CAMBRIDGE, MINN. – On the banks of the Rum River, Hailie Woodard stroked a canoe paddle in the water for the first time in her 16 years. Stepping carefully out of the wobbly boat, she sank into ankle-deep mud as she tried to fling clumps of wet wild rice seed on the water’s edges.
It was true immersion learning.
Woodard, a lifelong city dweller who is part American Indian, had never seen the stalks of wild rice that were once so integral to indigenous life. But on a sun-kissed autumn day this week, she stood in mud and water to see and understand its environmental requirements and cultural significance. As part of a school field trip, she was helping to restore the aquatic plant to an area where it was once ubiquitous — and, trip leaders hoped, feel a connection to her indigenous heritage.
“It’s good to know what you are,” she said. “If you don’t know what you are, you’re just lost.”
Woodard and eight of her classmates from the Takoda Prep alternative high school in Minneapolis helped spread wild rice to the main channel and backwaters of the river this week as two nonprofits, Wilderness Inquiry and Great River Greening, teamed up for the first time and brought urban students with them.
The Rum River, winding from Mille Lacs to the mighty Mississippi, was once a wild rice haven, contributing an important source of food for people and wildlife. While it still exists there naturally, it has declined in recent years. With a Legacy Amendment grant, Great River Greening, which aims to restore Minnesota’s natural heritage, is helping to coax it to flourish with annual reseeding in the fall, hoping it will grow in the spring.
The grain is an important piece of Minnesota’s environmental and cultural heritage.
An Ojibwe migration story tells of a cultural and spiritual tie to natural wild rice. Tribal prophets foretold that migration from the east would continue until people found food that grows on water. Known in Ojibwe as manoomin, wild rice is still revered in the culture.
But natural wild rice, which reseeds itself each year and grows optimally in moving water a half foot to 3 feet deep, has declined throughout the state. Its threats include water quality, water levels, lake bed conditions, damming and channeling of waterways, water recreation, shore land development and industrial activities, according to a Minnesota Department of Natural Resources study.
This year, Great River Greening teamed with Wilderness Inquiry, which strives to introduce urban youth to the outdoors, and invited help from students at Takoda Prep, where more than 80 percent of the students identify themselves as Native American.
The school’s secondary education director, Chris Hubbard, said the opportunity for students to get out where the rice once grew was a learning experience on many levels.
“Students are losing their sense of culture,” Hubbard said. Doing something seen as positive such as rice seeding can help them identify with how well their ancestors treated and honored the earth, he said.
Turning off Kanye
On the banks of the Rum, at Becklin Homestead Park, the nine students wobbled as they climbed precariously into canoes and took paddles in hand.
Rhinestones from one girl’s sunglasses glinted in the sun. A couple girls carried purses.
Student Kaleena Morrison, 20, wore perfect eyeliner and pulled an earbud out of her ear before canoeing: Time to trade Kanye West’s “I Wonder” for the whir of the breeze in the trees and the trickle of the river. “It’s just peaceful,” she said.
Terrell McCray, 18, was one of five in the group who had canoed before. He volunteered to sit in the back to steer.
“Dude!” he smiled and loudly warned his friend in the bow, “Do not be acting dumb in the canoe. I do NOT want to flip over.”
Wilderness Inquiry trip leader Cyri Tjaden emphasized how rice harvesting in August was a community gathering in American Indian communities. They harvested the grasslike wild rice plants the same way it is harvested today: using poles with fork-like endings to push the canoes gently through the stalks, and using sticks to bend the top of the rice plants over to collect seeds. Harvest is a “significant spiritual and cultural thing,” she said.
Wiley Buck, a restoration ecologist with Great River Greening, told the group that the rice plant population “was still really high in the ’50s and ’60s.” Now, efforts to restore it seem to be working; seed spread last year had grown.
“We’re getting smarter about what it needs,” he said.
Woodard was one of just a couple students who traded her shoes — flip-flops — for tall rubber boots that Wilderness Inquiry provided.
Working with wild rice wasn’t difficult, the students learned, but it was sometimes dirty.
“Ah! Ah! Noon!” lamented one girl with pure white Jordan sneakers, now partly black with dirt. “I’m done,” she said as she crawled back into the canoe.
As they paddled to the river’s mucky edges, they took clumps of musty-smelling seed in their latex-gloved hands and tried to fling it far and wide in quiet spots along the river’s edges. A flock of Canada geese flew over, honking loudly as it rearranged a disorganized V.
Woodard, emboldened by the rubber boots, jumped out of her canoe on one bank, eager to help. Almost falling as she sank deep into muck, she caught herself with her arm, turning the cuff of her lime green sweatshirt black. She laughed.
“I’ll wash it,” she said later, shrugging. “It’s good to see the forest for once instead of being in the city all the time.”
Pam Louwagie • 612-673-7102