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Wild rice & wild kids

Effective Compassion | Indian-led project aims to restore juvenile delinquents and an important environmental crop

Issue: "Effective compassion," Sept. 2, 2006

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.

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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.

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