James Whetung and his daughter, Daemin | Image source: Ryan Edwardson/Al Jazeera
Like most southern First Nations people, James Whetung grew up not being able to learn or practice traditional food gathering in his territory. When he learned about harvesting manoomin (wild rice) he realized that bringing back, caring for, and harvesting this Anishinabe ancestral plant held the power of alleviating some of our communities most serious problems – especially the current diabetes epidemic brought on by the impacts of colonialism. After learning how to gather and cure manoomin from Elders, Whetung took the lead in revitalizing manoomin in his traditional territory and has helped begin a movement inspiring other individuals and communities to do the same.
Unfortunately not everyone is happy that manoomin is being restored in the lakes. Drew Hayden Taylors’ (Anishinabe from Curve Lake) most recent play, Cottagers and Indians explores this brewing tension. Cottagers do not want the manoomin plant disrupting their summer pleasure boating and fear it will decrease their cottage property values. Despite the ongoing complaints from the cottagers, James Whetung continues his important work in revitalizing the practice of harvesting wild rice in order to reclaim healthy, local traditional foods for his communities while also bringing back a diverse ecosystem to these ‘dead’ lakes where Manoomin was once plentiful and benefited all lifeforms. James Whetung will be sharing his stories and knowledge at this years 4th Annual Gchi Dewin Indigenous Storytellers Festival but first he took the time to speak with MUSKRAT Magazine staff writer, Erica Commanda about his journey harvesting manoomin and what he thinks it will take for the revitalization of health and Indigenous practices in our communities.
MM: Can you tell me about your journey in revitalising the practice of harvesting manoomin – what kind of challenges have you faced?
JW: As I was growing up, the wild rice around the village was disappearing. There used to be lots. Same in Rice Lake, the rice was disappearing in all the lakes due to pollution, the cottage industry, and the boating industry. It was dwindling, the health of our people was dwindling, and the Elders were dying – the ones with knowledge about how to turn manoomin into food. I had no knowledge on how to process it until 35 years ago.
One day, the people in Ardoch, ON put out a call for help to stop a mechanical harvester from getting at their wild rice beds. One of the Elders there, Harold Perry said his grandmother brought the seeds to Rice Lake and planted them by Ardoch. She had been tending that wild rice bed for a long time and didn’t want mechanical harvesters coming in there, so they made a call to help block that machine. That blockade ended up being a success.
Everybody who went to Ardoch to help with the blockade was taught how to gather wild rice, how to bring it back to the shore, cure it, roast it, dance on it, and winow it in order to turn it into food. After that I was so inspired to feed my family manoomin. I was able to take some seeds and plant them in some old wild rice beds. From there, they started to grow, but I never thought that anyone would object. As the rice started to take over, the cottagers became aware of what I was doing and they just hated me doing that. It’s been a struggle for a very long time since.
MM: What hopes do you have for the future of harvesting manoomin?
JW: I’ll talk about Curve Lake first. There is a diabetes epidemic out here with Type 2 diabetes, due to mostly diet and lifestyle. Before the settlers came, we never had diabetes. We had good healthy food. Manoomin is low in carbs, its gluten free and high in protein. It’s a lot of work to get the plant and turn it into food. I’ve been trying to re-establish these seed beds close to the village so people don’t have to travel long distances to get manoomin. It’s going to be right here for the health of our community.
This isn’t just happening here – it’s happening all over. First Nations people have been coming to me to acquire the seeds and knowledge of how to rehabilitate their rice beds which were wiped out because of institutionalized programs.
MM: In a documentary you said that harvesting manoomin is a ceremony. Are there any traditional teachings associated with harvesting manoomin?
JW: Curve Lake and other First Nations in Southern Ontario are not good examples of viable manoomin culture. We have been so damaged. There are communities up north and out west that are so vibrant with their manoomin culture. When they gather, the whole community comes with big drums playing, lots of cauldrons for roasting, while dancing the wild rice with children and Elders to manoomin songs. It’s not like that here. We do what we can though, we offer tobacco before we go and gather. Before I even started this journey, my brother and I went out on the lake to do an inventory and there was barely any rice, so we smoked a pipe on Pigeon Lake, and ever since then its been doing great.
MM: On a personal level do you think that there is hope for the future to limit the effects of climate change on Mother Earth?
JW: There is always hope, but hope don’t turn a candle into a light bulb. It takes work and action and more than just hoping. That’s what it’s going to take action – not talk. The time for talk is done, our people are dying. There’s one person a month dying from diabetes for the last – I don’t know how many years- with more are getting sick everyday. The time for talk is done, I’ve been talking to a lot of people, and they are all just still talking: our governments are talking, our bands are still talking, but they haven’t done anything.
MM: As you are out on the waters and land, what impacts have you noticed that climate change has had on our waters on a local level?
JW: It’s hard for me to tell, we have just become aware of climate change in the past 25 years. I know it gets hotter in the summer, or it rains a lot, but manoomin grows in the water. If a drought comes along it’s in water. If it rains too much it doesn’t matter because it lives in the water. It’s so acclimatized and naturalized for this climate. Manoomin is a tough plant. It’s learned a lot over the millions of years that it’s evolved into what it is.
Come listen to James Whetung speak at the 4th Annual Gchi Dewin Indiegnous Storytellers Festival on Friday November 30 and Saturday December 1 after the play Cottagers and Indians.
For full Festival schedule visit: www.gchidewin.ca