CLOQUET, MN As close to heaven as one can get. That's
how the Fond du Lac Band, of Lake Superior Chippewa, describe the
St. Louis River estuary, where the river slows and widens before
emptying into the Lake Superior in Duluth.
"This was sort of a perfect place, a Mecca of sorts is what
my uncle called it," said Thomas Howes, the band's natural resources
director. "Everything that one needed for a good life was provided
by the environment here."
And that included wild rice, or manoomin in Ojibwe, a food that
still plays a critical role in the cultural life of the Tribe's
Decades of human activity almost eliminated wild rice from the
region. But now, several agencies are partnering on a landmark effort
to restore wild rice to about 250 acres of the St. Louis River estuary
over the next five to 10 years.
"From the time a baby is born, to when we send people off to
make their journey into the afterlife, there are ceremonies, and
manoomin is a central component of those," Howes said. "A lot of
people say, that if we don't have that, then we cease to exist somewhat
culturally as a people."
view of the estuary. Duluth Harbor is to the right.
Historically, the St. Louis River estuary may have sustained
2,000 to 3,000 acres of rice, one of the richest concentrations
of rice in the region. But over the past 125 years, industrial development,
pollution and logging (in the late 1800s logs were transported downriver
so thickly, lumberjacks could walk across them) nearly wiped wild
rice out, leaving behind only a few isolated pockets.
In 1978, a wastewater treatment plant went on-line, greatly
improving water quality in the river. Over the years, contaminated
sediment has slowly been removed from the river bottom.
"We've had such great improvements in water quality over the
last couple of decades, that the time is right now to begin wild
rice restoration because the water quality is high enough that we
can bring the wild rice back," said Daryl Peterson with the Minnesota
Peterson's group, together with the Fond du Lac Band, Minnesota
and Wisconsin DNR and other tribal agencies, is working on the current
wild rice crop restoration project.
While out on the St. Louis River, Charlie Nahgahnub, a tech
with e Fond du Lac Natural Resources, pointed out where geese ate
the rice just as it grew above the water's surface. That's a big
concern for the rice moving forward, along with carp, which also
like to feast on young wild rice plants.
Still, Nahgahnub hopes to someday harvest rice from the St.
"There's a whole generation that doesn't know how to do this,"
he said. "It gives me hope, they want to revive it, restore it,
to what it was."