Wild rice harvest limited to Fond du Lac Band

The centuries-old practice of harvesting wild rice at the end of summer is open only to Fond du Lac band members this year on the reservation's five ricing lakes.

Wild rice harvest
Warren Barney (left) knocks wild rice into the canoe while Wesley Shabaiash uses a long pole to get through the dense wild rice stands Friday on Perch Lake on the Fond du Lac Reservation. (Bob King /

The centuries-old practice of harvesting wild rice at the end of summer is open only to Fond du Lac band members this year on the reservation's five ricing lakes.

The season opened Friday, and the decision was made Wednesday, said Reginald DeFoe, resource management director for the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa.

"There are concerns about protecting the rice and making the season last longer," DeFoe said.

Because of last year's flood, there was no crop last fall. And this year's crop is roughly half -- about 400 acres -- of what a good season would be for the five lakes, DeFoe said. The new rule will be reviewed yearly going forward, based on the abundance of rice.

It didn't sit well with some husband-and-wife teams that include a spouse who isn't an enrolled band member, some of whom have riced for decades on the reservation.


Debra Topping is a Fond du Lac member, but her husband is a member of the Red Cliff Band of Lake Superior Chippewa. They rice for their own meals and to give to their children and grandchildren.

When Topping went to pick up a license for her husband Thursday, she was told he wasn't able to go on any of the reservation ricing lakes, but could rice on ceded territory off-reservation.

"For 30 years, that's what we do," she said, of ricing on Fond du Lac Reservation land. "That's our food. That's what led the Anishinaabe here. I collect whatever I am able to get in a year; whatever the Creator gives. Last year there wasn't (any) so this year we're scraping the bottom."

She was told she could pair up with another member to collect rice, but to her, that meant splitting her harvest in half. She preferred going with her husband, she said, who has always been her partner.

Fond du Lac member and author Jim Northrup and his wife, Pat, who is

Mdewakanton and not enrolled with Fond du Lac, also have riced together for decades on the reservation. The couple, known for their birch-bark baskets and maple syrup, sees ricing as a spiritual ceremony and a way of life. Jim Northrup compared the Perch Lake crop to a "lush jungle." His family has riced it for 100 years, he said, and did not wish to leave the reservation to rice other lakes.

"In my observation, it's the best it's been in 20 years," he said. "We can do without the micromanaging by people who don't know what a good crop looks like."

Perch Lake was open only to enrolled elders on the first day. Despite the new rule, Pat Northrup, an elder, wasn't stopped from ricing, Jim Northrup said.


There are also fewer days for subsistence ricing this year. Those days are for ricers who don't plan to sell the rice, which the band buys at $4 a pound. Some members are ready to sell on day one, DeFoe said, and some want four days of subsistence ricing, so two days was a compromise, he said.

Jim Northrup said when the band increased the price from $2 a pound a few years ago, inexperienced ricers took to the lakes using tools like pool cues to harvest.

"They get a lot of rice, but they ruined it, beating on it," he said.

The band buys several tons from ricers to donate to funerals, ceremonies, festivals, colleges and pow wows. The most it has purchased is 16 tons. DeFoe said he expects five to 10 tons this season, which will begin to replenish the reservation's down reserves.

A typical season lasts roughly five days. The five lakes get between 100 and 150 boats, with two people per boat harvesting. About 30 boats were out Friday, DeFoe said. One lake has no rice this year and so had no harvesters.

Band Chairwoman Karen Diver said there was lengthy discussion about the policy between the governing body of the band, which is the Reservation Business Committee, and the resource management staff.

"It was a difficult decision," she said. "The primary motivation is about conservation of the wild rice."

Related Topics: AGRICULTURE
What To Read Next
The system crashed earlier this month, grounding flights across the U.S.