People, Environment, Our History, Food
Getting to know Manomin on the Winnipeg River
Curated by Vanessa Cunningham
Storyteller: Dr. Brittany Luby
November 18, 2021
A rich palette of greens and blues fills Brittany’s eyes as she dips her paddle into the tranquil waters of a manomin field. She’s beyond the northern outlet of Lake of the Woods, an impressive body of freshwater that spans over 60 miles wide and 90 miles long in Treaty 3 Territory. As she looks out, she takes in the immensity of the granite rock outcrops, the lushness of the mature conifer forests, and the strong pulse of life. Surrounding her are manomin plants. Manomin, which is commonly known as “wild rice” in English, is a complex carbohydrate and culturally significant food for Niisaachewan Anishinaabe Nation, where Brittany’s paternal ancestors are from.
Manomin harvest at Niisaachewan Anishinaabe Nation. Produced by Upriver Media Inc., 2020
The plant is an integral part of the unique wetland ecosystem here that has sustained Anishinaabe people for millennia. The Nation has always cared for manomin to ensure it remains healthy and available for future generations. Elders recall manomin yields of half a million pounds from these fields, however, current yields are far from what they used to be, with only a few thousand pounds reported in 2018. This exponential decline is devastating for Niisaachewan Anishinaabe Nation. Not only is it a loss of a prominent food source, but also a threat to culturally significant Human-Plant relations.
Observations of manomin decline coincide with the building of Whitedog Falls Generating Station, a dam built in 1958 and located downstream of Lake of the Woods. Upstream, at the northern outlet of the lake, are the Norman and Kenora generating stations. Together, they control water levels on Lake of the Woods, and are part of a larger hydroelectric system that relies on controlling water to produce electricity and to improve navigation on the lake. Not only do cities such as Kenora rely on the dams to produce their electricity, but cottagers on the lake also benefit from water levels suited to recreational boating and other watersports. However, because manomin prefers to grow in depths of one to three feet, with exposure to a gentle flow, it is suspected that the changes in water levels and flow produced by the dams are negatively impacting manomin.
Stories from Niisaachewan. A short documentary film that features Niissaachewan Anishinaabe Nation community members and their stories about environmental changes from hydroelectric development on the Winnipeg River. Produced by Upriver Media Inc., 2021
To investigate the potential causes of manomin decline and develop a plan to restore manomin yields, Brittany and an intergenerational, transdisciplinary team from the University of Guelph and Niisaachewan Anishinaabe Nation started The Manomin Project. The project began in 2018 and involves ample time in and around the wetlands during the manomin growing season from May to late August and into harvesting season in early September. During their days in the field, Brittany and the team she works with travel along the water to check the crops. “You’ll enter manomin fields through the channel of the river where the current is strongest and then, on either side of you, where that current is lighter, you’ll get these thick stands of manomin,” says Brittany. The wetlands in which Manomin grows are brimming with biodiversity. Everything from insects, bats, jackfish, eagles, muskrat, beaver, and more call this place their home.
This is Brittany’s favourite place in the world. When she is here she feels a deep sense of calm and a strong connection to her ancestors. “I know that those are fields that have been cared for by my ancestors and that the crop growing there was lovingly planted for me. Seed was sown there to ensure that I had food and that I could survive. So I feel really connected to people that I never met but who loved me into being when I’m in the field.” she explains.
The days, months, and years spent in the field have not only brought Brittany closer to her ancestors, but they have also cultivated an intimate bond between her and manomin. She is becoming more confident speaking to the colour transformations it undergoes, the various postures it takes on, how the male and female flowers present themselves, and of course when it is ready for harvest. Manomin is an annual plant, and each year it starts its life cycle below the water in the soft, silty bottom of the wetland, jokingly described as “loon poop bottom” by her Elders. Eventually, it breaches the water and becomes visible to the human eye. Once here, manomin lays down across the surface for awhile – what Brittany refers to as “floating leaf stage” – but gradually it perks up, displaying hues of greens and whites and yellows. Later in the season, manomin changes to brown and grows in size, causing the seed heads to tilt forward slightly, a sign that soon it will be ready for harvest. At the very end of the season, manomin turns into its darkest shade of brown and is ready for harvest. Brittany also shares an Anishinaabe origin story that helps to visualize manomin:
“Nanabush, Nanabohzo, who is a trickster figure in Anishinaabe Aki, was hungry and so he had to seek out food. He heads out, and he’s walking and walking for hours and he becomes tired. Then he’s walking for days, and now he’s exhausted and he’s starving. As he approaches this body of water, he thinks that he sees people dancing, so he walks into the water and he dances with them. In the morning, he finds that the dancers have disappeared and that he is left with nourishing seeds. That story helps us to identify the plant because we can see the dancers’ regalia in the male set of flowers, and it also reminds us that we need to dance on the manomin to break the seed from the husk.”
