While the focus of this project has been Native community farming and gardening projects, you can’t talk about indigenous food in the Midwest without wild rice coming up. The Anishnaabe (Ojibwe, Chippewa) call it manoomin, “the good berry.” As we described in the post about the White Earth Land Recovery Project, wild rice is sacred food to Anishnaabe people. Centuries ago they migrated west, looking for the “food that grows on water” foretold in prophesies. Menominee and Dakota people also value rice as a staple food. While the Red Lake Nation has taken to cultivating paddy-grown wild rice (somewhat of a contradiction in terms, but demonstrative of how “wild rice” is a common name for the species, Zizania palustris, rather than a condition of growing), most other indigenous people in the Midwest harvest wild rice from lakes and rivers. One person will stand in the back of the canoe with a long pole, gently guiding the canoe through the tall grasses, while the person in front will bend the heads of the grass over the canoe with one stick (or knockers as they’re called) and tap the heads with the other knocker, collecting the seeds in the bottom of the canoe. In some areas, including the entire state of Minnesota, natural stands of wild rice, by law, must be harvested only by this traditional method, and in many places only by tribal members. It’s a delicate operation that takes time to master, so that the ricer doesn’t damage the delicate plants. Anishnaabe rice finisher Bruce Savage described to us “when I was growing up, you could just not go out on a lake. There’s no way. Them old people would shoot a hole in the bottom of your boat if you didn’t know what you were doing.” He likens a completely inexperienced person attempting ricing to someone showing up to a corn farm, and the farmer saying “‘yeah just go head out into the field there and drive around and wreck everything.’ Because unfortunately a lot of people don’t realize, there’s people who’ve been doing it for generations, that’s about the only sure income they’re going to have for the year.” For people interested in ricing, Bruce recommends learning the techniques, and then going out with experienced ricers. (For a video of ricers in action click here)
Wild rice is very sensitive to its environment. If the seed falls in water that’s too deep, it won’t receive enough sunlight upon germination. If the water is too shallow, it won’t develop a strong enough stem. After the seed has rooted itself and begun to reach up towards the sun, it also needs the water to remain a consistent level– large waves or a sudden rise of water level can uproot the sensitive plant. If the water level drops too suddenly, the stem of the plant can’t support it. As mentioned in the post about Bad River, wild rice is also very sensitive to environmental contamination, and can be destroyed by mining runoff.
Since the 1950’s, scientists have been working to tame wild rice. The plant has developed so as to ensure the success of its population, as opposed to making it easy to harvest. The seed panicle produces seeds that mature at different times, some early to miss the frost, some late to miss the migrating birds who feed on the protein-dense grains. In addition, once the seeds matures it “shatters” during the slightest wind and falls immediately into the water. Scientists have sought to develop a version of wild rice in which the seeds mature evenly, and the seed heads don’t shatter. During the 1960’s scientists from the University of Minnesota developed cultivated wild rice that were more resistant to shattering, and this became the base of the paddy grown wild rice industry. Domesticated wild rice is planted on prepared fields in the fall that are flooded in the spring. These paddies are drained about three weeks before being harvested with combines. In 1988, after White Earth ricers took Busch Agricultural Resources to court for deceptively labeling their paddy grown rice as though it were Native harvested lake rice, a labeling law was passed in Minnesota that required paddy-grown wild rice be labeled as such in letters no less than 50 percent the size of the words “wild rice.” This however does not apply to California grown rice, although one should assume that rice grown in CA is probably not hand harvested by Anishnaabe (it’s good to know where your rice came from.) In the early 2000’s the University of Minnesota set out the crack the genetic code of wild rice, and genetically modify it to be more agriculturally productive. Anishnaabe ricers and community activists have fought against this, concerned not only with the tampering of their sacred food, but also with the possibility of GMO rice pollen contaminating their wild grown rice.
After being harvested via canoes from lakes and river across the north country, the rice is traditionally parched over a fire. The toasted kernels would then be danced on (wearing new, clean moccasins of course) to loosen the hulls, and then tossed in broad, flat birchbark bowls to winnow the chaff. Some people still process rice like this today. Bruce Savage, at Spirit Lake Native Farm, has taken rice processing to a whole new level, sending hand-harvested rice through a series of amazing contraptions that he’s developed over decades of processing. I’ve been eating Bruce’s rice for a couple of years, but had the chance to visit his farm on August 11 and again on the 30th, to tour his operation and watch his contraptions in action.
Even before the development of rice paddies filled with a domesticated version of wild rice, indigenous people in the Midwest were managing wild rice; pulling out competitor plants and making sure enough rice fell back into the lakes to re-seed for the following year. Today tribes continue to care for wild rice beds, weeding out plants like lilies and loosestrife, and issuing permits to rice to ensure a sustainable harvest. But while paddy grown rice is considered agriculture for the purposes of farm loans, wild rice is not. Bruce described how he has had to assemble his operation piecemeal because the Farm Service Agency won’t give him a large loan, whereas “if I was a cultivated rice grower, then they would borrow me all the money I want.” Dan Cornelius, who runs the Mobile Farmers Market and works for the Intertribal Ag Council, is trying to change that, and is working to convince the USDA that wild rice harvesters and finishers should be given similar financial opportunities as paddy rice growers.
The final outcome of all of this work is delicious rice that takes about half the time to cook that commercial wild rice does (that shiny black hull on commercial rice comes from fermenting the rice during the finishing process, which makes the hull easier to remove, but also makes the rice harder to cook). Wild rice is very nutritious: it has a high protein and carbohydrate content, and is very low in fat serves as an excellent source of the B vitamins, minerals, and amino acids. Wild rice sustained Native people for eons, and is now becoming more widely consumed by the general public. I would encourage you to support Native rice harvesters and finishers– contact Bruce and Tawny at 218-644-0912, or shop at Native Harvest, or the Mobile Farmers Market sponsored by the Intertribal Agriculture Council, or with any number of Native ricers across the midwest