, and living with wild rice bind humans to land in an enduring relationship. Ojibwe author Leanne Betasamosake Simpson writes, “Sometimes I think in our desire to reclaim what we’ve lost, we hold onto rules and protocols too tightly and forget that our way of life is about relationships — the practice of benevolent relationships. I often think of stories of ricing when I think about things like this.” 22 Anthropologist and Red Lake Ojibwe tribal member Ashleigh Thompson (no relation to Leonard) puts it practically, tying issues of food sovereignty to cultural memory and linguistics: “There are certain cultural practices where, if we’re not harvesting foods, these practices are gone. There are parts of language that are lost.” 23 Practice is presence, and the fight to regain wild rice in the estuary is always a fight for the right to be in the estuary.

Wild rice harvest occurs at an intimate scale: two people in a canoe on the water, surrounded by towering stalks. We took part in this ourselves one late August morning on Schoolcraft Lake, when we went out with Dr. Annette Drewes, a Clean Water Specialist at the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and avid ricer. Drewes’ neighbor and ricing partner, Kris van Wilgen-Hammitt, stood in the back of their canoe, propelling it with a fifteen-foot pole capped with a metal duckbill for traction against the mud. 24 She was the “poler.” Drewes was “the knocker.” Seated, with her back held straight and arms lifted high, she swept the stems of wild rice with two 30-inch pine knocking sticks, careful not to break the stalks as she knocked the grain into the flat-bottomed canoe. We followed slowly in a second canoe, trying our less practiced hands at the same movements.

Woman seated in canoe with standing man poling canoe
Monroe P. Killy, “Ojibwe harvesting wild rice,” 1939. [Minnesota Historical Society]

Two people in a canoe in a tall stand of wild rice.
Emily Hicks and Kris van Wilgen-Hammitt ricing on Schoolcraft Lake, 2018.

Wild rice panicles range from light golden yellow to deep purple, but ripeness is not indicated by color; rather, ripe panicles droop and release their grains easily and, and when dropped into water, will sink. At Schoolcraft Lake that morning, Drewes peeled the papery awn from a fallen grain and snapped it in half, revealing the clean break and solid white center that indicates maturity. A soft, milky texture would have meant that the rice needed more time, but these panicles released their seeds at the lightest touch of the knocking sticks. Grain cascaded into the boats, and some slipped back into the water, ready to sprout next year. This built-in inefficiency fuses the acts of harvest and planting. As Robin Wall Kimmerer writes,

Settlers in the Great Lakes wrote in their journals about the extraordinary abundance of wild rice harvested by Native peoples; in just a few days, they could fill their canoes with enough rice to last all year. But the settlers were puzzled by the fact that, as one of them wrote, “the savages stopped gathering long before all the rice was harvested.” The settlers took this as certain evidence of laziness and lack of industry on the part of the heathens. They did not understand how indigenous land-care practices might contribute to the wealth they encountered. 25

Back on shore at Schoolcraft Lake, we scooped our yield from the canoes. Insects and rice worms shimmied through the piles, and the gunny sack we filled felt somehow alive. A few months later, in Cambridge, we opened a cardboard box from Drewes containing three pounds of parched and winnowed wild rice that we had harvested that day. We cooked the first of our rice on a cool fall day; it smelled like late summer in Minnesota.


The health of wild rice depends on the health of the water in which it grows. It is not a coincidence that the transformation of the St. Louis River Estuary into an industrial channel coincided with the downward spiral of wild rice. The logging of white pine, the manufacture of paper, tar, and steel, and the rapid urbanization of Duluth severely damaged the estuary’s ecosystem from the early 19th century well into the 20th. While steps are underway to mitigate many of the remaining point sources of pollution within the estuary and the river itself, the mines on the Mesabi Iron Range remain in operation, ongoing sources of regional water toxicity.

