Harvesting is an act of indigenous food sovereignty

In Agroecology in Motion, Long Read by JessicaM

With this post, we invite you to reflect on how the very act of harvesting, hunting, and fishing is a powerful assertion of food sovereignty. Rather than seeing food sovereignty as a destination, we see it as a pathway made up of everyday acts of resistance and reparation accessible to everyone. 


In the Great Lakes region of the United States and Canada, getting out in a canoe to harvest manoomin, or wild rice (Zizania palustris), is a political assertion of indigenous food sovereignty for Anishinaabe people. The act of getting together to harvest, and roast, or ‘parch’ manoomin by hand over a fire, is a revolutionary act in times of industrial, easy, and cheap food that disconnects us from our environment and from our community. 

sorting through parched wild rice: indigenous food sovereignty

Food sovereignty is an alternative paradigm that emerged in 1996 as a response by the transnational agrarian movement La Via Campesina, to the pressures and damages caused by neoliberalism, trade liberalization and market-driven, industrial agriculture. The movement described food sovereignty as, “the right of peoples to healthy and culturally appropriate food produced through ecologically sound and sustainable methods, and their right to define their own food and agricultural systems.”  

But for indigenous people, food sovereignty has a different feel to it.  First, relationships and responsibility, rather than rights, lie at the heart of indigenous food sovereignty. It is a pathway of responsibility to plant and animal relatives, respect for mother earth, relationship with self and community. It seeks to uphold “sacred responsibilities to nurture relationships with our land, culture, spirituality and future generations.”1 Second, Indigenous food sovereignty refers to “a re-connection to land-based food and political systems”2, and specifically includes fishing, hunting, and gathering, the basis for many indigenous foodways, rather than only focusing on agriculture.  Finally, Indigenous food sovereignty is distinct from food sovereignty in non-indigenous contexts because it is inherently and explicitly a decolonial journey involving communal culture and self-determination3.

Six reasons to get out to harvest

1) reclaim power in society for women and non-binary members, 2) reinstate an indigenous economy, 3) restore culture, 4) recover health, 5) exercise treaty rights, 6) take care of our relations. 

Nett Lake: indigenous food sovereignty
Nett Lake full of manoomin 2021

The appropriation of a sacred food

Manoomin, or wild rice, a plant that grows in the lakes and rivers of the Great Lakes area of the United States and Canada, is a central part of Anishinaabe life, culture and spirituality. After settler colonization sought to violently dismantle traditional food systems, native people could no longer depend on manoomin for food to the same degree they had done for time immemorial. Starting in the 1920s, this traditional staple was appropriated by white entrepreneurs and marketed as a gourmet food commodity. For a period of about 15 years, from 1950-1965, harvesters were able to make a considerable profit selling unprocessed wild rice. The lucrative market paved the way for domestication of the plant and the cultivation of “wild” rice in paddies in the late 1960s. By the 1980s, 95% of “wild” rice on the market was paddy rice, the majority of which was produced in California, causing a crash in the market for hand harvested wild rice4. Today, many people are fighting to revitalize the hand-harvested manoomin tradition and economy and to protect the manoomin beds.  Continued harvest of manoomin represents resilience and resistance for Anishinaabe people.

To harvest manoomin, two individuals go out in a canoe onto a lake of ripe grain. One of them pushes the canoe through the stands of wild rice, and the other “knocks” or sweeps the ripe grain from the stalks into the canoe using two slender cedar sticks, carved smooth for the job, called “knocking sticks.” When processed manually, it gets parched (roasted) over a fire, then threshed by being stepped or danced on. This motion, called jigging, loosens and removes the fibrous outer covering of the grain. Finally, to separate the hulls from the grain, wild rice is “winnowed” or “fanned”—tossed up in the air with birch bark trays (nooshkaachinaaganan) so that the hulls are blown away and only the edible grain is left behind.

