Gift of the Harvest—the Art and History of Ricing

Wisconsin Media Lab / Fred Ackley Jr, right, appears in Wisconsin Media Lab's video about ricing.

Gift of the Harvest—the Art and History of Ricing.

It is early September as I steady our small canoe (jiiman), keeping my left foot in and my right foot out, while my cousin climbs aboard. It is time to harvest the wild rice.

We are on the banks of the eastern edge of Rice Lake, within the boundaries of the Sokaogon Chippewa Indian reservation, in northeast Wisconsin. Our Rice Chiefs have carefully examined the golden crop and officially declare that this small 320-acre lake is ready for the harvest. A prayer and the laying down of tobacco will ensure a successful day; the air smells sweet. The morning sky provides a dazzling blue canopy, as an inducement to proceed. The sun is as intense as it can be for this latitude and the temperature—a balmy 70 degrees.

My partner carefully makes his way down the center of the wobbly canoe. Holding onto the gunwale, he readily reaches the opposite end; turns facing me saying, “Mii-gwech!” (Thank you) and then sits down.

Stepping into the unstable craft, while performing a balancing act, I blurt, “Howah, looks like a beautiful day for pickin’ rice!”

Crouching down, I grab onto a long and sturdy balsam wood push-pole, then ease it out over the right side of the canoe. My ricing partner attempts to steady the boat a bit, as I slowly stand erect and implant the long skinny pole, with a fork-shaped attachment at its end, into the thick rich clay of the shallow lake bottom.

“Are you ready?” I push down on the pole and our vessel moves away from the bank. A few more pushes and a startled great blue heron wading nearby broadcasts several harsh croaks as its broad wings carries it into flight.

“Now there’s a good sign” my cousin remarks, “yes, a very good sign especially for a member of the Crane clan.”

September is the time of the wild rice harvest moon “Manoominigiizis.” A small number of area lakes, extending north-northwest into Minnesota, are teeming with this year’s bumper crop. The people of the Lake Superior Ojibwa are eager to perpetuate this time-honored tradition. The flavorful green seeds of the wild rice plant are known as “manomin” or “manoomin” in Ojibwe, which identifies it as “the food that grows on the water.”

We are anxious to knock off hundreds of pounds, filling our canoe several times, in just a few short days. The harvest is always a welcomed activity as a focal point of late summer activities. The process is carried out in a time-honored traditional way, by Anishinaabeg (Ojibwe) men and women. It is a profound and necessary relationship between man and nature. Moving toward our objective, we anticipate the task and proceed deep into the bounty of the dense growth cloaking the lake.

This brief journey, a journey that our ancestors had taken for eons, fosters credence to our Ojibwa heritage and culture. Long before the Europeans had knowledge of the existence of this continent—and long before the French explorer Jean Nicolet landed on the eastern shores of northern Wisconsin in 1634—the Ojibwe of the Sokaogon (the post in the lake people) routinely gathered this important indigenous food source, which continues to proliferate in the Great Lakes region. This is a very special place, hardly visible folks not be familiar with the local geography.

Wikipedia / A 1910 painting of Jean Nicolet’s 1634 arrival in Wisconsin.

The lake, which lies just a few hundred feet to the west of the main highway, offers at eye-level a scene which closely resembles that of a field of wheat. The wild rice plant, a tall and slender marshland inhabitant, is more commonly referred to by biologists as Zizania Aquatica. It thrives exclusively in the peculiar stillness of this mineral-rich lake. Equally significant is that this continues to be a prime example, of one of the last remaining ancient wild rice beds of northern Wisconsin.

What continues year after year is a perfect undisturbed ecosystem where humans can successfully co-exist with a countless mix of insects, plants, fish and wildlife. This very small and virtually unmolested world contains an orderly combination of consistent water level and temperature to sustain the annual crop. Some might say it’s almost the ideal place, perfectly designed for the precious manoomin to survive throughout the ages. Wild rice is a sensitive plant species and does not tolerate chemical pollutants or drastic changes in water level very well during its growth cycle. One might also say the crop, which flourishes here is the proverbial bread basket “tailor-made” for a culture of people.