The Mesabi Iron Range is the largest in the continental U.S., a 65-mile stretch of iron ore deposits that have been mined since 1890. The range forms a ridge along the top of the Laurentian Divide, which runs through the center of the continent, bifurcating northern Minnesota. Waters to the north of the divide drain into Hudson Bay; those to the south into the Great Lakes and the Gulf of Mexico. The divide is also the top of the St. Louis River Watershed. By the mid-1960s, the rich deposits that drew turn-of-the-century speculation were all but exhausted, and dominant operations shifted from traditional iron ore mining to taconite mining.

Postcard showing open-pit mine.
“Greetings from The Mesabi Iron Range,” ca. 1960. [Don…The UpNorth Memories Guy…Harrison, via Flickr under license CC BY-NC-ND 2.0]

Factories emitting smoke along the St. Louis Estuary.
John Vachon, “Port of Duluth,” 1941. [Library of Congress]

Taconite is a low-grade iron ore. It must be blasted and heavily processed, which exposes the sulfuric rock to oxygen, producing sulfates that leach from tailing ponds into ground and surface waters and eventually move downstream. When suspended in the water column, sulfates represent a low threat of toxicity. But when they settle into anaerobic conditions, such as the muddy bottoms of lakes and rivers where wild rice grows, microbial action transforms sulfates into hydrogen sulfide. Sulfides are difficult to measure because they are toxic in extremely low concentrations: even trace amounts can have significant impacts. Because of this difficulty, the State of Minnesota regulates sulfate levels as a proxy. Even in water where sulfides are concentrated, wild rice can appear to grow well for a few years. Yet the plants produce smaller and fewer viable seeds each season.

John Pastor is professor emeritus of biology at the University of Minnesota Duluth and the coauthor of several studies linking sulfates to the decline of wild rice. 26 He explains that sulfate levels between ten and 50 parts per million are unhealthy for wild rice. At 100 ppm, major negative impacts can be measured, and within three or four years of exposure at 300 ppm, a stand will die out. Pastor’s research confirms earlier observations that led the MPCA, in 1973, to set the state standard for sulfate levels in designated Wild Rice Waters at 10 ppm. 27 However, political and economic pressures have meant that the rule is often contested and rarely enforced. “The Iron Range has been operating since the 1930s and that whole landscape has been hemorrhaging sulfate since,” Pastor says, noting that sulfate concentrations draining from mine tailings have been recorded at upwards of 1,000 ppm at the source, while measurements downstream in the estuary continue to hover between 30 and 50 ppm. This means that sulfate contamination is more than an estuary problem. It’s a watershed problem, and this is a much more difficult scale to regulate. 28

Sulfate contamination is not just an estuary problem. It’s a watershed problem, and this is more difficult to regulate.

Existing mines, moreover, are not the only threat. Two new mines are also currently under review. The first is the proposed PolyMet mine, slated for construction directly upstream from the St. Louis River Estuary and the Fond du Lac Reservation; the second is Twin Metals, sited north of PolyMet, adjacent to the famous Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. 29 Taconite mines on the Mesabi Iron Range have been a source of sulfate contamination in the St. Louis River Watershed for decades, but PolyMet and Twin Metals represent unprecedented threats because they are copper-nickel mines, located in a region whose rock contains high levels of sulfates, which will be released when the rock is broken. Copper-nickel mining is environmentally riskier than taconite mining, generating pollution that lingers for hundreds of years, as well as heavy-metal byproducts, including mercury, that are difficult to contain even in arid climates — much less in the saturated terrain of northern Minnesota.

Lake surrounded by red-rock cliffs.
Abandoned taconite mine that has been allowed to fill with water near Hibbing, Minnesota.