Taken as a political act, harvesting and processing manoomin is about decolonizing relations with others and with the natural world.  We propose that acts such as harvesting manoomin can help to 1) reclaim societal power of women, 2) reinstate an indigenous economy, 3) restore culture, 4) recover health 5) exercise treaty rights, and 6) take care of our relations.   

Six reasons to get out to harvest manoomin

1) Reclaim Societal Power of Women

Taking care of, harvesting and processing manoomin used to be primarily the realm of Anishinaabe, Dakota and Menominee women. Anishinaabe families would move as units to the wild rice areas and men would work nearby or hunt and fish as women harvested and processed the wild rice. Early in the season, in mid-summer, women would go out into the harvesting area and bind the rice into bundles using things like strips of basswood fiber as a way to ensure that each family had access to sufficient wild rice. Binding helped ensure the ripe rice wouldn’t be lost to wind and storms before it could be harvested, and also ensured that each family had enough rice.  Families sometimes had unique ways of tying the bundles to indicate who had access to which areas of rice.  

After colonization-led land dispossession, relocation to reservations, and the denial of treaty rights separated people from their food and land, poverty was particularly stark in the times of the great depression. Men began to take part in the harvesting and processing of the wild rice out of need, displacing women from their role almost entirely by the end of the second World War. White settler’s concept of masculinity and labor infected Anishinaabe culture. Government support for wild rice campgrounds, for example, contributed to the invention of a role of men in the manoomin harvest by requiring women and children wait on shore for the men to come back from harvesting5. The commodification of manoomin and the processing and selling of it for profit, rather than harvesting the amount of rice needed for the household and community, entailed the exclusion of women from what had traditionally been their responsibility.

women and indigenous food sovereignty

In practice: As native women, the act of going out to harvest wild rice and teaching our children how to harvest and process the food is a step toward reclaiming the equal and esteemed place of women building healthy power relations in general, in the household, and in the community. 

2) Reinstate an Indigenous Economy

Imposed colonial economic models have excluded women, non-binary people, and indigenous worldviews. Colonial economic models disrupt land-based, small-scale, localized activities that value ‘a good life’6. Instead, short term profit margins are prioritized. Indigenous economics holds the nourishing of individuals, families, communities, and ecosystems; all of creation… 

Key principles of indigenous economies are sustainability and reciprocity.  Continued relationships of mutual caregiving between people and the land are necessary to sustain life and therefore, indigenous economies. When seen as gifts from creation, foods from harvesting, gathering, hunting or fishing are commonly gifted or shared with others. Indigenous economics honor each person’s place and purpose in the economy and society– men, women, non-binary, old and young. 

Manoomin is regularly shared and gifted. Surpluses from harvest are distributed  amongst the community to those who need it, or as reciprocity for other gifts. The act of harvesting promotes a different kind of economic relationship with food, one based in care and respect and generosity. 

finished wild rice: indigenous food sovereignty

In practice: During the COVID epidemic, community members made sure that those who had lost loved ones would be fed manoomin. Gifting, exchange, work agreements are all ways to support the community and look after each other to sustain mino-bimaadiziwin ‘the good life’, rather than the ‘big bank account’ imposed value of coloniality. 

3) Restore Culture

The displacement of indigenous people from their land, forced resettlement onto reservations and then onto individual allotments, denial of treaty rights, and the subsequent dismantling of indigenous food systems and economies lead to a cascading process of loss of knowledge. As access to traditional food became difficult and people stopped eating these foods, knowledge about cooking, preserving, harvesting and tool making was passed on to others less and less.  Opportunities to share the fundamental teachings or life lessons that form the foundation of relationships with food were also diminished.  Jared Qwustenuxun Williams calls all of this knowledge together culture. Eating traditional foods and teaching others how to cook, process and gather the foods that our ancestors depended on reinforces teachings, such as understanding our place in creation and our responsibilities to all of creation, expressing gratitude for gifts, or always sharing with others, and other knowledge such as plant names, language, and stories. 

indigenous food sovereignty: Traditional food production fosters culture

In practice: Getting together to harvest, process or eat manoomin builds community as well as knowledge sharing. Traditionally a multi-generational activity, relationships are strengthened and community is built and rebuilt each year through these gatherings. These are the roots of indigenous society. 

