Manoomin: The Story of Wild Rice in Michigan – Program Recap

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Notes from Sr. Lucille Janowiak OP with additions by Linda Shuster, WORC Members

I do not recall paying much attention to the growing of Manoomin (wild rice) in Michigan, but I paid attention to researcher and author, Barbara J. Barton, as she shared her findings and stories about Michigan’s wild rice with the River City Wild Ones at their February Zoom meeting. Here are a few notes from her enticing presentation.

The migration story of the Anishinaabe people is profoundly connected, culturally and spiritually, to Michigan’s wild rice. Living on the northeast coast, the Anishinaabe were given the Seven Fires Prophecy and among the seven prophecies was this:

“In the Third Fire the Anishinaabe will find the path to their chosen ground, a land in the west to which they must move their families. This will be the land where food grows on water.” **

The Anishinaabe heeded the warning and pursued the long westward journey following the St. Lawrence and Ottawa Rivers. When they arrived in the Great Lakes region, they discovered an abundance of wild rice plants, called Manoomin in the Anishinaabek language, growing on the water and thus settled in the region.

The plants begin with seeds in lake and river sediments where water is 2–3 feet deep. These seeds, warmed by the sun, germinate, sending out fine hair-like filaments to the surface where they grow long grassy leaves that lie horizontally on the surface water. As the grasses mature, they become erect, subsequently producing seed heads which ripen for harvesting. Plenty of seeds remain after harvesting to fall back into the sediment ready for next year’s growth.

Early European writings indicated that Manoomin was found in many lakes and rivers in Michigan. The Monroe Marsh extended three to four miles along the coast of Lake Erie, encompassing 4–5 thousand acres. The natural channel of the River Raisin passed through the marsh, which was dominated by wild celery and Manoomin. These foods attracted hundreds of thousands of ducks, and the Marsh became a world renowned duck hunting destination. The streams, rivers and vast marshes of Saginaw Bay historically held thousands of acres of Manoomin; the flats of Lake St. Clair contained extensive beds of Manoomin, and Houghton Lake—eight miles long, 4 miles wide and covering just over 20,000 acres—was filled with it. Of the 212 historical sites of Manoomin that have been identified in Michigan, 14 still exist, although at least 139 extant locations are known.

So why have these historic sites disappeared?

When the logging industry thrived in Michigan, shorelines near rivers and lakes were covered with stored logs which altered those shorelines, marshy areas were filled to store logs, and bottom sediments were covered with sawdust and wood debris, all of which contributed to the destruction of Manoomin beds. Damming of rivers changed water levels, also negatively affecting the existing Manoomin. Pollution from paper and other industries, as well as sewage and garbage discharge from cities, decimated Manoomin beds, including the pristine beds of the Monroe Marsh, which had also been reduced by the dredging and channeling of the River Raisin.

The prevalence of malaria in the 19th century negatively impacted Manoomin, as well. Authorities, not knowing the cause of malaria yet sensing it had something to do with wet places, drained the wetlands by cutting ditches, still visible today, all over the landscape. Even after mosquitoes were identified as its vector, practices such as oiling the water to reduce mosquito populations continued the assault on Manoomin. Nor did farmers want to have Manoomin growing nearby since it attracted multiple species of wildlife and birds who feasted on the farm crops as well as on the Manoomin.

In 2016, Elder Frank Ettawageshik, from the Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians, related memories of his people harvesting Manoomin from Rice Lake near Grant, MI. After investigating the story, Barton discovered that three-mile-long Rice Lake, which was surrounded by marshland, was likely the largest inland rice lake in Michigan, but now no longer existed. The entire lake and its marshland had been drained by a group of farmers for muck farming. Now, onions, celery, carrots, beets, and other crops grow in the rich muck. The latest threat to Manoomin is climate change.

Indigenous people today are restoring rice beds and conducting annual rice camps where they harvest and process the Manoomin. The Michigan Wild Rice Initiative is a effort on the part of several groups, including all 12 federally recognized tribes, to develop a Manoomin stewardship plan. Barton stated that she is often asked whether people can plant rice in their own ponds and wetlands. She strongly recommended working with a group who is knowledgeable, because there are many issues and complexities involved with growing wild rice. Also, when rice is planted, there are ceremonies and prayers conducted by the Anishinaabe people to help the plant grow and to honor the water.

There is currently an effort in the Michigan Legislature to make Manoomin the state native grain. In response to audience questions regarding what they can do, she suggested writing to legislators to urge them to make Manoomin the state native grain. Many more historical and fascinating stories related to wild rice can be found in Barbara J. Barton’s book, MANOOMIN: The Story of Wild Rice in Michigan.

*Find Barbara Barton’s captivating Wild Rice presentation to the River City Wild Ones at:

** From: The Mishomis Book: The Voice of the Ojibway by Edward  T. Benton-Banai

Top photo: 19th century wild rice harvesting artwork, WS. Eastman, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Photo collage: Barbara J. Barton