Black duck wild rice field

Anishinaabe Food Security with Black Duck Wild Rice

By Xico Maher

Thirty-eight years ago, James Whetung of Curve Lake First Nation found himself in the middle of a blockade in Ardoch Algonquin First Nation, preventing non-natives from engaging in commercial harvesting of manoomin, or wild rice. “They [people from Ardoch] took us out into the canoes and showed us how to gather wild rice, showed us how to bring the seeds back to shore, and turn them into food … The great need that my body remembered for that food came alive with that experience. I could see the great value of going out to gather seeds that could be turned into food, and it could be so resilient and last years if you could keep it dry — and when you went to cook it, it could still be as good as the day you processed it.” 

Manoomin, meaning the good seed or the gift of Creator, is a grain called wild rice due to its similar appearance to rice. Manoomin grows in shallow water in lakes across northern Turtle Island. It has been grown, curated and used by Anishinaabe people for thousands of years. Manoomin pollen can be dated back ten thousand years, and archeological evidence on an island nearby shows that Anishinaabe people had been using manoomin since at least four thousand years ago. Manoomin is rich in protein, and if processed properly can last years and remain edible. 

James Whetung is the man behind Black Duck Wild Rice, a rehabilitation project and business that, for 38 years, has been dedicated to restoring manoomin beds in the lakes surrounding Curve Lake First Nation. The operation is run out of James’ home which overlooks one of the many lakes that make up Curve Lake, and from the window the rice beds are visible. The beds are almost swamp-like in appearance, seeming as if one could walk on them as the plants are bunched thickly together. As James explains, the ancient relationship that Anishinaabe people had with manoomin has rapidly declined and diminished within the past 80 years. James himself witnessed this great decline. “My uncle brought home some wild rice seeds,” Whetung says, speaking of an experience from when he was three years old. “I remember dancing and playing on that rice on the wooden floor of the mission house.”  The mission house was the home his family lived in when James was young and is described as the most imposing structure in the village of Curve Lake, run by Christian missionaries. “As I was growing up, wild rice wasn’t a big thing in my life. Most of our culture was wiped out from social memory by the genocidal acts of the Canadian government. They removed us from the land, declared Terra Nullius and gave away the land to the colonizers.”

“Food security is an idea that is pretty hard to get your mind around until a hurricane comes, and you go down to the store — there’s no food left in it, there’s no water left, there’s nothing, the shelves are empty. It does not take long for that to happen, three or four days. There’s no food.”

As James grew, he continued to witness the diminishment of wild rice beds in his community. “The rice beds were declining so rapidly. The whole ecosystem that’s built around the manoomin was also disappearing … there are so many things that want to eat it [manoomin]. Geese with their long necks come along by the hundreds and thousands into the rice beds and they wanna eat wild rice. Other animals such as ducks, moose, or the hundreds of thousands of blackbirds that go into the rice beds every fall, and live right in the plants and eat the rice — and they eat a lot.” Millions of bugs, little fish, and the muskrat have “had a longer relationship with manoomin than people have, and they’re manoomin culture. They build their houses out of the plants, and they eat the house itself over the winter.” Therefore, the local wildlife would have been severely impacted by the decline of manoomin. This also leads to more impacts on the community of Curve Lake, as hunters would target rice beds for the animals that would go there to feed.

One of the greatest challenges, described by James, is the cottage and boating industries. Cottages in and around the reserve, that are owned and rented out to non-natives, have given way to a grand industry that grows every year. The destructive ways in which the land for these cottages were developed to be built on have severely harmed the rice beds as well and changed the entire face of the lakes and river systems. With the rise of cottaging came boating, and the houseboat industry. The boats would vent the exhaust through the water, which filtered it through itself. Sewage from houseboats would be dumped into the lakes and rivers. The waterways grew filthy, choking out the rice beds. The boat traffic would cut right through young and vulnerable rice beds just as they began to grow, and traffic on the “lakes continues to grow every year.”

“It wasn’t just the dirty water,” James continued explaining. “Trent Severn waterway had a mandate to eradicate the weeds. Weed eradication program — they used Agent Orange to eradicate the weeds along the lakes to make way for the boats.” Yes, the Agent Orange, used as chemical warfare on the Vietnamese by the American imperialist military. “And I have proof for that … There was a man out here in our village who had worked for Trent Canal for years. He got my brother and a couple other workers to come over to his place, opened the shed and showed them the cans of Agent Orange … Is it any surprise that not only Nishnabes’ health is affected but everyone living on the Trent Severn waterway … And it’s only been recently that they stopped using it and stopped issuing permits to have poison put in the water to wipe out aquatic weeds. So it wasn’t just organic pollution.”

