Rice Rights? Hey, It’s Really A Thing

Sometimes trying a different approach is important

Doug Harris


Wide rice… in the wild. (Hardly: It’s mostly cultivated these days.) (Source unknown)

The concept of ‘rights’ took an odd but necessary turn a while back. Native Americans — our own Indigenous people, the rightful owners of all of ‘the home of the free and the land of the brave’ — took a bold step in 2018 in the form of Minnesota’s White Earth Band of Ojibwe when their tribal council enacted a law to protect the right of manoomin — wild rice — to ​“exist, flourish, regenerate and evolve”.

This is, In These Times reported this month, “Part of a growing movement led by Indigenous people to give legal rights to nature and to change its status as property; The tribe argues that the diversion of 5 billion gallons of groundwater for the construction of Enbridge’s Line 3 oil pipeline would violate “manoomin’s rights”.

“This is,” tribal attorney Frank Bibeau declared, “a daring move. We’re doing something that hasn’t [ever] been done.”

Even Bibeau doubts the potential for success of their action against The State of Minnesota — to void a water permit for taking of 5 billon gallons that, somehow, are believed by the pipe line people to be necessary for the completion of their project. And a lot of others hope he’s right:

In These Times notes that, “Critics have argued that recognizing rights of nature would make businesses and governments vulnerable to lawsuits over almost any action with an impact on the environment.” And that, of course, is a road no right- (or left-) thinking American — the non-Indigenous ones — wants to go down. Or so the argument goes.

Tribal Rights Should Rule

But tribal leaders say the oil company’s water permit violates their treaty rights, which promise tribal members can gather wild rice. In recent years, tribes have increasingly used their treaty-guaranteed rights to hunt, fish and gather as a legal tool to protect the ecosystems on which those customs rely.

“Wild rice is the center of our culture,” Bibeau said. ​“Wild rice is what brought us to the Great Lakes. We cannot allow the state of Minnesota to continue to undercut and sell us out.”

According to Bibeau, the state is seeking to dismiss the case for lack of…



Doug Harris

50+ years a writer, 80+ unique bylines. Two blogs have reached 60+ countries.