Wild rice has been an important food to Native American tribes in the United States for thousands of years. But due to climate change, those rice fields have started to disappear in West Michigan. With the help of Rhino Media in Kalamazoo, the Gun Lake Tribe of Potawatomi has produced a documentary on the rice fields. It’s showing Wednesday night at 6 p.m. in Grand Rapids’ Wealthy Theatre.
The documentary is called “Mnomen” - the native word for wild rice. It follows members of the Gun Lake Tribe as they harvest, cook, and use the rice.
"The mnomen is one of our four sacred foods that we use in ceremony and mnomen is primarily spirit food that ensures a healthy spirit," quotes the film.
Lorraine “Punkin” Shanaquet is a tribal elder with the Gun Lake Tribe and former tribal council member. She says wild rice actually helped to form several Native American tribes in the United States. Part of the Potawatomi creation story talks about a spirit that told the people to go to a place where food grows on water. Shanaquet says this started a 500 year migration westward from the east coast of the U.S.
“A group of our people went north and said they would follow the Lake Superior shoreline as far as they could and those were the Ojibwe people. The Odawa said they would stay beneath the straits and that castle rock that you see up by Mackinac Bridge is that marker. That’s the territorial, traditional marker for Ojibwe and Odawa people. And they would stay below, but they also controlled the straits when the colonizers came so that gave them much greater access to the trade route. And then the Potawatomi people said they would follow the southern direction and that’s how we became established in and around the Lake Michigan shoreline.”
But Shanaquet says wild rice is disappearing from West Michigan’s landscape. Gun Lake Tribe environmental director Elizabeth Binoniemi-Smith says the changing climate hasn’t been good to the rice fields.
“We do know that for Northern Wild Rice - which is the rice that the tribe is most interested in restoring and harvesting due to the larger feed size which is better for consumption - we do know that we are on the southern range of that. So as the air and the water warms due to climate change and other factors, one thing that we are concerned with and will be monitoring is are we slowly going to be no longer in the suitable range for those plants to grow.”
Climate change and damming lakes have also caused water levels to change in the rice beds. If the water gets too high or too low, it will cause the weak rice stalks to break. Binoniemi-Smith says people living near the lake don’t always see the rice fields as a positive thing.
“Many recreational lakes have plant treatments to decrease things, weeds in the lake. And wild rice is…by a boater would potentially be considered a weed. And so we’re looking for where is suitable for wild rice now,” she says.
Punkin Shanaquet says the rice beds also provide habitat for fish, insects, ducks and other water fowl.
“It’s so important to just understand that each and every part of life that is here and has a spirit is connected in one way or another to us. Somehow we will be affected,” she says.