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Ojibwe Nations Struggle to Protect Wild Rice from Oil Extraction Activities in the US and Canada


The Ojibwe are one of the largest American Indian groups in North America. There are nearly 150 different bands of Ojibwe Indians living throughout their original home land in the northern United States (especially Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan) and southern Canada (especially Ontario, Manitoba and Saskatchewan) [1].

The wild rice, called manoomin in the Ojibwe language, is native to the lakes and rivers of the Great Lakes region and Canada. Once as plentiful as grass itself, wild rice—which grows on long, delicate stalks—was easily found along rivers, sloughs, and lakes throughout the North Woods. Manoomin was such a staple of many Native American nations’ diets, it had an honored place in cultural and religious ceremonies as well as some groups’ origin stories [1]. 

“If you look at Wisconsin’s state history, there used to be rice beds in the southern part of the state. They don’t exist anymore. Now you only find it in the northern part", a tribal member stated. "That is an alarming thing.” He continued, “It would be very hard for our community to fathom life without wild rice. Beyond being a food source, it allows us to reconnect with our environment. Our whole way of life is associated with wild rice.” [1]

Harvesting manoomin is a cultural tradition that goes back centuries and is still practiced today, much in the same way it was done before Europeans set foot in North America. In Minnesota, each summer members of the White Earth Nation navigate their canoes through the shallows of Upper and Lower Rice Lake to collect the rice, which has protein, is low in fat, and has a higher nutritional value than other grains. Harvesters pull the rice stalks over their canoes and scrape the thin, wispy stalks with traditionally designed “knockers.” The grains fall to the bottom of the boats and then are gathered by hand. Once a canoe is full, the harvesters pull up to the shore to bag the raw rice and sell it to the White Earth Band, which distributes the rice to tribal members for consumption and ceremonial uses [1].

That deep cultural connection to wild rice is under threat by, among other things, fossil fuel development. In Minnesota, the White Earth Band of Ojibwe is fighting a proposal by Canadian energy infrastructure firm Enbridge to replace its Line 3 pipeline, which carries crude oil from Canada to the United States. Tribal members worry that any pipeline leak or rupture could pollute the rice beds. “With the pipeline possibly moving in, we worry,” Goodwin said. “If it gets anywhere near our water, it could contaminate our plants. We want to make sure it remains natural. We want to keep chemicals away from it.” [1]

In their effort to halt pipeline construction, Ojibwe members have spoken against the proposal at official hearings, staged protests and marches, and engaged in civil disobedience actions. In December 2018, the White Earth Band passed a tribal law that establishes legal personhood for wild rice—including the right to “flourish, regenerate, and evolve”  [1].

Meanwhile, in Wisconsin, the Bad River Band of the Lake Superior Tribe of Chippewa Indians is trying to stop another Enbridge project, the Line 5 pipeline, which would move oil from Canada through Wisconsin and into Michigan. A spill in the region could be devastating for rice-growing areas, said Jennings, who also serves as a spokesperson for the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission. The area is famous for its wild rice harvest, and  a spill in the area would devastate the ecosystems. The Bad River in northern Wisconsin has a unique watershed and estuary. It’s also one of the only areas that has wild rice growing right on Lake Superior [1]. 

From the tribe’s perspective, industrialization and encroachment are huge threats to our water and air quality standards and how it correlates to the survival of wild rice.” Tribal nations in the Great Lakes region have also fought against several proposed mines that, they say, could compromise water quality and put manoomin at risk [1]. 

In 2015, the Bad River Band won a major battle when mining company Gogebic Taconite scrapped its plans to build a $1.5 billion iron-ore mine in Wisconsin’s Northwoods. The decision followed an independent environmental assessment conducted by local scientists from nearby Northland College, who worked with the Ojibwe to map out all the potential hazards to the environment and wild rice beds. In the course of the struggle, the Ojibwe often referred to their 1855 treaty with the United States, which guaranteed tribal members the right to hunt, fish, and gather on the proposed mine site [1]. 

Currently, the Menominee Indian Tribe of Wisconsin is fighting against the Back Forty Mine, a proposed open pit metallic sulfide mine located on the banks of the Menominee River in Lake Township, Michigan. Once again, the possible pollution of waterways that are home to wild rice is among the top concerns [1].

Across the border in Canada, another battle over wild rice has been brewing for more than 40 years, as First Nations there struggle with Canadians over how, or whether, to seed lakes and ponds with manoomin. In the early 1900s, the completion of dams and flooding of the water systems to create the Trent-Severn Waterway almost eradicated the wild rice in the area, and  the Ojibwe hoped to return wild rice along the Kawartha Lakes region east of Toronto. Ojibwe have learned the traditional practices of gathering, winnowing, curing, and roasting wild rice, and he were committed to making sure manoomin survived [1] . 

The state's longtime position has been that it's illegal to harvest wild rice without a license on off-reservation land. The tribe members hope the charges against the governments will open a court battle that could clarify treaty rights, and reaffirm hunting and gathering rights they believe were guaranteed by a treaty signed more than 150 years ago [7].

