James Whetung Standing in the rice patch outside his house, March 2 2011
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Partially processed rice (foreground) with standing rice in lake.
The view from James’ house at Curve Lake Sep. 2010
The view from James’ house at Curve Lake Sep. 2010
A short drive north west of Trent is where I spent a couple of hours with my friend James in Curve Lake. The March sun streaming in the window of his warm kitchen and hot coffee was a recipe for a good conversation about wild rice, a plant that is an important part of his life.
In Anishabek culture, the stories go a way back. There’s a few migrations across the land and one of the stories… the prophesy is that people would have to move, and that they would find food growing in the water. [James mentions a book authored by Eddie Benton Benai titled M’shomis]
Wild rice is in our living social memory. And so there’s a big question here. And that’s the water. Who owns water? Where do water rights begin and end? These are questions that have been forced upon us by government since colonial days.
And through restrictions…colonization process, they seem to have acquired the rights to Anishnabah food. So now, present day, we don’t know if we’re going to go to jail for collecting food. The fish the deer the turkeys…We’re talking about food. Haha… M’nomin [wild rice] is just a piece of it.
Ben: Tell me about your work with wild rice.
My first experience with wild rice was with my uncle who brought wild rice to the mission house in curve lake. I was probably 3 or 4... I don’t remember it clearly… the wild rice was spread on the floor of the mission house. There were 3 or 4 families who lived in the big house. There was a courtyard in the middle with a wood floor. That’s where the wild rice was spread, on that wood floor. The kids were running and sliding on the rice removing the chaff. That’s my first memory.
Later when I was in teenage years … I used to see wild rice around the lake, not much, but… my uncles used to get me take them fishing and hunting. We used to go to those places, by paddling there I learned where the rice was.
I wasn’t aware that wild rice was in decline… I was born in 52. By the time I was a teenager there wasn’t much wild rice left. 20 years ago there was very little rice around Curve Lake. There was practically none in Rice Lake. The only way you could find it was in bays with stumps and logs that were barriers to boat traffic.
So from the 50’s till… recently, Trent canals applied herbicide in the water. It’s sad to think of what they’ve done. They have a permit system to apply herbicides in the Trent Severn waterway. As far as I know, to this day.
So at this meeting, yesterday where people came to tell their stories to the native liaison officers from parks Canada (March 2, 2011)
I asked the native liaison Sheryl ’what is your policy going to be this year, for wild rice?’… Her response was ‘they are not going to interfere with anybody gathering rice this fall’. I asked them to send a letter stating that.
[At the Parks Canada meeting] There was cultural, health, environmental issues raised by all the people there. Stories about how amazing the rice used to be long ago and how pathetic the rice is today in retrospect. People want to see the rice coming back, growing plentiful, and being part of the daily diet.
Wild rice is one of the most superior foods of the world. When you take care of it, and know how to process it... The natural, ecological value, let alone food value that it has. And to the history of the area… when they’re wiping out the wild rice they’re wiping out the history. How can we have an identity? But not just identity… Food security!
Rice Lake was the rice bowl of North America. And that lake alone could feed Toronto. 17 miles of wild rice a mile wide! What more could you ask for? You want food security. You just put your canoe in the lake and away you go. [There is no rice currently growing in Rice Lake.]
Ben: Why is there rice growing in front of your house?
James: because we planted it there.
You can see from the picture… that was last year.
28 years ago there was none. I got seeds from Ardoch, that’s when I put in the first seeds. Up by Sharbot lake. … when they had the wild rice war. That’s how I learned how to paddle, hold the sticks, how to get the rice into the boat.
So I took some of them seeds 28 years ago and planted them here. They didn’t do well… that went on for years, the boats would cut them up in submerged or floating leaf stage. Then I got an air boat and started harvesting commercially so I could eat and plant more.
Why? Am I here? Well first off … when I was a kid, one of my first memories is wild rice. It’s not a big piece of my memory, but it is one of the first. For whatever reason… And it lay dormant for many years. 28 years ago when we went to ardoch with their wild rice war. To back them up. To see how much those people in my Anishanabek community, sacrifice for their food, impressed me. Standing up against 20 cop cruisers an 10 – 15 MNR vehicles and a chopper, all in favor of a commercial wild rice harvester to go in and harvest their food.
So me and my dad and a bunch of people from curve lake went up there to help them…
So that’s why.
I knew it was important to our culture… I was interested and willing to start voicing and acting, by gathering [harvesting and selling rice], speaking up for it, and it was a major part of our culture sliding downstream and we couldn’t affect it.
So we’ve been attempting to work, for 25 years, with parks Canada to protect this exquisite plant.
James Whetung is a community resource and wild rice advocate. Black Duck wild rice can be found around Peterborough. James lives in Curve Lake where he was born