Winona LaDuke: Protecting Wild Harvests Through the White Earth Land Recovery Project

By Devon Ericksen

“The recovery of the people is tied to the recovery of food, since food itself is medicine; not only for the body, but for the soul, is the spiritual connection to history, ancestors and the land.”

Winona LaDuke in Recovering the Sacred

Winona LaDuke and the White Earth Land Recovery Project are working to protect wild rice, a sacred part of Anishinaabeg culture (Photo Credit: Star Tribune)

A graduate of both Harvard and Antioch universities, Winona LaDuke is the author of six books, winner of numerous prestigious awards, and two-time Green Party candidate for U.S. vice-president. But what she is most proud of is her Native American heritage.

LaDuke is a member of the Anishinaabeg tribe and Founding Director of the White Earth Land Recovery Project (WELRP), which works to recover the land base of the White Earth Indian Reservation in Minnesota and to restore land stewardship practices, such as the protection of traditional crops and sacred seeds, within the community. This return to healthy, indigenous foods is sorely needed in the U.S. Native American community: 39.6 percent of Native adults are obese, compared to 27 percent of whites, and 25 percent of Native adults in Minnesota have been diagnosed with diabetes, compared to about 7 percent of white adults.

One of the indigenous foods that LaDuke and the WELRP are working to protect is wild rice, a sacred part of Anishinaabeg culture. Wild rice is the only grain native to North America, found mainly in the Great Lakes region. It is higher in protein than other grains and contains numerous vitamins. The Anishinaabeg people have used sustainable harvesting methods for generations, relying on canoes and beater sticks to collect the ripe seeds.

Winona LaDuke and the WELRP are working to protect their tribe’s harvest by fighting attempts by mining companies and the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce to lower water quality standards in the area, an act that would destroy wild rice harvests by allowing about 25 times the current level of sulfates in the water. Currently, only 10 parts per million (ppm) of sulfates is allowed in the water, the maximum level at which wild rice stands can survive. The proposal would allow 250 ppm, which would free up areas for mining but eliminate wild rice harvests entirely.

Harvesting wild rice is not only an ancient tradition of the Anishinaabeg people, but a job that brings good money. In LaDuke’s article “Wild Rice Moon,” published in Yes! magazine, she quotes Eugene Davis, a young rice harvester, saying,  “This is the only job we can make US$50 an hour at up here.” In Native communities where high-paying jobs are scarce, harvesting this traditional crop is like a gold mine. Not only will the change in regulations wipe out a source of healthy, indigenous food, but it will also wipe out a significant source of income for these communities.

How would our society be different if we all valued food not only as nourishment for the body, but also as a spiritual connection to history, ancestors, and the land? Can we lower obesity and diabetes rates and protect livelihoods by listening to the voices of people like Winona LaDuke and returning to local, sustainable food production? Let us know your thoughts in the comments section below.

Devon Ericksen is a former media and communications intern with the Worldwatch Institute’s Food and Agriculture Program.

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