Orange bordered warning sign beside midwestern lake.
Warning regarding contaminated sediment at Interlake Superfund Site on the St. Louis River. [U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service]

Despite these ongoing threats, the Fond du Lac Band has seen two major victories in recent rulings against the PolyMet project. First, in February 2021, the EPA suspended PolyMet’s Section 404 permit, which would have allowed them to discharge dredged and waste material into over 900 acres of wetlands; the EPA under the Biden administration found that environmental impacts of the mine “may affect” the Fond du Lac Reservation in the watershed downstream. This decision establishes a powerful new precedent for watershed-scale policy. 30 Further, an internal investigation at the EPA, which concluded in April of this year, found that the agency had not addressed all Clean Water Act requirements and National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System regulations, or correctly followed protocols during its review of draft mining permits. 31

Paula Maccabee, an attorney for the environmental nonprofit WaterLegacy, remarks that “no downstream tribe had ever exercised their right to object to a federal permit in this way. I think Fond du Lac is breaking new ground not just for tribes, but for downstream states in general.” 32 The Band issued a statement noting that they are “pleased that the (Office of Inspector General) acknowledged that the EPA did not properly or meaningfully consult or address the Band’s concerns with respect to the project’s downstream impacts on the Band’s waters.” 33

Wild Rice Waters

The arrival of copper-nickel mining has transformed the decades-long conflict between mining interests and wild rice advocates. In the past, legal battles to protect wild rice through the regulation of mining on the Mesabi Iron Range have mostly centered on the state’s 10 ppm sulfate rule. The latest victories expand the conversation to include the other large-scale, multi-faceted environmental impacts of constructing new mines. While the fight against PolyMet seems promising, effective regulation of existing mines is also critical. The 10 ppm sulfate standard for Wild Rice Waters’ effectiveness hinges, in turn, on two conditions: first, that waterways where wild rice grows are properly identified as Wild Rice Waters; and second, that the rule in these waters is enforced.

A handful of wild rice stalks cannot function ecologically in the same way as a full stand.

Catherine Neuschler, a manager in the Water Assessment Section of the MPCA, notes that the contamination standard for Wild Rice Waters is unusual because it focuses on a single species, whereas the agency’s standards for fish and invertebrates view these resources as parts of assemblages. 34 Even as an individual species, however, the growth pattern of wild rice makes the establishment of metrics for protection and restoration difficult. Wild rice is a grass; it is both a composite entity, constantly adjusting en masse to shifting conditions, and a series of individual stalks, counted, measured, and mapped, with every stem a tally mark recorded as evidence. In order to be viable, a stand of Z. palustris requires density in a way that many animals and other types of plants do not. A small population of owls in a forest represent a genuine starting point for species restoration, but a handful of wild rice stalks cannot function ecologically in the same way as a full stand. Importantly, sparse wild rice cannot be effectively harvested — not only because ricing would be unproductive for its human practitioners, but because it would destabilize a thin stand.

Grassy lake in Minnesota.
Kettle Lake in late summer.

Wild rice, after all, is wild, and its growth is idiosyncratic; it can be encouraged, observed, protected — but it cannot be hauled in on flats and planted as a marsh edge. 35 At the same time, Wild Rice Waters cannot be protected by state and federal water-quality and pollution regulations unless those waters meet legal minimum measurements for density and acreage. This is complex enough — but it’s also true that even the base premise of identifying individual bodies of water to protect is incongruous with the actual nature of the St. Louis River watershed. The area between the Mesabi Iron Range and the estuary is dotted with lakes, rivers, tamarack forests, and wetlands. This landscape acts as an ecological funnel, allowing pollutants to flow downstream relatively continuously, whether they are passing directly through bodies of water or not.

How, then, to determine which waters deserve protection as Wild Rice Waters? Identification is one problem; enforcement is another.

How, then, to determine which waters deserve protection as Wild Rice Waters? The MPCA list has changed as classification techniques fall in and out of favor, but the count generally hovers around 1,300 individual bodies of water. 36 Currently, the MPCA narrowly defines a Wild Rice Water as a site that fulfills criteria for Beneficial Use: “The harvest and use of grains from this plant serve as a food source for wildlife and humans.” 37 Designated sites are identified by the agency from lists created by the Department of Natural Resources (which also issues harvesting licenses to non-tribal members), and treaty authorities, in addition to the MPCA’s own data. But what about areas where wild rice has been wiped out by pollution and habitat degradation? If suitable habitat and water quality were restored and wild rice regained a foothold, shouldn’t those waters qualify for protection as well? The Minnesota Tribal Wild Rice Task Force addresses these ambiguities in its 2018 report, arguing that “If a lake or river supports, has supported, or could support any wild rice, it is a wild rice water.” 38

