MARQUETTE, Mich. - The grasslike blades speared the shallow edge of a small, secluded lake shaded by evergreens and stirred by a fisherman casting his line. The delicate stalks offered little hint of the human work and planning behind them-an agricultural experiment involving biologists, Ojibwa American Indians, and Michigan's Marquette County juvenile court.
The stalks are part of a fragile crop known by Ojibwa (or Chippewa) as manoomin, by scientists as zizania acquatica, and by the rest of us as wild rice. The experiment to grow them enlists teens from detention centers, youth homes, and foster care homes-mostly in Marquette County-who have committed offenses ranging from property crime to assault.
Jon Magnuson, director of the environmentalist Cedar Tree Institute, organized the Manoomin Project (pronounced ma-no-min) to dress three wounds with one bandage: juvenile delinquency, the environment, and Ojibwa/white relations. Young offenders sentenced to perform community service may choose to enter the two-week, six-hour-a-day program-but unlike picking up trash on the highway, the Manoomin project immerses the teens in an educational rather than a punitive experience.
Participants plant the rice, learn wild rice recipes, listen to lectures on Indian culture, and get to see the results of their labor. They learn how to read a map and compass, work on research papers at a public library, and prepare popped rice and rice pudding for a picnic. They also observe nature-the last group during a four-mile hike spotted an eagle and two black bear cubs. Their Ojibwa guide assured a screaming girl she had nothing to fear but cautioned all to keep their distance, lest they anger the mother bear who might be hiding nearby.
A traditional Ojibwa food in the Upper Peninsula, wild rice fell victim in the 1800s to logging, damming, and copper mining: A crop that increases water clarity, reduces salinity, prevents erosion, and provides a habitat for small fish almost entirely disappeared. Now, when the teens go out on the water with 80-pound burlap bags of seed, they do so as part of a scientific effort to understand the ideal conditions for wild rice-a crop resilient enough to make a strong comeback after a bad year, but so fragile that just touching a leaf can kill it.
The teens have successfully harvested rice at six of the seven sites, where the seeds must be planted in shallow areas with rich vegetation on the bottom. The Central Lake Superior Watershed Partnership has gathered much data from the 2,100 pounds of rice planted in seven lakes, rivers, and streams since the project began three years ago, by measuring pH levels, taking water temperature, and plotting GPS points.
Since community service is involuntary, the teens drag their feet through the door, and supervisors occasionally have to send a disruptive participant home for a day. They have not kicked anyone out of the program, but "a lot of kids come with a real bad attitude in the morning," said Don Chosa, an adjunct professor of Native American Studies at Northern Michigan University and former Keweenaw Bay Indian rice chief-the person who decides where to plant the rice. "I can see that they're angry when they first get there," he said, but "by the end of the day, they feel like they've accomplished something."
Tyler, 15, who lives at a youth home, went through the project last September and by last month thought he had forgotten most of the lessons he then learned. Hot and weary from a game of basketball, he slumped into a desk chair and let his former Manoomin counselor give a pop quiz-the number of tribes in the Upper Peninsula, the Indian word for "hello," the stages of wild rice growth. Hesitantly but accurately he answered every question, and then recalled how much he enjoyed planting, meeting new people, getting away from the youth home, and most of all, paddling a kayak: "I didn't really like it at first, but it turned out to be actually really fun."
Chosa, a laid-back professor with two braided ponytails and baseball cap, may live in a galaxy far removed from the straight-laced justice of the juvenile court system, but he and local officials agree on the value of the Manoomin Project. When probation officer Gary Dalton came to supervise last year, he initially felt embarrassed for the project organizers, who, in his view, did not realize how "stupid" the event would seem to the teens. But by the third or fourth day, the kids were interacting, answering questions, and enjoying themselves, and Dalton found himself working alongside the teens far more than planned.
No statistics were available about the success of the program in changing attitudes among young professors, but Dalton said 10 of the 23 teens in the last group valued the program. He added, "I think our kids learned more about themselves . . . in two weeks than they would in a substance abuse program in six months. This is one of the things that, in 20 years, those kids will remember. We were part of that rice."
Juvenile court Judge Michael Anderegg said the program was valuable because it "brings kids into contact with positive adult role models." For him, the interest some teens have in continuing to participate beyond the two weeks indicates success. But not all participants learn to love wild rice. Jordan, 15, enjoyed last year's program but struggled to put up with the bad attitudes and lack of participation among other kids, who spent most of the time trying to sneak away to smoke a cigarette-a habit he has kicked.
Social worker Tom Reed offered other anecdotal evidence: One boy told him word was spreading that the program was "cool," and another teen recognized him during a chance encounter, smiled, and waved hello.
From a bench overlooking Lake Superior's placid waters, director Magnuson, an Evangelical Lutheran minister, extolled the project's core value of respect for self, others, and the earth, and connected it with wild rice and also spirituality.
Cedar Tree participants may abstain from religious activities that offend them, but the group gathers in church buildings and learns Ojibwa beliefs about the religious significance of wild rice as a "spirit food": Chosa said wild rice plays a prominent part in tribal activities, from naming ceremonies to funeral offerings. The Ojibwa treasure a prophecy they believe brought their people to the region and told them their journey would end at a place where "food grows on water."
Some of the activities would offend most Christians. Before the rice is harvested, Manoomin Project leaders present a tobacco offering on the water, and Magnuson asks Mother Earth for permission to partake of her: "We're promoting a respectful spirit."
The Cedar Tree Institute also houses another Samaritan Award finalist, the Earth Keeper project, that combines worthwhile environmentalism with some curious theology.
The project involves nine religious groups-Catholic, Episcopalian, United Methodist, Zen Buddhist, Baha'i, Evangelical Lutheran, Reform Judaism, Presbyterian Church USA, Unitarian Universalist-and over 130 congregations. It gives residents of Michigan's rural Upper Peninsula more environmentally friendly options than the dumpster for the "serious seven"-herbicides, pesticides, car batteries, mercury, drain cleaners, anti-freeze, and old lead and oil-based paint-plus old computers, televisions, and so on.
On Earth Day this past spring, for example, volunteers collected 320 tons of electronic waste, or e-waste, in church parking lots across the Upper Peninsula. Most of the junk arrived via cars, vans, and pickup trucks, while residents of Mackinac Island, where motor vehicles are banned, transported old or broken equipment with horse-pulled drays, then ferried it to trucks. Volunteers sent the e-waste from collection sites to Technology Asset Disposal, an Environmental Protection Agency-approved recycling facility in Livonia, Mich.
Federal funding and a grant from Thrivent Financial provide part of the annual $19,000 budget. The project also has a student arm led by a Zen Buddhist professor at Northern Michigan University. Cedar Tree director Magnuson states that "when you heal the earth, you heal yourself." United Methodist minister and Earth Keeper theological consultant Charlie West says the project embraces a broad spectrum of beliefs: "All of our faith groups acknowledge a god, whom [Christians] call God, who is involved with and concerned about creation."