BEVERLY SHORES – To the untrained eye, the line of swaying plants blends easily into the surrounding wetland. However, Jennifer Kanine knew exactly what she was looking for.
Kanin bent the tall grass and examined the top where a group of husks covered with tiny hairs grew.
The hulls contain mnomen, a Potawatomi word that translates to “good berry”. Nutritious grains are also known by another name – wild rice.
“A lot of people will just walk by and say, ‘it’s a weed and I don’t know what it is, but it looks pretty,’ and they don’t realize what this plant can do for humans. , animals and the ecosystem in general,” said Kanine, director of the natural resources department of the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi.
After decades of dredging wetlands for agriculture and development, much of the mnomen once found in the Great Lakes region have disappeared.
A study published by the University of Wisconsin-Madison found that wild rice watersheds have shrunk 32% since the early 1900s and are now largely restricted to northern Minnesota and Wisconsin.
However, when researchers from the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi began investigating swales in Indiana Dunes National Park in 2016, what they found surprised them.
“There’s a significant amount of wild rice in Indiana Dunes, I don’t think the park even realized how much they had,” Kanine recalled.
The Pokagon Band of Potawatomi, based in Dowagiac, Michigan, has worked for several years to restore wild rice to tribal lands. However, the Dowagiac River, which runs along the tribal lands, was straightened and dredged long ago, causing pollution along the coastline that led to the destruction of rice paddies.
The tribe tried to introduce rice harvested in northern Minnesota to Michigan, but found that the rice could not adapt to the warmer climate.
“This disparity (in climate) is getting even bigger over time. It’s just warmer here and therefore even more difficult for rice to adapt from northern Minnesota to southwestern Michigan and northern Indiana, so I wanted to see if we could find any local genotypes” , said Kanine.
The Pokagon Band began searching closer to home, areas of the country now called Indiana where the tribe would have historically harvested mnomen. In 2018, the Pokagon Band received a $40,000 grant from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency through the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative to research rice paddies in the national park.
An environmental “pivot”
“Maybe there used to be wild rice here,” Kanine said, looking through the lush wetland surrounding either side of the abandoned road.
The Pokagon Band research team harvested wild rice found largely in the Miller Woods section of the park and planted it in the Beverly Shores Wetlands.
Crumbling asphalt and the odd waterline tangled in the roots of an overturned tree are the only remnants of any past development on the land now owned by the National Park Service.
“We have lost so much of our wetlands, the historic places where the wild rice would have been, have been altered. As we start to restore some of these wetlands, we want to improve the biodiversity in them and we can do that by planting wild rice,” Kanine said. “Wild rice helps link the food web. It provides food for several species of birds, muskrats, beavers, fish.
Wild rice is a keystone species, meaning it serves as a sort of “backbone” for a whole host of creatures to use as food and shelter, Kanine explained.
Rice plants often form a floating mat as they grow, allowing small fish to use the hanging roots to hide from predators. Birds, spiders, ladybugs and rice worms also settle in the tall stems.
Armed with a clipboard and waders, Kanine and a team of researchers make the hour-and-a-half journey between Dowagiac and the park almost daily throughout the summer and early fall.
Researchers use a quadrat, a square tool made from PVC pipe used to isolate a field study unit, to examine the condition of the rice. They note the number of stems, the depth of the water, the number of other plants growing nearby, and whether there has been any predation.
When the search began, the team brought rice to a lake on Michigan’s Pokagon Band land. Because the bed is small and self-sufficient, the tribe does not harvest the rice, but Kanine said they use it for education.
For the past four years, the Pokagon Band and the National Park have been working on an agreement allowing tribal citizens to harvest certain edible and medicinal plants from the park.
Under the proposed agreement, tribal citizens could harvest a specific list of plants from five locations in the park. If approved, the process would involve obtaining a permit to travel to the park, reporting what is being harvested to the Pokagon Band, and then the Pokagon reporting the harvest to the national park.
“A lot of these reports put people off starting in the first place…it (the deal) could be for one person per year or zero people per year, but I wanted them to have the opportunity,” Kanine said, adding that she has heard concerns about overharvesting. “If they really knew about the Pokagon Band and how tribal citizens culturally learn how to congregate and how to be in the natural environment, they’re not going to overharvest.”
Public comments on the deal ended on July 28. If the deal is approved, Kanine would like to work out a second deal that would allow the Pokagon Department of Natural Resources to harvest more wild rice from the park and plant it on Dowagiac tribal lands. .
Although different origin stories exist within the Potawatomi, Ojibwe, and Odawa tribes, many mention a migration from the east coast to “where the food grows on the water.”
Loosely organized as the Confederacy of the Three Fires, the three tribes traveled west until they came to the Great Lakes region where they found an abundance of mnomen growing in the many lakes, ponds and streams.
Filled with antioxidants and fiber, the dried mnomen was an essential food source for the Potawatomi throughout the long winters, often accompanied by blueberries or pickerel. Sharing the history and cultural significance of the mnomen helps keep some of the traditions of the Pokagon Band alive, Kanine said.
A few years ago, the Pokagon Band held a wild rice camp where participants learned how to harvest and prepare mnomen.
Pinching a small rice ball, Kanine said, “Pulling it out of the plant in your belly takes a long process.” After harvesting the rice by hand, either in canoes or by wading through the plants with buckets, the rice must be dried, heated, placed in a dance pit to dislodge the grain from the husk, winnowed and sorted. .
“Then you get a small flask of rice that you can cook,” Kanine said. “That’s why you’re paying over $20 or more per pound, especially locally grown, hand-harvested, hand-dried, hand-winnowed, hand-sorted.”
The Tribal History and Culture Center is in the process of hiring a sustainability manager to help run more wild rice programs.
As Kanine and fellow researcher Diana Ramirez packed their bags for the day and prepared for the return trip to Dowagiac, they gazed out across the small stand of mnomen sprouting happily in the wetland.
“It takes a lot of passion and a lot of heart to want to be here to do this job and we’re doing it because we see a benefit in it and we want to make sure it’s sustained throughout history.”