Wild Rice – treaty rights are critical to Ojibwe adaptation to climate change

Jonathan Gilbert is the Director of Biological Services Division at Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission

The Ojibwe people live where they do because of wild rice, because their migration story tells them to live where “food grows on water.” Their stories, cultural ways, and ceremonies tell them that rice is a central species. They ask: “How do you even adapt to no rice?” They are not sure that it’s even possible because it is so central to their being. Almost all their ceremonies involve wild rice.

How can wild rice can be considered wildlife?

All things are connected. It’s a great ecological perspective but it’s also an Ojibwe perspective. Wild rice provides food for other wildlife species. There are many species of birds that rely on wild rice. The human use of wild rice is also an important consideration. For the people I work for, the cultural use of this resource and the effects that climate change will have on their culture are critical and need to be understood. The definition of wildlife depends on who you ask. In the dictionary, it is defined as all things that are wild. It can be the classic birds and animals or it can be a more comprehensive look that considers wildlife to include plants, creatures, insects, and whatever is wild.

How is wild rice impacted by climate change?

Wild rice germinates in the bottom of a waterway, then shoots up a stem to the surface of the water. The leaves float on the surface on the water at the end of the stem. At this stage of their growth, the root systems are poorly developed in the muck. If you have quickly increasing water levels, the floating leaf will float up with the water level and pull the roots out of the soil, killing the plant. The tribes have seen this in recent years—extreme rain events pull up immature wild rice plants. This significantly reduces the number of successful adults. The wild rice seeds can remain viable in the muck but it’s an annual plant so one year makes a big difference in the population harvest for that year. Wild rice plants can survive in consistently high water levels and can grow in one to three feet of water. But over the long term high water is likely to decrease the available habitat for wild rice. The problem comes when extreme events happen when the wild rice is in the floating stage.

Hot dry summers can also have an impact. Wild rice is a wind-pollinated plant; hot dry summers reduce pollination. The result is that the rice grows well but the seeds are empty because there is no fertilization.

Hot, moist conditions are also a problem as they are ideal conditions for fungus and disease. Wild rice is susceptible to a brown spot disease, which we see more often in hot, humid conditions. The fungus spreads very quickly and kills the plants, which makes them unharvestable. The tribes have seen all of these climate impacts over the years.

Bullfrog on lilly pad in wild rice stand. Oneida Lake Oneida County. Photo credit: Jon Simonson

What are the other effects?

Cultural loss. Rice is seen as a medicine, it’s a healthy food. There’s a movement towards Indigenous food sovereignty programs that emphasize traditional foods over processed foods. If healthy foods like wild rice go away, there will be lasting health effects. Tribes see these natural foods as medicines, as ways to nourish the body physically and spiritually. A lack of access would have both health and spiritual impacts. Reduced availability also has impacts but the elimination of wild rice in the very long-term would have severe cultural implications.

Tribes are seeing the climate impacts to wild rice now but it’s not enough to prevent harvest. The impacts are having the immediate effect of reducing the rice harvest. The persistence of rice over the long term in these areas is unknown. We don’t know for sure that rice will be eliminated — will it be able to adapt? There is certainly a fear and a concern around what happens if it goes away.

Is there work being done to improve the harvest of wild rice?

Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission (GLIFWC) and the tribes have stewarded wild rice for many years. Our main initiative is a reseeding project that aims to increase acreage. This has been successful. Tribes have been doing this for a long, long time but Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission has started supporting that work.

The Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission tries to help with water level management to protect rice beds on behalf of the tribes as well. For example, thousands of acres of wild rice were flooded out when the dam at Lac Courte Oreilles (LCO) reservation was built. But now other acres are available at the edges of currently flooded areas. If you pull the dam out, same thing. The existing rice beds disappear but other acres become available. Removing or building a dam is always contentious for so many reasons but the impact on wild rice beds is one of them. The Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission works with some of the dam operators to help them understand the importance of water level management for increased wild rice support.

The Ojibwe Tribes are extremely adaptable people. When northern Wisconsin was clear cut, they were still able to survive and thrive by exercising their treaty rights and adapt to what resources are available. Adaptation is inherent in Ojibwe society. Their connection with the beings, and ability to exercise their treaty rights, allows them to stay connected and adapt. Thus, exercise of treaty rights is critical to Ojibwe adaptation to climate change.

Nixon Lake Vilas County. Photo credit: Michelle Nault

The treaty rights are managed through regular meetings with agencies (Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, Environmental Protection Agency, Fish and Wildlife Service). At the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission, it’s my job to supervise scientists and interact with state and federal partners. I have participated in these meetings for thirty-five years. The Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission as a whole does not participate in on-reservation work. We only work on public lands which are managed by public agencies.

The interaction between the agencies, Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission, and the Tribes has matured over time. It’s not perfect but there has been improvement. Changes in administration (especially at the state level state) have big effects on relations between tribes and agencies.

Do you have hope for the future? What kind of changes would you want to see?

I have hope. The tribes are exercising their treaty rights. That makes me optimistic. If I could do anything, it would be to make everyone stop putting carbon dioxide in the air and stop burning fossil fuels. Tribes are out there saying “changes need to be made because our beings are suffering and our culture will suffer as a result.” People need to listen and do something.

The views and opinions expressed in this interview are those of the authors and do not represent official policy or position of the University of Wisconsin-Madison or the Wisconsin Initiative on Climate Change Impacts.

For More Information

Jonathan Gilbert Ph.D.
Director, Biological Services Division
Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission
office: (715)-685-2121