4) Recover Health

Colonial-imposed diets are devastating for Indigenous health. Supermarkets provide food that tends to be high in gluten, dairy and sugar, all ingredients practically non-existent in native, pre contact diets.  Manoomin is a highly nutritious plant that was the staple diet in the great lakes region for centuries. Returning to this diet can be an empowering everyday act of resistance. 

Indigenous chefs promoting a decolonial diet, like Sean Sherman, use manoomin in their dishes explicitly as a way to promote traditional foods as a political act.  The Good Berry Cookbook by Tashia Hart, is testament to indigenous cultural connections to food and the natural living world, and inevitably include tips about harvesting manoomin and gathering other wild foods. 

decolonizing diet: indigenous food sovereignty

In practice: Purchasing hand harvested wild rice is more expensive than other supermarket grains– going out to harvest provides a way to access this healthy food and make a statement through diet.

5) Exercise Treaty Rights

Treaties between the colonial US Government and the 500 plus Sovereign Indigenous Nations here in Turtle Island (North America) are widely misunderstood as having “given” something to indigenous peoples. This pervasive and inaccurate concept adds to the dominant colonial narrative that indigenous peoples owe something to the colonial system; how can peoples be “given” what in fact was already theirs?  Treaties granted rights to settlers, not the other way around. The complexities of treaties are beyond the scope of this paper, but the authors felt it important to at least mention this here. 

Much of Minnesota was forcefully ceded to the US government over the course of a few decades in the mid-1800s. Starting in 1837, violence, threat, manipulation and coercion was used to attain signatures. Part of the treaty agreements, in theory, provided annual payments and goods in exchange for land. Most of the treaties provided for the retention of hunting, fishing, gathering, traveling rights for Indigenous people on reservation land as well as ceded territory. However, these rights have often been disregarded. Every single treaty that upheld rights retained by Indigenous people has been broken at some point. Major court cases have taken place to fight for respect of treaty rights, such as the Minnesota vs Mille Lacs Band in 1990 that ruled in favor of the tribe. In 1939, state law required licenses to harvest manoomin, even for tribal members.  This law was repealed only in 2016. 

exercise treaty rights by harvesting manoomin: indigenous food sovereignty

In practice: Going out ricing is a way of exercising treaty rights and sovereignty. 

6) Take Care of Our Relations

The assertion of “rights” is an essential part of a colonial construct depicting people’s place in the world.  This is fundamentally and ideologically counterintuitive to indigenous worldviews, practices and philosophies, where the more appropriate frame is “responsibility” rather than “rights”.  Indigenous peoples around the world have relationships of responsibilities intrinsic to their ways of life. This holds true for the Anishinaabe peoples residing in homelands stradling the US/Canadian borders within and near the Great Lakes region. Within Anishinaabe culture it is understood that we are part of creation, not above it, and need to behave accordingly;  our responsibility is to all of creation as a part of creation.  We have a responsibility to manoomin, to care for it, harvest it with respect, and to remember it is a relative, not a resource.  Anishinaabe worldview honors interconnectedness and the place of humans as part of, rather than above other forms of life. Everything is just an iteration of one spirit. Think of a circle rather than a pyramid of relationships.

Countering colonial imposition, in 2018 the White Earth band of Ojibwe formally recognized the rights of wild rice as an attempt to codify indigenous worldviews into law. The ‘rights of nature’ is a movement around the world that attempts to decolonize law and the way people relate with the landscape and all living things. The White Earth band took the Department of Natural Resources of the State of Minnesota to court to revindicate the rights of Manoomin.  This case was thrown out, but it marks an important step for the rights of nature in the US– something that is further advanced in other countries– and towards decolonizing law to embrace indigenous ways of relating to nature. 