Identification is one problem; enforcement is another. After hearing time and again that enforcement of the 10 ppm sulfate standard was lacking, nonexistent, or impossible, we were finally able to ask Neuschler, the MPCA manager, if this was true. Does the MPCA enforce the 100 pm standard for Wild Rice Waters? She answered by telling us a story of legal challenges and conflicting policies that has left the Wild Rice Waters designation in administrative and legal limbo. A few mines do have permits that set some sulfate limits. But a 2015 Session Law prohibits mining facilities from spending money to comply with any sulfate standard, and limits the MPCA from listing Impaired Waters that test above the 10 ppm level, effectively negating the standard altogether.

However, on April 29th, 2021, the EPA finally intervened, in a letter to the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency stating that 30 rivers and lakes that grow wild rice currently have sulfate levels beyond the 10 ppm limit for wild rice waters. 39 Though the MPCA has said it cannot add new waters to the list until it establishes new standards for sulfates, the EPA ruling acknowledges the need for assessment, remediation, and protection from further pollution.

Woman shaking rice grains in winnowing basket.
“Ojibway woman winnowing wild rice,” 1937. [Hennepin County Library via MuseumSyndicate]

Compliance with the 10 ppm standard would require investment by the mines in reverse-osmosis filtration technology, an expenditure most operations hesitate to take on. 40  Frank Ongaro, executive director of the industry lobbying group MiningMinnesota, told us that the mines are committed to following every regulation already in place, but that its convoluted and outdated structure makes the standard for Wild Rice Waters unenforceable. “The best thing the state could do,” he says, “is look at what additional study needs to be done.” 41

Pastor, the biologist, is frustrated by what he sees as a lapse in the MPCA’s duty. “Ever since the regulation has been in place, the MPCA has not enforced it. Everyone knew about it, but it was ignored until the tribes in the St. Louis River Estuary finally said enough is enough.” 42 Hoffman, the EPA ecologist, sees the problem in part as a misalignment in agency jurisdictions. Hoffman is a member of the Landscape Conservation Design Forum (led by the Minnesota Land Trust), which aims to convene formerly siloed environmental professionals to work together on the St. Louis River Estuary. “Land restoration was never designed to talk to water restoration,” as he put it. 43 For restoration efforts to be successful, this would have to change.

In this entangled relationship, the practice of harvest is also a process of reseeding.

At the center of this tangle of policy, regulation, enforcement, and litigation, the hope remains that wild rice will again grow in the St. Louis River Estuary. The estuary is currently classified as a Wild Rice Water, and the Fond du Lac Band’s Environmental Program continues to invest not only in direct restoration here, but also in ongoing research in collaboration with the University of Minnesota; several of Pastor’s studies were conducted through the university, with additional funding provided by the Band.A larger lingering question concerns the efficacy of the regulation itself. Even if the MPCA’s Wild Rice Waters standard were generously applied and efficiently enforced, is a site-by-site rule the right mechanism for addressing a watershed-wide issue in the future? Despite the progress in remediating polluted sites within the estuary, Darren Vogt worries about the longevity of even a hypothetically successful restoration scenario, due to the impact of watershed-level pollution that’s more difficult to measure and control. “We’ve seeded wild rice; it grows great; but will it decline over time? That’s unknown.” 44

Between People and Plants

Wild rice does not always behave in ways compatible with mechanistic counts. But perhaps nothing does. In a 2014 interview, Kimmerer describes an experiment in which one plot of sweetgrass was harvested regularly, while another went untouched. “Under Western conservation paradigms, you’ve got to keep people away, put a fence around nature. But we found that plots doubled in vigor and density when some harvesting occurred according to traditional guidelines.” 45 Because the practice of wild rice harvest is also a process of reseeding, a wild rice ecosystem instantiates the kind of entangled relationship between plants and people that Kimmerer describes between sweetgrass and its human stewards. 46

Man on dock in a lake filled with wild rice plants.
Leonard Thompson at Lower Rice Lake.

