There’s always been only a few special places in the world where wild rice (known as manoomin to the Ojibwe people), grows. Which made it troubling when manoomin stopped growing in the early 2000’s at Spur Lake, a 113 acre lake in Oneida County, Wisconsin. A group of conservation partners have come together to bring wild rice back to Spur Lake because of its environmental and cultural importance. 
Hands holding wild rice

Holding wild rice, also known as manoomin. Photo by Finn Ryan

“Wherever Anishinaabe (Ojibwe) people will live, this is the sacred food that will sustain those people. It’s their responsibility to speak for the plants, the animals, the trees, all of the universe that’s not able to speak. The Anishinaabe people will speak for them, on their behalf, and they will take care of them.”
Robert Van Zile, Jr.

Tribal Chairman, Sokaogon Chippewa

What is manoomin and why does it matter?

Translated from the Ojibwemowin language, manoomin means the “good berry.” It is a food that provides both physical and spiritual sustenance to the Ojibwe people. Harvesting wild rice has long been an important part of Ojibwe lifeways, particularly to provide stability. Wild rice can be stored over a long period of time, so it can last through the colder months. “I used to pick [wild rice] with my mom and dad.” said Jeff Ackley, former Rice Chief of the Sokaogon Chippewa. “We’d come to Spur Lake. We always had a good time… and got food for fall and winter.”

According to their oral tradition, the Ojibwe people were told to go to the place where “the food grows on the water.” This led them to settle in the places where wild rice is plentiful, including northern Wisconsin.

To this day, Manoomin is still an important part of Ojibwe tribal ceremonies. It is associated with important seasonal changes and celebrations.

“Manoomin is a part of our story, and a part of who we are. It’s a sacred being – it’s not just food, it has a spirit and we all believe that,” explains Tina L. Van Zile, Environmental Director of the Sokaogon Chippewa.

Spur Lake was traditionally an important place for harvesting wild rice. It was plentiful, dense and grew consistently up until the early 2000’s. Only a half hour from the Sokaogon reservation, local people could always depend on the harvest.

“After that, there was just no rice at all anymore” said Van Zile.

Woman in sunglasses (Tina L. Van Zile) standing on the bank of Spur lake

Tina L. Van Zile, a member of the group working to bring wild rice back to Spur Lake. Photo by Finn Ryan

Wild rice’s ecological importance

Wild rice itself is a hugely important nutritious food source for wildlife. It is especially crucial for migrating waterfowl like mallards, blue-winged teals, and wood ducks. Beds of wild rice also provide important habitat for invertebrates, which feed migrating waterfowl. It’s also used by birds like common loons and red-necked grebes for nesting materials.

It’s not just useful for birds and people. Moose, muskrats, turtles, amphibians, and fish and others use wild rice in various ways. Wild rice beds support high biological diversity throughout the food chain.

Spur Lake today is still a beautiful and treasured place for wildlife, but it’s missing one of its most important residents.

A blue-winged teal among marsh plants

A blue-winged teal spotted during the 2022 Great Wisconsin Birdathon. Photo by Rev. David Bowles

Saving wild rice at Spur Lake

The impacts of climate change, high water levels, and other encroaching vegetation have completely halted native manoomin growth at Spur Lake. What could be done to bring wild rice back?

As more groups started recognizing wild rice’s decline at Spur Lake, a partnership began: the Spur Lake Working Group. Wild rice was important on many levels. Multiple tribes, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, and the Great Lakes Indian Fish & Wildlife Commission (GLIFWC) all cared about bringing it back to Spur Lake. And, they were willing to put in the time and effort to figure out how. Conservation partners and funders such as the Natural Resources Foundation of Wisconsin and the Brico Fund recognized the project’s importance and joined in. Local residents were also supportive.

“Even the landowners around the lake have come out, and let us use their hose to wash off or let us access their property to get the canoes out.” said Nathan Podany, Hydrologist for the Sokaogon Chippewa, part of the Spur Lake Working Group.

The project team cleared competing vegetation (such as lily pads) from one-acre plots in various locations around the lake. Then, they tested manoomin seeding in each plot. They’re also trying to remedy the unusually-high water levels – wild rice struggles to grow in water that’s too deep. Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK) and western science have come together to inform this project.

Aerial view of Spur Lake showing square test plots where vegetation has been removed

Aerial view of Spur Lake showing square test plots where vegetation has been removed. Photo by Nathan Podany

A bit of hope

The first year of wild rice re-seeding took place in 2022. Although it’s a long-term project that will span many years, they’re already seeing some glimmers of hope.

“I felt like seeing rice growing in our plots where we had seeded it was a success,” said Carly Lapin, an Ecologist with the Wisconsin DNR. Lapin is also part of the Spur Lake Working Group. “Seeing small achievements is a big deal, and that encourages us to keep working on it.”

“Spur Lake, once upon a time, was a tremendous wild rice lake.” said Peter David, retired Manoomin/Wild Rice Steward with GLIFWC. “You hate to see the rice in decline, but you feel fortunate to see all of these people who are working so hard to bring back what once existed here.”

Wild Rice seeds sprouting in Spur Lake test plot

Wild rice seeds sprouting in Spur Lake test plot. Photo by Carly Lapin

The future of wild rice

The warmer winters, increased rainfall, and more humid days brought on by climate change are a significant ongoing threat to wild rice restoration efforts. The past two decades have been the warmest on record in Wisconsin, and the past decade has been the wettest. Rising temperatures, shorter winters, earlier springs, and more extreme weather are threatening many of Wisconsin’s species and unique landscapes. The wild rice at Spur Lake is no exception. Wild rice is known to be one of the “biggest losers” with climate change.

The Spur Lake Working group realizes that this process will take years, and they’re up for the challenge.

“The goal is to restore this lake to what it was a few decades ago, to what the tribal elders say it can be and was, and what a lot of the general public around here remembers it being.” said Podany.

wild rice

Wild rice growing nicely in nearby Rice Lake. Photo by Nathan Podany

New Short Film – Return to Spur Lake: Bringing Back the Food that Grows on Water