James Whetung and his daughter standing side by side smiling
James Whetung and his daughter

The impacts from the restoration of manoomin in Curve Lake are many, but the impact on the importance of food sovereignty remains present in discussions surrounding wild rice and Indigenous traditional food restoration in general. “Until very recently, I never felt, or it was difficult for me to think of it as a sovereignty issue or a food security issue — just because it was so difficult and not many people cared about it or wanted it. In 2015, my community started giving me a piece of paper, saying I had the right to gather wild rice. That’s when I started to feel like it was more of a sovereignty issue — not just to me, but to us as a people. There’s no doubt in my mind that manoomin is a sovereignty issue.” The last time the Anishinaabek people signed a treaty with Canada was in 1923, the Williams Treaties, and James explains how treaties are on a nation-to-nation basis, not a nation-to-provincial basis. The common misconception among the Canadian public is that treaties with the government happen reservation-to-reservation — it was the Anishinaabek nation that signed a treaty in 1923, the same way that the Haida or Cree or Mi’kmaq nations signed treaties with the crown and government, signed as sovereign nations with the intention of remaining entirely sovereign. “Our peoples’ memory of sovereignty has been diminished a lot and I don’t even know if there’s many people who consider it a sovereign issue. I myself do and I am not alone in that.

As a sovereign nation, we should be able to determine our food security.” The restoration of manoomin is a practice of national sovereignty, cementing Anishinaabe nation’s right to the land that has been used by them for millennia, and their right to maintain access to good, healthy, sustainable food. “Food security is an idea that is pretty hard to get your mind around until a hurricane comes, and you go down to the store — there’s no food left in it, there’s no water left, there’s nothing, the shelves are empty. It does not take long for that to happen, three or four days. There’s no food.” And so, there comes the importance of manoomin, the great seed: high in protein, low in carbs, long-lasting if taken care of, and delicious. “If you process it properly, it’ll last for years. If you have substantial and sufficient rice beds, that is security. You need a constant source of food, not just food but good, healthy food. Macaroni won’t do it … That’s what it means to me, good health too. The lifestyle of gathering wild rice, it’s a lot of work. As a family or a community, it’s quite possible and I have proved that.

When asked what he has learnt through all his years spent ricing, James speaks of relationships, and it is not unlike what other Anishinaabe people would say. The importance of relationships, respect and reciprocity is a theme common in Anishinaabe culture — in the way their society is constructed and sustained. Just as the Anishinaabe entered treaties with a vision of respect and reciprocity on a nation-to-nation basis with Canada, the Anishinaabe have always held the same standard in their relationships with the land, the water, the food, and all beings that reside on Turtle Island. “I’m not a know-it-all. What I know has been learned with great difficulty. I’ve had to travel great distances, at great expense, I might as well say, to learn about wild rice when it’s not in your own home. I’ve learned the value of seeds. We gotta have access to those seeds … Monitoring, taking care, having a relationship with those plants. You just don’t go out to gather the seeds in the two or three weeks you have in September. You go out watching, there’s a lot of things out there you see. And I’ve learnt a lot about that, about the plant itself, the biology of that plant, the relationship that plant has with all of creation. I don’t know it all, I’m learning still, and there is so much to learn.” 

a ziploc bag of harvested black duck wild rice with a tag that reads "wild rice gathered and processed in the kawartha lakes region"
Harvested black duck wild rice

“I’ve learnt that our community is just in shambles — it’s tattered, it’s torn, it’s wrecked ever since they made the reserves. The genocide that’s been imposed upon us and our peoples have caused so much damage … So I learned how pathetic we are. I went to other reserves where they’ve had the whole community involved in gathering wild rice — the grannies, grandpas, men, women, the children — all taking part in some way … For years and years people have been coming up to me, telling me I should be cutting down those plants, wanting me, offering to hire me to cut down those plants. To the point where I’ve had people coming up screaming and yelling hateful, racist, rants, and rages at me. So I’ve learned how upset they are. I’ve learned that there’s people who care about us as Nishnabe people. Through truth and reconciliation, through education at schools or by volunteers coming here offering their services free to plant and gather and take care of our equipment. I’ve learnt so much about processing wild rice.” 

When asked about the future of Black Duck Wild Rice, James said that 38 years of work has not yet fulfilled his dreams. More work is to be done, more rice is to be planted, and considering the situation manoomin restoration is in with the cottage industry and the people who own said cottages, James himself says the work will be hard. “I have dreams. My dream is to put the rice back in Rice Lake. And from my experience of putting the rice back in these lakes around Curve Lake, I know it’s going to be a big, difficult job. Overcoming those obstacles, in the near future, not waiting forever to rehabilitate Rice Lake. That’s it.” The future seems bright, despite oncoming obstacles, and like other Indigenous people working to restore their nation’s sovereignty through reclamation of culture lost through the years of colonization, the impact is rippling and growing year by year as the rice beds do. “Trying to put back the rice in Rice Lake, it deals with soverignty issues too because over the years, genocide practices have used the divide-and-conquer tactic. Right now, Curve Lake is Curve Lake First Nation, Scugog is Scugog First Nation. I don’t believe in that. I think we are all one nation. And so I’m hoping that we can gather up our forces again and be a nation, a sovereign nation.”

To learn more and support Black Duck Wild Rice, visit their website: 

Xicohtencatl Maher is a 2spirited Tlaxcaltecan Nahua and Newfie, born in Mexico and living currently on Anishinaabek territory. He is an activist, artist, writer, escuincle and shit-disturber, and in his free time enjoys mixed martial arts and going out on the land.

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