The re-establishment of wild rice in the St. Louis River estuary cannot erase the past or return the estuary to a former state. But it can create a novel ecosystem that will hold past and present in tension, where successful conservation means that a stand of wild rice is dense and plentiful enough to harvest. In Braiding Sweetgrass, Kimmerer writes, “Restoration offers concrete means by which humans can once again enter into positive, creative relationship with the more-than-human world, meeting responsibilities that are simultaneously material and spiritual. It’s not enough to grieve. It’s not enough to just stop doing bad things.” 47 Granted, grief does seem appropriate at times like these. The climate is transforming at an uncatchable speed, and a global pandemic has changed our lives in profound ways. Grief can be debilitating, as Kimmerer suggests. But it can also give rise to practices of care and repair.

In 2018, Nancy Schuldt led the publication of a Health Impact Assessment to explore how state water policy impacts Minnesota tribes through its effect on wild rice. 48 The results attest that access to sustainable wild rice is critical to food security and central to food sovereignty through the exercise of treaty harvesting rights for the Fond du Lac Band and the Ojibwe people more broadly. “Within the Anishinaabe worldview,” Schuldt’s report states, “The health of manoomin and the health of the people are inseparable.”

Authors' Note

Each time we speak with a wild-rice harvester, activist, biologist, or resource manager, our conversation ends with the same sentiment: “Thank you for your interest in wild rice.” As non-indigenous designers studying a topic so closely tied to Ojibwe culture and spirituality, we endeavor to approach this work with humility, and to remain mindful of the land we occupy and the stories shared so generously with us. We are honored to say now, to the reader, thank you for your interest in wild rice.

Editors' Note

The authors completed their master’s thesis titled Wild Rice Waters, advised by Rosetta S. Elkin (Harvard University Graduate School of Design) and John Koepke (University of Minnesota College of Design) at Harvard University, where it won the 2019 Landscape Architecture Thesis Prize. The fieldwork was supported by the 2018 Penny White Project Fund from the Harvard University Graduate School of Design.

