The migration story of the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Tribe of Chippewa Indians says they were to find the place where food grows on top of the water and settle there. Today the Bad River Band makes its home in northern Wisconsin where wild rice grows along the Bad River and Kakagon Sloughs.
Wild rice has been the cultural and economic center of the Bad River Band since they arrived in the region.
“Wild rice is part of the main history of our tribe,” said Edith Leoso, tribal historic preservation officer for the Bad River Band. “It is so much of a staple, and we rely on it a lot.”
The Bad River and Kakagon Sloughs are one of the largest freshwater estuarine systems still thriving in the upper Great Lakes. Fed by a 1,060-square-mile watershed, the sloughs are a coastal marsh complex home to 28 plant communities and at least 72 rare species of plants and animals.
Kakagon Sloughs was designated a National Natural Landmark in 1973, due to its large size, varied plant and animal life, and pristine condition. The National Natural Landmark Program recognizes striking examples of the United States’ diverse landscapes and natural history.
“We have about 2,900 acres of marsh estuary in the National Landmark Program, and it is listed there because of its uniqueness,” said Leoso. “It’s one of the largest natural wild rice beds in the world.”
The quality and quantity of water flowing into the sloughs, pollution and boat traffic can impact the growth of the wild rice that sustains the Bad River Band.
Through its Natural Resources Department, the tribe monitors water quality, does invasive species management and passed a no wake ordinance to save the rice from being uprooted by boats.
The Nature Conservancy has worked in partnership with the Bad River Band for more than 15 years to help maintain the health of the sloughs.
In 1997, the Conservancy acquired 1,043 at Caroline Lake in Ashland County to protect water in the sloughs downstream. Six years later, the Conservancy negotiated the purchase of 21,322 acres of land from Plum Creek and worked with the Bad River Band to protect this land forever. The land is located within the tribe’s reservation.
“It’s about making sure the water quality and health of the system is sustained,” said Matt Dallman, Conservancy director of conservation in northern Wisconsin. “If we can help the Bad River Band do that, then we’ll protect wild rice, wildlife and the many other benefits a healthy system provides.”
“During migration, we were told that when we got to that place where the food grows on top of the water, it would sustain us,” said Leoso. “As long as we took care of that rice, it would take care of us. And it has.”
Story by Kayla Jensen, Nature Conservancy writing intern.