Last week, I found myself talking about my students to a judge.

A student drawing of Winnebozho discovering wild rice.

“My name is Molly Sowash. I teach elementary school students about local food and sustainable farming,” I told her, “Tomorrow I’m going into the second-grade classrooms at EXPO Elementary and teaching them about wild rice, the only native grain to the United States. I teach my students about the history of this beautiful state, the gifts it gives us, and the native people who’ve taken care of it from the beginning.” 

This is how I began my testimony at a public hearing regarding the construction of a new pipeline, Line 3. The Canadian oil company, Enbridge, hopes to build a pipeline to carry tar sands oil across Minnesota. The line has already been constructed in Canada and Wisconsin, but has stopped at Minnesota’s border because of the Minnesota Environmental Policy Act (MEPA). Before its construction, an Environmental Impact Statement must be prepared, a judge must listen to public testimonials, and the Public Utilities Commission must weigh the economic viability, environmental impact, and public opinion before making the final call. To build or not to build?

So why was I telling a judge about MFC’s wild rice lesson late one Thursday night? Because there are 20 wild rice lakes within one mile of the proposed route for Line 3. And this area is covered by the 1855 treaty that guarantees members of many indigenous nations in MN the right to harvest wild rice from these off-reservation lakes. A pipeline beneath these waters is a direct threat to that right.

 “I would like to reassure my students tomorrow that wild rice, our pristine waters, and the lakes these kids swim in each summer, will still be around when they’re my age,” I continued at the public hearing, “The Draft Environmental Impact Statement for Line 3 noted the annual probability of a spill. If we extend that probability over the full lifetime of a crude oil pipeline, we can expect 14 pinhole leaks, 54 small spills, 4 medium spills, and 1 catastrophic spill.”

The following morning I, indeed, taught our wild rice lessons to that group of 2nd graders. Let me take you into that lesson for a moment. While sitting in a large circle, students imagined themselves surrounding a campfire where children of years’ past would have gathered to learn lessons about the world from a storyteller. I acted the part of the storyteller and put on a necklace to signal that the story had begun. Then, the Ojibwe story unfolded, detailing the time when Winnebozho discovered wild rice growing in the middle of a lake and brought this food home to his people. Students fell under the storytelling spell, captured by the voice in the breeze that says “good to eat, good to eat” and the way Winnebozho figures out how to cook the wild rice seeds.

After the story, we studied the lengthy process of harvesting wild rice, which is carried out by many indigenous people today. Finally, back at their desks where they carefully drew a scene from the story, they got the opportunity to eat some wild rice. This is the best moment of this lesson — when the entire class pauses to eat wild rice together. After that first bite, you gradually hear “mmms” and comments like “oh that’s good!” I haven’t been in a classroom where this tasting experience doesn’t go over well.

Students love wild rice in its simplest form. Our recipe includes three ingredients: wild rice, salt, and water. Taste is the final avenue through which they learn about this native grain and its integral role in our local ecosystem. Through storytelling, art work, and eating wild rice, our students become more connected with Minnesota’s local food and natural environment. Midwest Food Connection supports lake-harvested wild rice because local food matters and our students know it.

“Judge, I urge you to deny Line 3 so that I can tell my students tomorrow that Minnesota’s lands and waters will survive into their future,” I finished, “Thank you.” 

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