As Harvest Begins, Some ‘Deeply Concerned’ About Dwindling Wild Rice Resource

Sep 12, 2019

Sokaogon Chippewa Rice Chief Pete McGeshick III poles across Rice Lake on Tuesday.
Credit Ben Meyer/WXPR

Pete McGeshick III sometimes has a hard time explaining what being on a wild rice bed feels like for him.

As he used a 16-foot pole to push a canoe across Rice Lake on the Sokaogon Chippewa reservation in Forest County, he said he feels the spirit of wild rice while on the water.

“It talks to me.  It’s something you feel in your heart.  You can’t describe it,” McGeshick said.  “All you can do is feel it.”

In his mid-50s, wearing a hat and a Sokaogon Chippewa hoodie, McGeshick is in his first year as a tribal Rice Chief, a responsibility passed to him by his father, Pete McGeshick Jr.

“We’ve got to take care of [the wild rice].  That’s my responsibility.  That’s [fellow Rice Chief Jim Polar’s] responsibility.  That’s all of our peoples’ responsibility to take care of the wild rice, and I look forward to it every day.  I love it,” McGeshick said.

Rice Lake on the Sokaogon Chippewa reservation in Forest County.
Credit Sokaogon Chippewa Community

Hundreds of years ago, Ojibwe (Chippewa) people migrated west to new lands in the northern Great Lakes region.  Their journey ended where a prophecy told them to stop.

“The prophecy told us that we were supposed to go west and find the food that grows on the water, and that’s where we were meant to be and meant to settle,” said Tribal Environmental Director Tina Van Zile, who met McGeshick at the canoe launch.  “[Wild rice is] not just a food for us.  It is a spiritual meaning and existence.” 

To this day, wild rice plays a major role in the survival and spiritual life of these tribal communities.

But wild rice beds in northern Wisconsin may be in danger as water resources are shaped and changed by human hands.

Van Zile said wild rice lakes, rivers, streams, and creeks need free-flowing water without obstructions.

“So culverts that are undersized.  No dams.  Just its natural flow,” she said.

However, as waterways in northern Wisconsin were developed, those obstructions increased, said Peter David, a wildlife biologist with the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission.  That’s the Wisconsin-based intertribal group which deals with natural resources.

“We know a lot of beds that once existed here two or three hundred years ago have been lost,” David said.

David also pointed to climate change, which can produce heavy rainfall, high winds, and elevated humidity, as a major threat to wild rice.

“Climate change brings a whole bunch of different potential impacts to rice, and none of them are favorable,” he said.  “Across the landscape, rice is seeing new threats, and I think there’s a great deal of concern that rice is trending downward in many areas.”

Back on Rice Lake, McGeshick, the Rice Chief, agreed.  He said he’s “deeply concerned” about the trend of rice beds in the area.

In the 1930s, McGeshick said, when the Sokaogon Chippewa were finally granted a reservation, the tribe wanted land in the Mole Lake area because seven local lakes had wild rice.

“This is the only one of those lakes, those seven lakes that had wild rice, it’s the only one that has wild rice right now,” McGeshick said.

Tribal members set off for a day of wild rice harvest on Rice Lake.
Credit Ben Meyer/WXPR

This week, Sokaogon Chippewa tribal members are working to reestablish wild rice on another of those lakes, nearby Pickerel Lake.

But the threat to the resource troubles tribal members like Van Zile, the environmental director.

A loss of wild rice could mean not only the loss of food, but a loss of culture.

“You see it disappearing on all these lakes.  Ojibwe people are kind of scared [about] what’s going to happen if that were to happen, if all the lakes were not to produce,” Van Zile said.  “It’s kind of a scary thought for me, personally.”

David had a suggestion for tribal and nontribal people concerned about protecting the resource.

Become a wild rice harvester, he said.  Harvesters feel the connection to the resource and are more likely to make sure it’s healthy.

“The Stream” is a new project by WXPR focusing on water reporting.  If you have a question you’d like answered about water resources in our area, email ben@wxpr.org or submit it using the form below.

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