  1. Darren Vogt, phone interview (September 28, 2020). All interviews were conducted by Emily Hicks and Melody R. Stein.
  2. The 1854 Treaty Authority protects off-reservation hunting, fishing, and gathering rights for the Grand Portage and Bois Forte Bands in lands ceded to the United States government under the Treaty of La Pointe, 1854. The Authority’s “About” page declares: “The 1854 Treaty Authority shall provide an Inter-Tribal natural resource program to ensure that the rights secured to member Indian tribes by treaties of the United States to hunt, fish and gather within the 1854 Ceded Territory shall be protected, preserved, and enhanced for the benefit of present and future member Indian tribes in a manner consistent with the character of such rights, through provision of services.”
  3. The Minnesota-Wisconsin state line bisects the St. Louis River Estuary, splitting one water body into two jurisdictions. (Together, Duluth and Superior, Wisconsin, are known as the Twin Ports.) The natural world does not recognize political or administrative boundaries, and when wild rice grows here at all, it grows on both sides of the estuary. But in view of the cultural and ecological impact that Minnesota industry and politics have had on these waters, our research has largely focused on this state.
  4. The three treaty authorities working in the region are the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission, the 1854 Treaty Authority, and the 1855 Treaty Authority.
  5. Darren Vogt, phone interview (September 28, 2020).
  6. Nancy Schuldt, video interview (October 23, 2020).
  7. Joel Hoffman, video interview (October 6, 2020).
  8. For further discussion of Ojibwe history and origin stories, see Thomas D. Peacock, “The Ojibwe: Our Historical Role in Influencing Contemporary Minnesota,” Minnesota Historical Society (2021).
  9. “The largest Indian group in Minnesota calls itself Anishinaabe, which means ‘the original people.’ Europeans named them Ojibwe. No one is exactly sure how this name developed. Perhaps it came from the Anishinaabe word ojib, which describes the puckered moccasins worn by the people. Some Europeans had trouble saying Ojibwe, pronouncing it instead as Chippewa. But both these names refer to the same people.” History of White Earth, White Earth Nation website.
  10. Nancy Schuldt, in-person interview (August 22, 2018).
  11. Long-delayed plans to remediate the U.S. Steel site gained traction in 2019 after the Great Lakes Legacy Project agreed to share the corporation’s cleanup costs. The plan includes dredging 30 acres of contaminated sediment and construction of in-river Confined Disposal Facilities to contain this material. Tribal pushback against such storage of toxic waste in Spirit Lake — a sacred site at the estuary’s center — remains forceful but unanswered. See Katie Galioto, “Duluth Finally Getting $75 Million Cleanup of U.S. Steel Superfund Site,” Star Tribune (August 26, 2020).
  12. Eight of the 31 Areas of Concern have been delisted since 1987. The St. Louis River is still an active AOC, the second-largest in the U.S. Progress is measured by Beneficial Use Impairments or BUIs, a designation created by the International Joint Commission between the U.S. and Canada, and representing multiple types of significant environmental degradation. As of April 2021, three of nine St. Louis River BUIs have been removed from the list. For more on the St. Louis River AOC, see United States Environmental Protection Agency — St. Louis River AOC.
  13. The 1854 Treaty Authority has been conducting wild rice surveys since 1996 and wild rice monitoring since 1998.
  14. See the 2015-2020 St. Louis River Estuary Wild Rice Restoration Monitoring report, published by the 1854 Treaty Authority.
  15. Nancy Schuldt, phone interview (April 26, 2019.)
  16. For an analysis linking wild rice to contemporary tribal priorities see, the Health Impact Statement by the Fond Du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, “Expanding the Narrative of Tribal Health: The Effects of Wild Rice Water Quality Rule Changes on Tribal Health“ (2018).
  17. Nancy Schuldt, video interview (October 23, 2020).
  18. “The three nations of the Anishinaabe – the Ojibwe (keepers of the Faith), the Potawatomi (keepers of the Fire), and the Ottawa (the traders) – begin their journey westward from their original homelands on the St. Lawrence seaway. They are to continue their westward journey until they find the ‘food that grows on water’ — wild rice.” (Rachel McNeil and Charley Langowski, “Lake Superior Ojibwe Learning Guide,” at the website of the 1854 Treaty Authority.) Today, according to the tribe’s website, the Fond du Lac Band has more than 4,200 members.
  19. Brenda J. Child, My Grandfather’s Knocking Sticks: Ojibwe Family Life and Labor on the Reservation (Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2014), 161.
  20. 1837 Treaty: Treaty with the Chippewa (July 29, 1837), Article 5. See full text at the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.
  21. Leonard Thompson, in-person interview (May 17, 2018).
