U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin travelled to northern Wisconsin to meet with members of the Lac du Flambeau Band of Lake Superior Chippewa on Wednesday, to discuss the impacts of climate change on tribal land.
“Extreme storms and severe flooding have threatened the location and abundance of wild rice on the Lac du Flambeau reservation,” Sen. Baldwin wrote in a Facebook post after her visit. “Today I met with tribal leaders to learn about the impact of the #ClimateCrisis on the tribe’s traditional ways of life.”
“I am committed to taking bold action to confront climate change because the longer we fail to act, the more costly it will be,” Baldwin added.
The trip was part of an effort Baldwin has been making as a member of the Senate Democrats’ Special Committee on the Climate Crisis to get community input.
“We don’t get that many senators up here,” said Joe Graveen, the tribe’s wild rice technician, who attended the meeting with Baldwin.
Graveen, who emphasized that he was speaking for himself, not the tribe, said he sees his job as combining traditional ecological knowledge with science.
“In western science they do water samples, take sediment samples, but they don’t know all the oral history of the area. That’s one thing that Tammy took away today,” he said.
“We’ve got seven clans here. In talking about climate adaptation, our resiliency plan— that’s what we want to protect,” Graveen said.
Over the last 120 years, wild rice, which used to be abundant all over Wisconsin, has declined by 42%, Graveen added. “There used to be wild rice in Southern Wisconsin, as far down as Madison—as far as I know there’s no rice there now.”
Recently, heavy rains, flooding, late snow storms and warmer summers have made rice more scarce.
“We’re traveling farther to harvest wild rice,” Graveen said. “People could travel anywhere from five miles to 100 or more. Last year, some people went all the way to Minnesota, because it was so hard to find.”
The Lac du Flambeau band has been building partnerships with researchers from the University of Wisconsin and the University of Minnesota to try to address the problem, and would like to get federal help.
“We don’t have the resources or manpower or equipment,” said Graveen. “We’re not set up to do sediment sampling or water testing that could tell us whether an area is suitable for restoration.”
Lately, under Gov. Tony Evers, Graveen has noticed a warmer reception for his work from the state Department of Natural Resources, which was not permitted, under Gov. Walker, to use the words “climate change.”
In meetings on wild rice and water management, “they are a lot more open than they were under the previous administration,” he said.
Graveen hunts, fishes and traps, as well as harvesting wild rice, on the Lac du Flambeau reservation’s 260 lakes, 65 miles of streams, lakes and rivers, and 24,000 acres of wetlands.
“You have a spiritual connection to the land,” he said. “Any time of the year, people are jealous of Lac du Flambeau,” he added. “It’s God’s country.”
When he was younger, Graveen used to see huge flocks of redwing blackbirds in the rice beds. Over time, as wild rice has become scarcer, so have the redwing blackbirds. And without the birds to eat them, rice worms have become more of a problem, preventing the plants from reseeding themselves.
“People act like wild rice is just a weed,” said Graveen. “It’s not a weed. It’s a grass, and it’s important to wildlife—muskrats, beavers, birds.”
Another problem harvesters have been seeing lately, with more flooding and a disrupted growing season, is “ghost rice”—rice plants that are insufficiently developed and never yield an edible grain.
On Thursday, the Lac du Flambeau band will hold its annual Waswaagonig Wild Rice Celebration and Feast, as tribal members get ready for the rice harvest.
“It is close to that time of year again and our tribal members will be on the waters, harvesting Manoomin, wild rice,” a Facebook invitation to the event explains. “So this year we will be giving thanks to the water and all the divine beings that depend on our manoomin.”
“Water is important to us,” said Graveen. “I don’t care whether you’re a Republican or a Democrat. It’s sad to look at it—what are you going to do if you don’t have any more clean water? There’s places where you drink the water and all you can taste is chlorine. Here, a lot of places, you can drink the water straight from the lakes.”
Baldwin, who recently authored legislation on climate-ready infrastructure, has said, “We have a moral obligation to act on climate change so we can keep our promise to future generations to confront today’s challenges and pass on a world better than we found it.”
“I met with Lac du Flambeau leaders to learn how the climate crisis is threatening their traditional ways of life, economic opportunities, and overall well-being,” Baldwin said. “The tribe’s ability to harvest wild rice is both culturally and economically significant. The habitat for growing has clearly shrunk, has clearly been threatened over time and climate change is a big contributor to that. The actions at the federal level to take on climate change absolutely need to be informed by what’s happening here on the ground.”
During her visit to Lac du Flambeau, tribal members also brought up the opioid crisis and the problem of pharmaceutical products contaminating the water supply—two issues that worry people all over the state.
But to Graveen, the most significant theme of Baldwin’s visit was talking about “how can what we know through traditional ecological knowledge help with resource management.”