The Importance of Mahnomen in Minnesota

“We have no objections to the white man’s working the mines and timber and making farms. But we reserve the Birch bark and Cedar for canoes, the rice and sugar trees and privilege of hunting without disturbance.”*

The above quote was a complaint from Ojibway chief through the Indian agent from La Pointe to the governor over the region that included parts of present-day Minnesota in 1842. This complaint followed the treaty of 1837 and was an example of the misunderstanding the Ojibway leaders had regarding these treaties. They had little understanding of sovereign control of property rights and its effect on their livelihood. It showed they never intended to cede their continued residence in the region and the fundamental foundation of their survival in the wilderness. The complaint clearly establishes their need for canoes to travel to the different areas for their subsistence. One of the central parts of their survival was listed as “the rice”.

Ojibway know it as Mahnomen but we simply know it as wild rice. This special variety of seed grows in the cool shallow lakes and streams in the region in and around Lake Superior through northern Minnesota and adjacent areas in Canada. When slightly roasted after harvest it can be stored for long periods of time providing subsistence through the brutal winters. It was the grain upon which survival was made possible for all those who populated the region during the fur-trading era.

Mahnomen plays a central role in Ojibway tribal life where it is viewed as more than just food. It is endowed with significant spiritual attributes and its discovery plays a critical role in their legends. The rice harvest camps are a significant community event each summer to promote cultural identity. For that reason wild rice is a valuable part of our state’s heritage. So much so that state law actually protects its genetic structure from the introduction of genetically modified strains of this important plant.

That is why the recent Ramsey County District Court decision by Judge Margaret Marrinan should be applauded. With the rush to develop mining for copper and other metals in northern Minnesota, there has been a concerted effort by mining and business interests to reduce our environmental standards. One of those standards is the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (PCA) rule to protect wild rice from excessive exposure to sulfate discharges a common pollutant from this mining process.

The Minnesota Chamber of Commerce, claiming that the mining companies were being held to a different standard because the PCA actually chose to enforce this long-standing rule, challenged the standard. The Chamber’s complaint was that the rule has not been uniformly enforced. Judge Marrinan in dismissing the Chamber’s lawsuit stating “The Wild Rice Rule does not violate due process. It is not unconstitutionally vague, nor is the application of the rule arbitrary and capricious.”

The mining interests have also gone to the legislature seeking a change in this wild rice standard. Last session the legislature funded a new study to review the standard. Conservation Minnesota worked with other groups to ensure that the legislature did not try to rewrite the standard without good scientific review. There were attempts to weaken the standard without good science for the mining companies that would have potentially had devastating impacts on wild rice in the region.

Conservation Minnesota will continue to work to protect the water quality in Minnesota and we are pleased with the district court siding with the citizens of Minnesota who do not want polluted water particularly in our iconic boundary waters region. It is our hope that the Minnesota Chamber and the mining interests will stop the needless expense of litigation and legislative lobbying to reduce pollution standards. We would like them to just live by their words that they are going to run the cleanest mines in history following all of our state water standards.

*Benjamin G. Armstrong “Early Life Among the Indians” Ashland Wisconsin, A. W. Bowron 1892. P. 12

About John Tuma

John is a former state legislator and litigation attorney. He served in the Minnesota House of Representatives for eight years from the Northfield area, beginning in 1994. Elected as a Republican, John was known for his independent thinking and ability to work across party lines. He is well-known in Minnesota state government circles.
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