A gentle wind tousles Winona LaDuke’s raven-black hair and carries her tobacco smoke and prayer across Buffalo Lake to a bay where wild rice grows thick as a woven rug. The 4-foot-tall plants, which grow naturally in northwestern Minnesota, wave in the breeze, as if to welcome Winona and her canoe. “We’re lucky,” she says. “We’re the only ones the Creator gave rice to.”
She steps into the stern and begins poling like a gondolier, easing the canoe into the wild rice bed. Winona’s ricing partner holds two cedar sticks called knockers. She will use one to bend the plants over the hull and the other to gently tap the grains from the seed heads, a labor-intensive technique that has hardly changed over hundreds of years.
About 90 miles northeast of Fargo, White Earth Nation has the richest wild rice beds in the United States—47 lakes and more than 500 other bodies of water where manoomin, or the “good berry,” grows. (In fact, the reservation’s largest community is called Mahnomen.) Ojibwe legend says that a duck dropped wild rice into a pot of boiling water to show the spirit Nanaboozhoo that a bounty of nutritious grain was growing in the lake. “Where there’s rice, there’s Anishinaabe. Where there’s Anishinaabe, there’s rice,” Winona says, using the tribe’s original name. “It’s the first food of a baby, the last food for an elder. We simply can’t be a healthy people without our rice.”
That mantra—food as salvation—comes up a lot with Winona, who sees native foods as an antidote to the tribe’s diabetes epidemic and as an environmentally sustainable source of economic growth. In 1989, she started the White Earth Land Recovery Project (WELRP) to fulfill that vision and found herself in the political spotlight. Both Time and Ms. magazines recognized her as one of the nation’s leading activists, and the Green Party nominated her as a vice presidential candidate. But her heart is in these waters.
“My friends just called me last week and said, ‘Hey Winona, we’re gonna go get arrested at this big protest in D.C. You gotta come with,’” she says. “I said, ‘Sorry, guys. The rice is in. I gotta harvest!’”