A few thousand pounds of wild rice from the White Earth Reservation in north-central Minnesota is en route to one of the biggest French culinary-and-arts festivals to celebrate a sister-city relationship between Minneapolis and Tours, France.
This also could be the start of what White Earth tribal officials hope will be a significant export market.
Several members of the Chippewa tribe are traveling as part of a Minnesota business-and-culture delegation next week to the La Foire de Tours regional food-art-health fair in the city of Tours, also a gastronomical capital of the country.
It's happening partly thanks to a persistent, retired Minnesota art educator with White Earth roots who believed years ago that specialty food enthusiasts in France would enjoy authentic wild rice that grows naturally on reservation waters.
"I once found a little Jewish grocery store in Paris that advertised 'wild rice,' but it was black rice from Indonesia," recalled Diane Gorney, whose father grew up on White Earth. "The French are bonkers about the best foods. I knew White Earth wild rice would have a future in France."
Gorney, also a board member of the American Indian Movement (AIM) Interpretive Center in Minneapolis, and Executive Director Clyde Bellecourt, a White Earth native, started working a couple of years ago with Meet Minneapolis, the city-tourism bureau and which also manages sister-city ties.
A French delegation from Tours was eager to connect with Minnesota tribes. There is a long history dating to 19th century French Canadian traders. The parties visited at the AIM interpretive center in the Ancient Traders Market on Franklin Avenue E. last year. The French explored Minnesota in the 19th century and traded with tribes.
"The visitors were very interested in Native Americans, their foods and culture," said Bill Deef, a senior vice president at Meet Minneapolis, including international affairs. "Minnesota is this year's feature destination of the Foire de Tours. We extended an invitation to all Minnesota tribes and AIM really stepped forward, with White Earth supplying rice for cooking events, dinners, packaged sales."
Other Minnesota tribes are providing buffalo meat and walleye for culinary events.
Carl Fransen, a Minneapolis-based liaison with the White Earth band, said the tribe wants to crack an export market. Hundreds of tribal members harvest the rice from canoes and by hand during the one-to-three week harvest every year.
The White Earth band says it is the only "naturally organic wild rice in the world," because it grows naturally, not planted in paddies, cultivated or exposed to chemical fertilizers or pesticides.
Fransen said the rice, sold for $9 per pound in decorative bags through a tribal enterprise at www.whiteearth.com, is an important economic driver for many reservation families. Two people in a big canoe can harvest up to 2,000 pounds of rice worth about $3,000 in a day in the best of weather conditions. A tribal business wholesales the rice for bulk or packaged sales.
"We're hoping for a cooperative venture with a large supplier in France that will benefit our community and the interpretive center," Fransen said.
The Minnesota delegation will include Sean Sherman, an Oglala Lakota, who calls himself the "Sioux chef," a play on ''sous chef,'' and who specializes in American Indian dishes.
Several members of AIM's "Midnight Express" drummers and Native Pride dancers also will participate in the nine-day festival, as well as representatives of such Minnesota mainstays as Medtronic, Mayo Clinic, General Mills, the International Wolf Center, MacPhail Center for Music, Guthrie Theater and the Minneapolis Institute of Art.