Skip Blanc grew up in Gladstone, Michigan, where he was taught the importance of wild rice from a young age. As a member of the Brothertown Indian Nation, Blanc experienced firsthand the relationship between tribal nations and wild rice.
“Rice is very important to most of the tribes around here,” Blanc says. “It not only sustains your life — it’s got healing properties to it.”
Members of the Brothertown Nation have long relied on wild rice as an essential food source and a symbol of identity.
“As a family, we used to gather it and then most of the time my dad processed it,” Blanc says. “These traditions were passed down through families [and] taught in person where you actually had to do it and see how it was done.”
Wisconsin’s tribal nations have long-standing historical and cultural relationships with wild rice. Hundreds of years ago, wild rice fields in Lake Winnebago, located in what is now east central Wisconsin, and across the Midwest were thriving, serving as ideal nesting, feeding and migration grounds for waterfowl and other mammals. But local rice populations have declined due to an influx in pollution and boat wake disruption, the introduction of exotic species and water level fluctuations caused by dams — a form of ecological colonization.
The InterTribal Lake Winnebago Connectivity Project is working to change this. The collaborative project between Native Nations, UW–Madison students, and agency and nonprofit partners prioritizes traditional ecological knowledge while increasing tribal voices in water, wetlands and wild rice governance.
A 2012 UW–Madison study found that watersheds studied in Wisconsin and Minnesota with wild rice have declined by 32% since the early 1900s.
“It’s been a long time since I’ve gone out onto the river that my dad and I used to go on,” Blanc says. “The last couple of years the rice hasn’t been there.”
Jessie Conaway, who works in Native Nations partnerships with the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies at UW–Madison, and university faculty and leadership hosted the first UW Native Nations Summit on Environment and Health in 2015.
The summit was the first time Wisconsin tribes had been invited to the UW–Madison campus in 100 years. Jessica Ryan, the vice chair of the Brothertown Indian Nation, attended the summit. It was designed to be a working meeting where Wisconsin’s tribal nations could address prominent environmental and health issues. At the summit, wild rice restoration was noted as a top priority for the Brothertown Nation, and the project was born.
“Wild rice is excellent to organize around for tribes and universities because it’s an important plant culturally and nutritionally to many tribes,” Conaway says. “It’s an important indicator species for ecological health of fisheries, wildlife, your health in general.”
Tribes use their historical knowledge and experience stewarding and harvesting wild rice to serve as advisers, while nonprofits and agencies like the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service share data, methods and guidance. Grants from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Sea Grant and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service fund the project.
Conaway says a beautiful symbiosis of the project is working to develop relationships between tribes, the university and other agencies. But she notes it’s important for nontribal partners to emphasize respect for tribal stewardship and legacies of conservation.
“We have a lot of skills. We have a lot of expertise, and we have a lot of resources,” Conaway says. “So bring that to the table … and then work on local projects that are driven by local values.”
Blanc highlights the importance of platforming tribal voices in the project, underscoring a commitment to “make an honest effort into understanding tribal nations and why they do things and feel the way they feel.”
Tribes have the longest history of land and natural resource stewardship, which makes their input important for success in conservation, Conaway says.
“We’re very careful with the knowledge that is shared with us, we steward that, and we respect it, and we communicate it carefully,” Conaway says. “And we give full credit to the tribes who are guiding us.”
The Brothertown Nation wants clean water for the next generation to enjoy.
“My grandchildren like to go fishing, they like to go swimming and have clean water. Everybody mostly likes that right now. They want safe, clean water in Lake Winnebago,” says Bob Fowler, a member of the Brothertown Indian Nation descended from one of Brothertown’s three founding fathers. “All we want is that wild rice comes back.”
The Brothertown Nation, like many tribes, has a strong relationship with water.
“We believe that water is life,” Blanc says. “As a nation of people we want to have a say on what goes on with the water and with the plants that we need and use.”
Blanc learned how to plant and harvest wild rice from the Ojibwe, who taught him and his father to insert wild rice seeds into clay balls and fire them into river bottoms so seeds could grow without being eaten by fish or birds.
“I grew up learning how to respect Mother Earth because Mother Earth provides everything that you need to sustain life,” Blanc says.
Blanc was taught that if you don’t harvest rice in the right way, you won’t find it again. The harvesting process begins with two people in a canoe with long sticks.
“You have one person that pushes the canoe with a long pole through the rice,” Blanc says. “And you have at least one more person in the canoe with two long sticks, one that bends the rice over into the canoe, and then you take the other stick and knock the rice into the bottom of the canoe.”
The project began with the documentation of Midwestern tribes’ historical relationships with wild rice. The team used community collaboration, interviews and elder advice to form an action plan with historical and social context before they began taking water samples and collecting data to pinpoint where in the Winnebago watershed water quality was high enough to support wild rice fields. After gathering this data through field samples, the team began restoring rice in the watershed. This September, they seeded 800 pounds of northern rice into tributaries using broadcasting and mud balls.
“That was a big joyous occasion for us,” Conaway says.
The InterTribal Lake Winnebago Connectivity Project works to enlist both nontribal and tribal elders and youth.
The Brothertown Nation offers environmental internships to young tribal members, and Conaway worked with classes of UW–Madison undergraduate students enrolled in community-based capstone courses that focused on research, community education and policy projects for the Brothertown Nation in spring 2022 and 2023.
“Working with UW–Madison and other tribes, that’s getting us involved with everybody,” Fowler says. “It helps us get our name out there.”
The class creates flyers, posters and informational packets about the benefits of wild rice, and students travel to Lake Winnebago and meet with members of the Brothertown Nation to learn about their traditions and stewardship practices.
Students get to visit the Brothertown Nation in Fond du Lac, at the south end of Lake Winnebago, where they explore the community center and museum. In the past, they’ve worked with the Ho-Chunk Nation and Brothertown Nation to host two events including the traditional game of Snow Snake on nearby Lake Poygan.
Working together to restore wild rice has helped create a collaborative relationship between the Brothertown Nation, UW–Madison, and federal and state agencies.
“It gets more people engaged, and it just helps promote a better understanding between everybody and the way nature works,” Blanc says.
The team created a 30-year sustainability plan for the InterTribal Lake Winnebago Connectivity Project and is currently seeking funding for phase two.
“I would like to see us get wild rice back in Lake Winnebago,” Blanc says. “I would like to be able to take people out and teach them how to harvest wild rice the way that I was taught.”