Basic Data

Name of conflict:Ojibwe Nations Struggle to Protect Wild Rice from Oil Extraction Activities in the US and Canada
Country:United States of America
State or province:Great Lakes Region
Location of conflict:US: Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan; Canada: Ontario, Manitoba and Saskatchewan
Accuracy of locationMEDIUM (Regional level)

Source of Conflict

Type of conflict. 1st level:Biomass and Land Conflicts (Forests, Agriculture, Fisheries and Livestock Management)
Type of conflict. 2nd level:Oil and gas exploration and extraction
Dams and water distribution conflicts
Specific commodities:Crude oil
Natural Gas

Project Details and Actors

Project details

There are several oil, pipeline and mega waterway project constructions involved in this regional conflict about wild rice cultivation tradition of the Ojibwe Tribal in both the US and Canada:

1. Enbridge project, the Line 5 pipeline, which would move oil from Canada through Wisconsin and into Michigan. Line 5 is a 30-inch-diameter light crude oil, light synthetic crude oil, and natural gas liquids (NGL) pipeline, originating at Enbridge’s Superior Terminal in Superior, WI, and terminating at Sarnia, ON. 645 miles (1,038 km) and 540,000 barrels per day [2].

2. The Gogebic Taconite's plan to build a $1.5 billion iron-ore mine in Wisconsin’s Northwoods. Project CANCELED due to: "The proposed mine sits directly above the Kakagon Slough on the land of the Bad River Tribe, which has been named a “Wetland of International Importance” in keeping with the Ramsar Convention. It is the largest remaining wild rice bed on Lake Superior, and could be severely damaged by sulfate pollution and other pollution from the mine" [3].

3. Back Forty Mine, a proposed The Back Forty Mine is a proposed open-pit zinc and gold mine located in Menominee County in the South Central part of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. The mine is estimated to produce 512 million pounds of zinc and 468 thousand ounces of gold. Also, the mine is predicted to yield 51 million pounds of copper, 4.5 million ounces of silver, and 24 million pounds of lead during operations [5].

4. The Trent–Severn Waterway built by the government of Canada in early 20 century is today a 386 kilometres (240 mi)-long canal route connecting Lake Ontario at Trenton to the Georgian Bay, Lake Huron at Port Severn. Its major waterways include the Trent River, Otonabee River, the Kawartha Lakes, Lake Simcoe, Lake Couchiching and the Severn River [6].

Level of Investment for the conflictive project4,000,000,000
Type of populationSemi-urban
Start of the conflict:01/01/2013
Company names or state enterprises:Enbridge Inc from Canada
Gogebic Taconite LLC (GTac) from United States of America
Back Forty Mine from United States of America
Parks Canada from Canada
Relevant government actors:Government of Canada, the US government
Environmental justice organizations (and other supporters) and their websites, if available:-Chppeva Ojibwe Tribal Wild Rice Task Force
-Clean Wisconsin - concerned about the potential mine. It encourages a thorough environmental analysis before further development in the permitting process. This mine could have harmful effects on the wildlife, forests, soils and waterways in the area

Conflict & Mobilization

IntensityMEDIUM (street protests, visible mobilization)
Groups mobilizing:Indigenous groups or traditional communities
Local ejos
Forms of mobilization:Community-based participative research (popular epidemiology studies, etc..)
Creation of alternative reports/knowledge
Lawsuits, court cases, judicial activism
Media based activism/alternative media
Objections to the EIA
Official complaint letters and petitions


Environmental ImpactsVisible: Air pollution, Biodiversity loss (wildlife, agro-diversity), Floods (river, coastal, mudflow), Food insecurity (crop damage), Loss of landscape/aesthetic degradation, Noise pollution, Surface water pollution / Decreasing water (physico-chemical, biological) quality, Large-scale disturbance of hydro and geological systems, Reduced ecological / hydrological connectivity
Potential: Soil contamination, Soil erosion, Oil spills, Groundwater pollution or depletion, Mine tailing spills
Health ImpactsPotential: Exposure to unknown or uncertain complex risks (radiation, etc…), Malnutrition, Violence related health impacts (homicides, rape, etc..)
Socio-economical ImpactsVisible: Loss of traditional knowledge/practices/cultures, Land dispossession, Loss of landscape/sense of place
Potential: Displacement, Loss of livelihood


Project StatusUnder construction
Conflict outcome / response:Land demarcation
New Environmental Impact Assessment/Study
Withdrawal of company/investment
Project temporarily suspended
Proposal and development of alternatives:One of the alternatives was to conduct an independent environmental impact of these large scale mega projects threatening wild rice cultivation in the area. However, no official alternative was offered by both the governments in the US and Canada. Ojibwe tribes continue to cultivate the wild rice in the region for centuries now as a resistance to the mega development projects: mining, pipelines, waterways - a very destructive environmental tendencies.
Do you consider this an environmental justice success? Was environmental justice served?:No
Briefly explain:Although one of the proposed project - the Gogebic Taconite's plan to build a $1.5 billion iron-ore mine was cancelled due to independent environmental study, the resistance to protect culture and nature through wild rice cultivation continues for the Ojibwe tribes, since the conflict goes back in early 19 century with the construction of the Trent–Severn Waterway by the Canadian government and persists until today.

Sources & Materials


[2] Enbridge Inc. Pipeline 5.,search=5


[3] Clean Wisconsin 2013: Gogebic Taconite Mine


[4] Chppeva Ojibwe Tribal Wild Rice Task Force Report 2018

[5] Back Forty Mine

[6] Wikipedia: Trent–Severn Waterway

[7] John Enger (2015): Explaining Minnesota's 1837, 1854 and 1855 Ojibwe treaties

Heide Brandes 2019: “Like Gold to Us”: Native American Nations Struggle to Protect Wild Rice

Meta information

Contributor:Ksenija Hanaček ICTA-UAB
Last update08/10/2019
Conflict ID:4757



White Earth Band member Leonard Thompson, seated, prepares to harvest wild rice at Hole-in-the-Day Lake in August 2015

Source: John Enger 2015.

Opposing the Line 3 Tar Sands Pipeline Minnesota US

Source: Rob Wilson and Ruth Breech 2017