Return of the wild rice
PRAIRIE ISLAND — When Apryl Carlson and Nicole Staudt saw a thick stand of tall grass growing in a remote Prairie Island wetland this summer, they were stunned and elated.
Finally, after several years of failed harvests and fears of another one this summer, they had succeeded in raising wild rice, said Carlson, an environmental technician with the Prairie Island Indian Community.
That rice, they hope, will be a harbinger of more patches that will sprout on the island north of Red Wing, helping habitat wildlife and returning a key part of the Native American heritage.
"It's part of their culture, it's part of who they are," she said.
People have lived on the island and nearby lands for many thousands of years, said Ronald Schirmer, associate professor in Minnesota State University, Mankato's Department of Archeology who has studied the area for more than a decade.
The most recent people to live in the area are the Dakotas who once lived much further north, where wild rice is even more of a part of the culture, he said.
"Up north, it was a very heavy component of their diet," he said. In this region, "we have zero data on diet" but they do know that rice is found in all the Red Wing sites studied, though not in large quantities, he said.
When European settlers came, they plowed up prairie and began to pollute the Mississippi River that feeds many area wetlands. That made the river dirtier and more "flashy," rising and falling faster than a few hundred years ago, Carlson said. Wild rice, on the other hand, needs more stable water levels, and cleaner water, especially at one period of its growth in summer.
The result was much of the wild rice was wiped out, remaining only in a few isolated areas, Schirmer said.
Carlson said the tribe wanted to change that and several years ago, decided to bring back wild rice. on its 3,029 acres. It takes a holistic approach, trying to bring back species found there in pre-European times and also looking for things benefiting the entire environment.
Over the years, tribal members bought several thousand pounds of seeds from up north, at a cost of $2 to $2.50 a pound, and spread them in wetlands. It now has 50 acres seeded. This summer, the tribe also got permission from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to harvest 70 pounds of rice from the Nelson-Trevino area across from Wabasha. This year had a great crop, said Mary Stefanski, area manager of the Upper Mississippi Wildlife Refuge.
"Since this was harvesting (or collecting) for a habitat improvement project we felt it was benefiting wildlife and therefore a viable use," she said.
Harvesting even 70 pounds made Staudt appreciate what Native Americans had to go through. "It was a great experience," she said. "It was also challenging and hard too. It was time-consuming and labor intensive." She and others had to pole through thick stands of the rice while one used a knocking stick to loosen kernels that were supposed to fall into the canoe. Much of it fell into the water.
They scattered the seeds, along with seeds from up north, in the wetlands near the Prairie Island community and waited.
At first, the river stayed high and turbid. "But we got lucky, water levels dropped" and the rice grew, Carlson said
"We jumped for joy," she said. "We were shouting, hollering, doing a little dance of joy."
More pieces of wetlands will be seeded, and if all goes well, the tribe might be able to harvest some in a few years; if the river doesn't cooperate, it might be 10 years.