  22. Leanne Betasamosake Simpson, As We Always Have Done: Indigenous Freedom Through Radical Resistance. (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2017), 139.
  23. Ashleigh Thompson, phone interview (October 13, 2020).
  24. Annette Drewes, in-person interview (August 19, 2018).
  25. Robin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants (Minneapolis: Milkweed Editions, 2013), 181.
  26. J. B. Pastor, B. Dewey, N. W. Johnson, E.B. Swain, P. Monson, E.B. Peters, and A. Myrbo, “Effects of sulfate and sulfide on the life cycle of wild rice (Zizania palustris) in hydroponic and mesocosm experiments,” Ecological Applications 27 (2017): 321-336, https://doi.org/10.1002/eap.1452.
  27. For more on the Wild Rice Waters standard, see “Background on Protecting Wild Rice Waters” at the MPCA website.
  28. It’s difficult to conclusively prove that elevated sulfate levels are to blame for unsuccessful restoration efforts in the estuary; agricultural erosion can also be a source of sulfates — although, given land-use patterns in the watershed, this is less likely. John Pastor, phone interview (September 24, 2020).
  29. Copper-nickel deposits in the region were first documented in the 1800s, though serious interest in mining began only when substantial deposits were discovered near Duluth in 1948. Exploratory studies were abandoned, however, due to falling copper prices in the 1970s and difficulties in refining the low-grade ore. It wasn’t until recently that PolyMet Mining Corporation and Twin Metals Minnesota showed renewed interest in copper-nickel mining. Minnesota Issues Resource Guides: Copper-Nickel Studies and Non-ferrous Mining (January 2021), Minnesota Legislative Reference Library.
  30. Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa v. Stepp et al., United States District Court of Minnesota. Filed February 16, 2021.
  31. Improved Review Processes Could Advance EPA Regions 3 and 5 Oversight of State-Issued National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System Permits,” Report No. 21-P-0122, Office of the Inspector General, Environmental Protection Agency (April 21, 2021); Jennifer Bjorhus, “EPA botched oversight of permits for PolyMet mine, internal investigation finds,” Star Tribune (April 21, 2021).
  32. James Marshall, “Army Corps suspends Minn. mining permit in win for tribes,” E&E News (April 12, 2021).
  33. Jimmy Lovrien, “EPA inspector general: Agency should’ve shared PolyMet permit concerns with Minnesota regulators in writing, not over phone,” (Duluth Tribune News (April 21, 2021).
  34. Catherine Neuschler, video interview (November 23, 2020). Minnesota designates seven “Beneficial Use” classes for state waters, ranging from agricultural to recreational uses, to waters preserved for aquatic life. Pollution is regulated differently for each class. See explanation of water-quality standards at the MPCA.
  35. The “wild” in wild rice is typically understood as denoting its undomesticated status. However, the nomenclature is more complicated. French explorers thought the grain growing in the water looked like a bigger, crazier version of a familiar staple and called it folle avoine or “wild oats.” “St. Louis River Estuary: The Stories and Science,” St. Louis River Estuary Project website.
  36. Catherine Neuschler, video interview (November 23, 2020). See also the summary “Rule-Making: Wild Rice Sulfate Standard,” published by the Minnesota environmental-advocacy group Water Legacy, which was formed in 2009 to oppose the PolyMet mine.
  37. Wild Rice Statement of Need and Reasonableness,” Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (August 21, 2017).
  38. Minnesota Tribal Wild Rice Task Force Report (December 15, 2018).
  39. Jimmy Lovrien, “EPA identifies 30 Minnesota wild rice waters exceeding sulfate standards,” Duluth New Tribune (April 29, 2021).
  40. A permit issued by the MPCA to the proposed PolyMet mine does include the standard; PolyMet has agreed to invest $100 million in the filtration technology that would make compliance possible. Frank Ongaro, video interview (October 15, 2020).
  41. Frank Ongaro, video interview (October 15, 2020).
  42. John Pastor, phone interview (September 24, 2020).
  43. Joel Hoffman, video interview (October 6, 2020).
  44. Darren Vogt, phone interview (September 28, 2020).
  45. Leath Tonino, “Two Ways of Knowing: Robin Wall Kimmerer on Scientific and Native American Views of the Natural World,” The Sun no. 484 (April, 2016).
  46. Marijke van der Veen, “The Materiality of Plants: Plant-people entanglements,” World Archaeology, vol. 46 no. 5 (2014): 799-812, https://doi.org/10.1080/00438243.2014.953710.
  47. Kimmerer, 328.
  48. Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, “Health Impact Assessment: Expanding the Narrative of Tribal Health: The Effects of Wild Rice Water Quality Rule Changes on Tribal Health“ (2018).
Emily Hicks and Melody R. Stein, “Wild Rice Waters,” Places Journal, June 2021. Accessed 08 Jun 2023. https://doi.org/10.22269/210622

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