Fond du Lac Band restores wild rice to keep harvest tradition alive
Friday, October 06 2017
Written by Dan Kraker/MPR News,
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Jerrad Ojibway and Ed Jaakola bag about 80 pounds of wild rice they harvested. (Photos by Dan Kraker/MPR News.)

On the shore of Deadfish Lake on the reservation of the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa in September, Ed Jaakola and Jerrad Ojibway scooped handfuls of wild rice from the bottom of their canoe into big plastic bags.

The rice was tough to harvest because of the wind, Jaakola said. Still, he estimated they had gathered 80 pounds, enough to cover the bottom of their canoe. It’s a tradition the 58-year-old has carried on for as long as he can remember.

“Probably 45 years for me,” he said.

Deadfish Lake, Zhaaganaashiins Odabiwining in the Ojibwe language, is blanketed so thick with wild rice this time of year it doesn’t even look like a lake.

“Because you essentially don’t see water when you’re looking at this,” said Thomas Howes, natural resources manager for the Fond du Lac Band, “you see what essentially looks like a field of grasses.”

The 100-acre lake is one of five primary wild rice lakes the band maintains. Together, they provide nearly 900 acres of wild rice habitat.

Deadfish Lake is especially important. “We keep it reserved for elder ricers for the first couple weeks of the year,” Howes explained, “because of its ease of access, but also because now it’s a reliable producer of wild rice.”

But that wasn’t the case more than 20 years ago. Back then, there wasn’t much wild rice left on the reservation to harvest. In the early 1900s the government built a network of ditches to try to drain the land for farming.

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