The green, flat-bottomed wooden boat cuts slowly through the marshy water of Rice Bay here in northern Wisconsin, and Waabanookwe gently slaps the stalks of wild rice that rise out of the water with a tapered pole so that thousands of grains cascade into the bottom of the boat.
Waabanookwe, a Native American who recently started using her Ojibwe tribal name, is harvesting the gently waving acres of wild rice protruding from the murky waters.
"We're trying to do all the things they used to do before," said Waabanookwe, whose name means "power from the land of the rising sun."
"We're doing the ricing -- that's a big thing. We did maple sugar this spring, we're collecting berries, I'm learning beading from my mother, I'm going to learn the loom. I want to learn these traditions before walking on."
The reintroduction of wild rice, which once flourished in the area, is a way for Waabanookwe to connect with her heritage and is also part of a water-management experiment. It is an experiment, though, that has sharply divided the tribe and environmentalists from local landowners and hydropower and pulp mill interests.
Tribal leaders and government scientists say the rice died out by the 1950s because of dams and reservoirs constructed on the Wisconsin River, which flows through Lac Vieux Desert. The dams were built in the late 1890s and modernized in 1937 to create even water flow for pulp mills and electric plants along the river. They made the lake level rise by several feet, drowning the rice.
But a little more than a decade ago, a tribal government agency called the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission asked that water be lowered to help wild rice flourish again. After a legal fight with the power companies and dam owners, the tribe won. The rice is back. But after 50 years of deeper water, Lac Vieux Desert now looks very different.
Many houses were built along the lake in the past half-century. Once, water lapped gently against their banks; now, several feet of mud lead up to the receded waterline.
"There is a lot of damage to the propellers on boats, damage to the shoreline, extra costs to riparian owners," said Ken LaCount, president of the Lac Vieux Desert Lake Association of homeowners. He grew up fishing on this lake, and his grandfather built one of the first modest resorts here.
"People used to have nice shorelines that they'd built for years and years, and now it's turned to mud and muck," he said.
The Lac Vieux Desert Ojibwe ended up in this part of the Midwest specifically because of wild rice, called manoomin in their language. They left their original home on the East Coast based on a prophecy that they would walk until they found a place where "food grows on water." The wild rice that grows reedlike for acres and acres in Lac Vieux Desert fit the bill.
Now, biologists also know that the restoration will help animal habitats, including those of black terns and trumpeter swans.
The stated goal of the wild rice reentry program is to sustain 80 to 100 acres of rice in the lake for four out of seven years, during a 10-year trial that goes through 2013.
There are more than 50 acres of wild rice in the lake, according to Peter David, an ecologist with the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission -- enough for tribal members to collect substantial amounts of wild rice during the late-summer harvesting season.
"This change is really pushing the lake closer to its natural position," David said. "The restoration isn't completed yet, but we've come a long way."
After several hours on the water on a morning a while back, Waabanookwe and Roger Labine, chairman of the tribe's cultural committee, returned to shore and spread the rice on the ground to dry. The long, dark grains of rice look more like insects than food, and indeed the wet mass is crawling with spiders and other critters. Once it has dried, Waabanookwe and other Ojibwe dance on the grains with beaded moccasins to crack the husks and prepare the rice for cooking.
Along with using the rice as a way to recapture their traditions, the Ojibwe are hoping to earn money by selling it. But that may not be easy.
The texture and taste of this rice is very different from that of store-bought wild rice; it is fleshier and blander. Tribal methods of harvesting and processing wild rice are also more labor-intensive than in paddies where wild rice is grown domestically, meaning they must charge more at roadside stands for their crop.
LaCount suggests that the tribe could buy paddy-grown wild rice, but tribal members point out that the issue is about much more than food.
"This is an endangered species, something we're fighting to save, like the eagle," Labine said. "If they take away the rice again, it's like they're taking away part of us."