Dr. Luby calls attention to the fringe on the regalia of male traditional dancers (0:14 – 0:30 minutes) in this video. It resembles the fringe of male flowers on manomin. Produced by Sudbury.com, 2016
The cycle of manomin does not stop there. “Manomin comes in a husk so you need to roast it slightly and then you’re going to put it in a hole that you’ve covered in canvas and then you’re going to dance on it and that breaks the husk from the kernel and then you winnow it. That is the labour of love that will get you a delicious meal,” describes Brittany.
Wild rice harvest near Kenora. Part of the Canada Vignettes series from the National Film Board. Directed by Alanis Obomsawin, 1979
And after harvesting, it is important to re-seed the field by returning a portion of the harvest to the wetlands. “Within Anishinaabe Aki, a lot of the care regime is about encouraging healthy relationships between species,” says Brittany. This includes acts of reciprocity, such as re-seeding, and engaging with manomin as if it has its own agency.
Being in the field is joyous for many reasons, but there are challenges. Some of the challenges that Brittany experienced in the most recent field season were caused by a variety of compounding factors. Firstly, rainfall was low, which meant water levels in the lake were low. In response, dam operators held back water on the lake from draining into the Winnipeg River, causing river water levels to be low. Remembering that manomin likes certain depths and currents, this matters. Secondly, there was a rice worm infestation. These worms make their way into the seed head and use up the milk in the seed sac, leaving it empty. Despite these events, the manomin crop still held promise. However, near the end of the season a huge storm with forceful winds blew through the area. Because the stalks rose high above the low water levels and seed heads unaffected by worms were heavy, the manomin crop swayed in the wind. The storm knocked mature seeds into the river. The crop was decimated, making it the worst yield since the project started.
“Over the season you develop such a bond with the plants and other creatures who are active in these spaces that you find yourself in. You watch this plant go from floating leaf stage and then you see it stand up and you see it reaching toward the sun and it’s just so beautiful to be part of its growing cycle, to be a witness to it. And then, I went out after the storm and to see the crop wiped out, I sat in the boat and I cried,” shares Brittany.
The low yield of this season connects back to the potential root of the problem causing manomin declines and the motivation for The Manomin Project: the hydroelectric system. It’s hard because the hydroelectric operators are responsible for meeting the needs of the river system, while at the same time attending to the interests of industry and cottagers. But Brittany and her project partners are optimistic that they can make a difference. Part of their work also aims to raise awareness among cottage communities that there are different water users with diverse needs, such as Niisaachewan Anishinaabe Nation and their relationship with manomin. Furthermore, they want to shift the way people think about and understand water flow. Brittany explains: “Your cottaging community may be very small but the water’s going to move; so even if you’re staying on the lake, the water you use is moving toward the river. How can we extend our lens to make sure we understand how our actions might be rippling throughout the system?”
Even though there are challenges, the project remains deeply meaningful to Brittany. “The project is a joy, it is connection, and it is an inspiration to continue learning,” she says. After spending a few summers learning about manomin from her Elders and uncovering a deep love for plants, she is now pursuing a horticulture diploma through OpenEd at the University of Guelph to learn Western botanical teachings. It’s an exciting step towards being able to communicate her knowledge about manomin from both Indigenous and Western perspectives. As a researcher with ancestral connections to Niisaachewan Anishinaabe Nation, Brittany sees it as a Treaty responsibility to teach others about manomin and contribute to the restoration of this place she holds in her heart. She couldn’t be more enthused and honoured to be a part of it all.
Storyteller: Dr. Brittany Luby is a researcher at the University of Guelph who works with an intergenerational, multidisciplinary team on The Manomin Project. Together, they are investigating the potential causes of manomin decline along the Winnipeg River and developing a culturally appropriate plan to restore manomin fields and increase yields with Niisaachewan Anishinaabe Nation.
To learn more about Brittany’s work on water resource management in the Lake of the Woods area, read her award winning book, Dammed: The Politics of Loss and Survival in Anishinaabe Territory
You can also follow The Manomin Project on social media: