Honoring the Third Fire: Investigating Claims to Ownership of Seeds as Reproducible Property

Project Overview

Project Type: Graduate Student
Funds awarded in 2004: $9,739.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2007
Grant Recipient: U. of Wisconsin-Madison
Region: North Central
State: Wisconsin
Graduate Student:
Faculty Advisor:
Michael Bell
Dept. of Community and Environmental Sociology, U. of Wisconsin-Madison

Annual Reports


  • Agronomic: general grain crops
  • Additional Plants: native plants


  • Education and Training: focus group, workshop
  • Natural Resources/Environment: biodiversity, wetlands, wildlife
  • Production Systems: agroecosystems
  • Sustainable Communities: community services, public participation, social capital, sustainability measures


    The Department of Rural Sociology at UW-Madison partnered with the White Earth reservation in Minnesota in a research program designed to investigate and facilitate the dialogue about wild rice. This program encouraged the exchange, development, and documentation of ideas about the importance of wild rice as a natural and cultural resource through interviews and participation in two day-long public meetings. These meetings explored the importance of wild rice to the Anishinaabe, to non-native communities and ecosystems in Wisconsin, and to the larger agricultural and political landscape of the United States.


    European values and division of land disrupted Native American land tenure and agricultural systems. Land loss, along with uncountable cases of discrimination and exclusion, caused Native Americans to become one of the poorest minority groups in the country. Fewer Native Americans are farming now than ever. In 1940, sixty eight percent of the Native American labor force was employed in agriculture. Forty years later, less than six percent remained.

    The Anishinaabe live primarily on reservations in the upper Midwestern United States and Central Canada. Their territory overlaps with the center of biodiversity for wild rice. The third prophesy, or the third fire, of the Anishinaabe establishes wild rice as their most important cultural and spiritual resource. Wild rice is also an important economic, medicinal, ecological, and nutritional resource for both native and non-native communities in the Midwestern United States. Wild rice is the only major North American cereal that is still harvested in the wild, and it is endemic to this region. There are numerous threats to wild rice stands such as invasive plants, dams and pollution. These threats to wild rice ecosystems have both social and economic origins and consequences.

    The Anishinaabe are worried about the effects of new technologies that support the genetic engineering and commercial cultivation of wild rice. Over the past 20 years, wild rice has rapidly become a global commercial crop. This rice, although often marketed as wild, is referred to by the Anishinaabe as paddy rice. By the early 1980s, a glut of wild rice flooded the market and caused all wild rice prices to plummet. Not only was the newly emerging domesticated market affected, but the native wild rice economy was devastated as lakeside prices crashed. Paddy rice growers were forced to intensify their production and use more agricultural chemicals which pollute the lakes used for Native American harvesting.

    The Anishinaabe are also concerned about the consequences that genetically engineered wild rice could have for natural stands. The Anishinaabe’s fear is that either the cultivated varieties of wild rice or the genetically engineered varieties will pollute natural stands of wild rice. The University of Minnesota is operating four wild rice research stations in the heart of natural wild rice bio-diversity. Understanding the real possibilities and consequences for the native harvest of wild rice is crucial for maintaining Anishinaabe cultural identity and quality of life. The Anishinaabe’s concerns have important implications for the sustainability of agriculture, the safety of our food supply, and social justice in the United States.

    Perhaps the closest, and by now classic, study of the social impacts of biotechnology was published in the book, First the Seed (Kloppenburg 1988). In this book, Kloppenburg examines the social institutions that have developed around the seed, tracing their development and evolution from 1492 (discovery of new world), to the year 2000 (projecting into the future). By their nature, since seeds reproduce themselves, the conversion of the seed into something that is bought and sold has been a major dilemma for capitalists. Kloppenburg’s main point is to challenge prevailing assumptions about the societal costs and benefits of scientific achievements like the hard tomato, high yield hybrid corn, and frost resistant planes. He shows that developments in plant breeding and seed research have influenced enormously the rate and direction of change in agriculture on a national and global scale. Developments in plant breeding must be understood within the political and economic environment and are shaped by capitalism.

    This project starts with Kloppenburg’s thesis, that seeds as reproducible property are inherently different from other commodities. Through interviews and workshops, I engaged the Anishinaabe in a dialog about their claims to ownership over the genetic resources of wild rice. What I found was that over and over again, their claims revolved around the spiritual importance of wild rice, and the scientific justification was of much less importance.

    This project challenges our understanding of the social components of sustainable agriculture and suggests that we rethink the type of commitment necessary in working with marginalized rural farmer populations, specifically native populations. Previous studies have highlighted the importance of understanding “the social” for addressing the sustainability of agriculture, but more work needs to be done that directly addresses the link between sustainable agriculture and cultural survival or spiritual continuity. In addition, the “wild” nature of wild rice combined with the possibility for contamination presents new challenges for intellectual property rights and agricultural ethics.

    Kloppenburg, Jr., Jack. 1988. First the Seed: the Political Economy of Plant Biotechnology, 1492-2000. Cambridge University Press, New York.

    Project objectives:

    We will organize two day-long public meetings involving community members from the White Earth reservation and members of other Minnesota and Wisconsin reservations. The meetings will help the Anishinaabe form networks and communication channels to share their knowledge about the current status of wild rice. Through both presentations and dialogue, these meetings will explore the importance of wild rice to the Anishinaabe, to non-native communities and ecosystems in Wisconsin, and to the larger agricultural and political landscape of the United States.

    We will conduct follow-up interviews with a few key community leaders.

    Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.