Cultivating tradition: Bay Mills Indian Community says wild rice seeding project goes beyond food

Members of the Bay Mills Indian Community harvest manoomin from the beds during summer 2022.
Members of the Bay Mills Indian Community harvest manoomin from the beds during summer 2022.(Bay Mills Indian Community)
Published: Nov. 30, 2022 at 2:27 PM EST
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BAY MILLS, Mich. (WLUC) - The Bay Mills Indian Community is in the second year of its annual rice seeding project. It’s an undertaking that hopes to not only provide a sustainable food source, but to re-establish something once scrubbed from the land.

“Wild rice was basically lost from the region,” said Frank Zomer, Bay Mills Indian Community lead inland fisheries biologist. “It was historically abundant in the Eastern Upper Peninsula and the St. Mary’s River especially. But due to several factors, mostly human influence, it’s pretty much lost from the landscape.”

Harvested in August to September and planted soon after in the fall, these rice — or manoomin — beds are critical to more than just the human population.

“Ducks love it, muskrats love it, fish love it. It’s really important for young of year fish. It provides this structure to have a place to hide,” Zomer said. “It provides this edge habitat for pike who like to hang out and sort of ambush things. Muskrats use it for their houses, geese and ducks like to eat the seeds. Ecologically it’s very important as well.”

Beyond re-introducing a native grain, the project sets out to recover tradition and knowledge.

“This plant being gone from the landscape, it’s not just the loss of a plant. It’s a loss of knowledge of that plant or the being to that community, it’s a loss of culture surrounding that plant, it’s the loss of tradition within the community.”

Few tribal communities still cultivate manoomin, a practice that was once handed from one generation to the next. Bay Mills Tribal Historic Preservation Officer Paula Carrick said it’s an important lesson to reintroduce.

“We lost a lot of history because of things that have happened to us,” said Carrick. “This is one of the things we are bringing back. That was our way of life. It was lost to us, so it’s very important that it’s passed down to our children’s children, that they know what our ancestors went through to survive in this land.”

Carrick said she’s beyond words, seeing this work rekindled.

“To have things we’ve heard about in our lifetime, to actually come back here and see it grow up... have our schools stomp on it, to do the process and that. It’s just so wonderful to see what the creator gave to us come back. I can’t even express. It’s just overwhelming.”

As Zomer said, it’s a project that goes beyond work by uniting a community around tradition.

“A lot of community members come out. Basically anyone that can throw a little seed in the water and ride along in a canoe is welcome to come out.”

While the seeding process has become a community event, Zomer said the long-term goal is to have a harvestable amount of manoomin so the beds can sustain themselves in the future.