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A pesticide-free tradition

Kyle Powys Whyte's picture
Wild rice harvest

PAN board member Kyle Powys Whyte holds the Timnick Chair in the Humanities at Michigan State University. He is Associate Professor of Philosophy and Community Sustainability and a member of the Potawatomi Nation. Here, Kyle shares thoughts and reflections around wild rice harvesting, a practice that exemplifies Indigenous peoples’ leadership on food & farming in the U.S.

I saw a fellow Anishinaabe friend recently and asked after their work. Knowing that I was referring to their office job, they looked amused by my question and responded: "I just got back from two weeks of wild rice harvesting." When they said that to me, the words "wild rice harvesting" meant family, friends, cultural practices, an extremely healthy food, and getting a chance to be in some of the most beautiful places in the Great Lakes region. My friend looked really invigorated and inspired.

In the Great Lakes, wild rice is sacred to Anishinaabe people. It is an ancient — pesticide free — relationship with food. Each year, people have responsibilities to protect wild rice habitat through monitoring water levels and temperatures, watching out for pollution, and keeping track of insects, animals, and other plants. When people harvest wild rice, they do it together, usually with family, but also sometimes with new friends with whom they hope to build deeper relationships. So there's nothing so wild about wild rice. Wild rice, humans, and many others are in mutually supportive relationships with each other.

Animals, fish, birds, insects, and others like wild rice too. But Anishinaabe people never thought of that reality as requiring the development of chemical pesticides to control. Rather, for Anishinaabe people, when we know that other beings need something, we try to figure out how to work together with them to share. Good wild ricing harvest practices leave enough for others and do not decimate entire crop areas, which could remove other benefits of wild rice like protective cover and brooding grounds. 

When farmers use pesticides along with hastily made, genetically engineered (GE) crops, they threaten Anishinaabe wild rice that is growing nearby. The drift of chemicals and GE species is deeply harmful, and Anishinaabe people have to work hard politically to protect their relationship with wild rice. Anishinaabe have had to spend time teaching other people about this relationship, which often has meant providing a vision of pesticide-free food that is cultivated and harvested through working together with the land.

Around Indigenous Peoples’ Day and always, it is important to think about how pesticide-free food is the oldest tradition in North America. It's a science of agriculture that at the same time is about culture and well-being. That's why my friend looked so invigorated and inspired after two weeks of harvesting wild rice. Pesticide-free food requires that we think about our relationships to others who also benefit from the same things we do, even if sometimes we do so in different ways. I want all foodways to be like this, whether we are in the farming business or gardening at our homes. 

I hope Indigenous Peoples’ Day gives everyone extra strength to realize that when we think beyond industrial agriculture, we are brought back to focus on the quality of our relationships to the land and to others, whether they are humans or fish or insects. Food is about community. Just as Anishinaabe people have had to do, in today's world, we have to take political action to defend our communities, whether it be our families, neighborhoods, counties, or cultures. Indigenous Peoples’ Day, to me, also offers the vision that someday maybe we will have won some political struggles. For this vision to occur, it is critical that we continue our advocacy today, empowered in the potential of relationships.

Photo: Brett Whaley | Flickr

Kyle Powys Whyte
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Kyle Powys Whyte's picture

PAN board member Kyle Powys Whyte holds the Timnick Chair in the Humanities at Michigan State University. He is Associate Professor of Philosophy and Community Sustainability and a member of the Potawatomi Nation.