Manoomin: indigenous food sovereigny

In practice: Learning and speaking the Ojibwe names for the world around us, hunting, fishing, gathering and processing manoomin and other traditional foods deepen crucial relationships with land, water, plants and animals that provide our food, inform our worldviews and maintain our mental, emotional, physical and spiritual health.

Day to day food sovereignty

Indigenous food sovereignty is a journey in decoloniality that begins with eating traditional foods and restoring relationships with our food. Just as harvesting manoomin is a political act, as is harvesting, hunting, fishing in the traditional way and recovering traditional varieties of crops and breeds of livestock in other territories. Indigenous food sovereignty requires action and participation in “day-to-day practices of nurturing relationships with the land, plants and animals that provide us with our food”. 

We celebrate Anishinaabe people being out on the water harvesting manoomin as a political act of food sovereignty. Recovering native food sovereignty is about recovering practices.  But it is not just about getting out there, it is about ‘harvesting in a good way’.  At its core, doing it right means respecting the relationships with self, families, communities, the water, seasons, wildlife, manoomin. This includes the long standing practice of reseeding, to ensure harvests for the following season.  If the relationships are respected, the rice will be protected.  

The act of going out to harvest manoomin is a powerful political act whose repercussions extend far beyond any visible and immediate impacts. Harvesting manoomin helps to reclaim power in society for women and non-binary members, reinstate indigenous economies, restore culture, health and treaty rights and decolonize relationships with all of creation. 

References

1Morrison, Dawn. 2011.  “Indigenous Food Sovereignty: A Model for Social Learning,” In Food Sovereignty in Canada: Creating Just and Sustainable Food Systems, eds. Hannah Wittman et al. Fernwood Publishing: 97–113.

2Martens et. al. 2016. “Understanding Indigenous Food Sovereignty through an Indigenous Research Paradigm.” Journal of Indigenous Social Development  5(1):18-37.

3Hoover, E. 2017. “‘You Can’t Say You’re Sovereign if You Can’t Feed Yourself’: Defining and Enacting Food Sovereignty in American Indian Community Gardening.” American Indian Culture and Research Journal, 41(3): 31-70.

4LaDuke, Winona. 2005. ‘Wild Rice: Maps genes and patents.’ In Recovering the Sacred : the Power of Naming and Claiming. South End Press: 167-190.

5Child, B. J. 2012. Holding our world together: Ojibwe women and the survival of community. Penguin Books.

6Kuokkanen, Rauna. 2011. “Indigenous Economies, Theories of Subsistence and Women: Exploring the Social Economy Model for Indigenous Governance.” American Indian Quarterly 35(2): 215-240.

Collectively harvesting manoomin: indigenous food sovereignty
About to go out harvesting manoomin, 2021

This post was written by Jessica Milgroom and Simone Senogles wIth contributions from Aimee Craft and Marie Schaefer. The authors are activists and scholars in support of manoomin and indigenous food sovereignty. Simone, Aimée and Marie are Anishinabekweg/indigenous women.   We made the decision to write in first person plural to be inclusive of the indigenous food sovereignty movement.

Jessica Milgroom is an Associate Professor at the Centre for Agroecology, Water and Resilience (UK) doing research on wild rice and food sovereignty in Minnesota.

Simone Senogles is a member of the leadership team at the Indigenous Environmental Network working on indigenous feminism, food sovereignty and climate justice.

Aimée Craft is an Associate Professor and Research chair in Nibi minawaa aki inaakonigewin: Indigenous governance in relationship with land and water at the University of Ottawa.

Marie Schaefer, Ph.D. is a Tribal Climate Strategies Research Scholar at the Southeast Climate Adaptation Science Center, U.S. Geological Survey.