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Ricekeepers

AS FALL TEMPERATURES CHANGE on the White Earth Reservation and the mist lifts off the lakes, the Ojibwe take to the waters. Two people to a canoe, one poles through the thick rice beds, pushing the canoe forward, while the other, sitting toward the front of the boat, uses two long sticks to gently bend the rice and knock the seeds into the canoe. The sounds of manoominike, the wild rice harvest, are the gliding of the boat through the water and across shafts of rice, the soft swish of the rice bending, the raining of the rice into the canoe. They are soothing sounds, reminding my people of the continuity between the generations. We have been harvesting rice here for centuries.

Each year, my family and I join hundreds of other harvesters who return daily with hundreds of pounds of rice from the region's lakes and rivers. We call it the Wild Rice Moon, Manoominike Giizis. On White Earth, Leech Lake, Nett Lake, and other Ojibwe reservations in the Great Lakes region, it is a time when people harvest a food to feed their bellies and to sell for zhooniyaash, or cash, to meet basic expenses. But it is also a time to feed the soul.

FIFTEEN HUNDRED MILES AWAY, in Woodland, California, a company called Nor-Cal has received a patent on wild rice. Conceptually, it seems almost impossible-patenting something called wild rice. The Ojibwe now find themselves at the center of an international battle over who owns lifeforms, foods, and medicines that have throughout history been the collective property of indigenous peoples.

An estimated 90 percent of the world's biodiversity lies within the territories of indigenous peoples, whether the Amazon, the Indian subcontinent, or the North Woods. A new form of colonialism, known as biocolonialism, is reaching deep into the heart of these communities. As Stephanie Howard wrote for the Indigenous People's Council on Biocolonialism, "The flow of genes is primarily from indigenous communities and rural communities in 'developing countries' to the Northern-based genetics industry. Ninety-seven percent of all patents are held by industrialized countries."

For more of this article, please visit:  http://www.orionmagazine.org/index.php/articles/article/305