Reconnecting with Manoomin

Mar 15, 2024

Restored manoomin in the St. Louis River Estuary.

Across the St. Louis River Estuary there is reason to celebrate. Thanks to an ongoing partnership between the Ojibwe Tribal Nations, state and federal agencies, and the Lake Superior Reserve, manoomin is beginning to thrive again. Integral to the culture of the Anishinaabe Ojibwe, a group of Indigenous peoples within Canada and the United States, this wild rice had been in decline due to hydrologic changes, pollution, land use impacts, and climate change.

In 2015, the Reserve joined the Manoomin Restoration Partnership, a group of Tribal Nations and state and federal agencies, to identify opportunities to restore wild rice beds in the St. Louis River Estuary. In the past three years, restoration efforts have led to a significant increase in manoomin in the estuary. Over 80,000 pounds of seed have been spread in estuary bays suitable to manoomin. However, that success is only the beginning of reconnecting with this culturally and ecologically important plant, according to Deanna Erickson, manager at the Reserve.

“Repairing human relationships to manoomin is just as critical as the restoration itself,” she says. “Manoomin restoration is succeeding. Now our goal is to reconnect with it.”

Where healthy rice beds exist, Indigenous harvesters and other manoomin-devotees enter into a cycle of observation and learning each spring as plants begin to grow. Careful attention to manoomin and the waters it grows in builds interconnectedness, and knowledge of these wetlands that can be passed to future generations. Important traditional ceremonies support and rely on manoomin. In late summer, harvesting builds community by bringing multigenerational, and sometimes multicultural harvesters, together at landings, in canoes, on the rice lakes, and at rice camps.

Last year, the 1854 Treaty Authority, the Reserve, and other partners held the estuary’s first rice camp in many decades, a traditional event where people get together to process manoomin by hand. The camps also serve to pass down knowledge to sustain this practice into the future. Participants learn how to make bawa’iganaakoog (rice knockers), build a gaandakii’iganaak (push-pole), harvest rice, parch it, and winnow it from the husks.

Participants at rice camp.

“A total of 456 youth from 17 schools participated,” says Marne Kaeske, a cultural preservation specialist with the 1854 Treaty Authority. “An additional 45 natural resource professionals participated in the learning experience and we only had one canoe tip! It was a real joy to share in the excitement of children connecting with Manoomin.”

The camps also support restoration. “Places that are riced often have the densest rice beds,” says Erickson. “When you knock rice, a lot of the seed falls into the water before it gets into your canoe. Instead of birds eating it, it falls into the water.”

Through its partnership with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and Reserves around the country, the Lake Superior Reserve is able to bring national resources and knowledge to support both the restoration of manoomin and the cultural practices that sustain local social-ecological communities. 

They are using the results of a NERRS-led study that combined historic and modern mapping methods to track changes in estuary habitats across the country to learn about historical wild rice patterns. 

“It was really helpful to have a visualization of what wild rice beds looked like historically, where they were, and what has been lost,” says Erickson. “It visually reinforces the need to restore.”

With support from NOAA, the Reserve co-published an article that identifies cultural and ecological benefits of Manoomin; these metrics are being used to inform a new restoration plan. The Reserve is also working with UW-Madison’s Hua Lab to gather input from local Tribal Nations to understand how they should appropriately study contaminants in the St. Louis River Estuary’s wild rice compared to other bodies of water.

Manoomin blooming during the summer months.

Want more Reserve stories delivered to your inbox? Subscribe to our newsletter.

What We Work ForHealthy HabitatsReconnecting with Manoomin