"Just don't mess with the rice" (18/9/2005)

"We drew a line," LaDuke said, referring to the unified opposition among Ojibwe tribes to genetically modified wild rice. "Just don't mess with the rice."

Returning the land
By Patrick Springer
The Forum, September 18, 2005

PONSFORD, MINN. – Winona LaDuke and her helpers are turning wild rice and maple syrup into land with their entrepreneurial brand of White Earth community activism.

From her home on Round Lake, LaDuke heads the non-profit White Earth Land Recovery Project, an organization she formed in 1989 to help revive Ojibwe culture and buy back land for preservation and communal use.

Only 9 percent of the land within the borders of the White Earth Indian Reservation, north of Detroit Lakes, remains in tribal hands, according to the land recovery project.

Proceeds from the organization’s store, Native Harvest, help support the land recovery project and other programs, including education and language restoration.

So far, the project has bought almost 1,700 acres, held in community trust. Holdings include a large tract of maple forest, several traditional cemeteries and land to grow gardens of Indian corn and other indigenous crops.

Last year, Native Harvest sales reached $250,000, and LaDuke expects sales to double this year, as the store’s marketing network, which includes online and mail-order catalogs, continues to grow.

Wild rice accounts for a majority of Native Harvest's sales. This year, the project plans to buy 50,000 pounds of wild rice. Together with the White Earth tribe, which buys a similar amount, the bulk purchases help keep prices for raw wild rice at $1.25 a pound, said Sarah Alexander, the wild rice campaign director.

Wild rice is sacred to the Ojibwe and central to LaDuke’s mission in helping preserve traditional culture and build sustainable communities.

"It's not just about the money," she said. "It's about the environment, it’s about the culture, it’s about the quality in terms of its organic nature. So, to me, the wild rice is a really important part of that."

Native Harvest, formed eight years ago, had its roots in 1985 when LaDuke got together with Margaret Smith, a tribal elder and retired school teacher, to buy rice from local harvesters to thwart efforts by non-Indian buyers to drive down the price.

"She's an old ricer and knows everybody on this reservation," LaDuke said of Smith. The two bought 2,000 or 3,000 pounds at $1 a pound, twice what the non-Indian buyers were paying.

Smith, 87, delivers traditional foods to families with diabetics, another of the project’s myriad programs.

LaDuke's activism in land recovery dates back to the early 1980s, when she came to White Earth after graduating from Harvard. She was born in Los Angeles and grew up in southern Oregon. Her father was an Ojibwe from White Earth; her mother is Jewish.

The 46-year-old mother launched the White Earth Land Recovery Project with a $10,000 grant she received from the Reebok human rights award.

LaDuke recently started her own coffee-roasting label, Muskrat Coffee Co., housed in her home. She buys organic, "fair trade" coffee beans from indigenous farmers in Latin America and Africa at above-market prices to help growers and their families.

"If you're going to spend three bucks for a cup of coffee, I'd really like to know that the guy who raised the beans, who has five kids and is hanging on to his small farm or his plot of land, actually gets some money," she said. "That's what fair trade is all about. It's the same for any farmer."

LaDuke, who was Ralph Nader's Green Party running mate during the 1996 presidential race, is an outspoken advocate to ban genetically modified wild rice in Minnesota.

"We're saying nobody has a right to destroy the genetic infrastructure, or the genetic makeup of a natural resource in the state of Minnesota, because the reality is if they plant a genetically engineered wild rice crop in a test field here over by Grand Rapids, it will contaminate," she said.

"Drift," the spread of pollen from genetically modified grass plants to natural grass, has been documented by studies, she added. The same can happen to wild rice, an aquatic grass.

The bill died, but the campaign lives on.

"We drew a line," LaDuke said, referring to the unified opposition among Ojibwe tribes to genetically modified wild rice. "Just don't mess with the rice."

Readers can reach Forum reporter Patrick Springer at (701) 241-5522

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