Wikimedia Commons / The wild rice plant, a tall and slender marshland inhabitant, is more commonly referred to by biologists as Zizania Aquatica.

Wild rice has long been a staple for the Chippewa diet and this pre-historic vegetation is most likely considered, the oldest agricultural crop in the nation. Scientists have determined that wild rice is the only “naturally occurring” grain in North America. Oats, wheat and barley for example, were imported from Europe.

Working the Rice Domain

With two people working as ricing partners, one person must constantly push the craft forward while the other gently knocks the seeds loose from the top of the plant; taking care that it falls directly into the center. This requires the use of a pair of small ricing sticks or rice knockers (bawai’ganaak), both of which are handmade from lightweight cedar branches. These slender tools resemble a pair of rather long drum sticks.

With the aide of my push pole I continue moving us slowly forward. My partner continues gently sweeping the sticks from left to right, moving the sticks back and forth over the slender stalks of the rice plant.

Using one stick, he gently bends the heavy tips of a group of plants over the wide opening of the canoe. He then gives a swift but gentle tap with the other stick, followed by a quick brushing motion across the tips. Dozens of the ripened two-inch-long seeds encased in their husks break free and fall. The stalks are then released and allowed to freely spring back into position, bringing no harm to the vegetation. The gentle and repetitive swishing action produces a remarkable rhythmic sound. Always smooth and precise, the skilled rice picker progresses with this alternating action repeated hundreds and hundreds of times while migrating back and forth across the lake.

There is a soothing quality to this repetitive sound in the stillness of the environment. We become immersed in absolute harmony with nature. Our attention is drawn toward a flock of Canada geese, passing low overhead. Their honking seems to declare, “See you next year!” My cousin shouts to them, “Boozhoo” (greetings)! The timing is perfect; almost as if pre-planned and orchestrated for a National Geographic magazine.

As the hours pass the small vessel becomes unsteady and weighted near capacity.

“It looks like we’ve got more than enough for now," my partner says. The real trick in returning to shore, without unintentionally dumping the unstable cargo, requires both skill and patience. The shadows grow longer as the late afternoon sun hangs heavy on the horizon. We arrive back to where we had earlier embarked. I push our unwieldy craft hard against the soft mud of the bank. Then brace the canoe as best I can with my pole.

My partner steps onto solid ground, grabs the bow and begins to pull as I push. A portion of the canoe is now on land, allowing for better stability. I step out along the side of the craft and into the shallow water. “Tomorrow we’ll definitely get an earlier start.”

The Next Phases

The act of gathering the wild rice, on this somewhat humble lake, is only the first phase of a process. Some of the green rice is set aside for re-seeding purposes. Other portions may be purchased by the Great Lakes Indian Fish & Wildlife Commission for research and study and possibly for the re-seeding of area lakes. Before the rice can be consumed however, several steps must be completed.

First, the wild rice is spread out onto a tarp and air dried in the warm September sun. Next, it must be parched or scorched beside an open fire to thoroughly remove the outer hull and any remaining moisture. If not it will mold while in storage. This is accomplished with the use of a broad wooden paddle and metal pan. A few pounds are transferred into a large galvanized metal pan, propped up next to a crackling fire.

As the pan heats, the seeds are stirred continuously with the paddle until a few of the seeds begin to pop open, just like popcorn. The batch of rice is immediately removed from the heat and set aside to cool. After it has cooled, it is ready to be “danced.”

Dancing the rice is a procedure requiring the agility of a lightweight person. The batch is poured into a shallow hole in the ground, lined with a tanned deer hide, wide enough to step into with both feet. Dancing the rice requires that the dancer, wearing soft buckskin moccasins, step lightly into the hole. He or she positions a tripod made of cedar poles, next to the hole to hold onto and support the body weight.

The dancer then steps or walks lightly “in place” carefully, while bending the knees and working the feet in a slow, heel-to-toe motion. This action causes the thin outer husk to break and separate from the edible seed.

Next, a pound or so is scooped up into a wide, shallow, handleless fanning basket made of birch bark, so it can be “fanned” (winnowed) to further purify the edible seed. The small amount of rice in the basket is tossed briskly, like a salad, for a while. As the contents go up and down repeatedly, the air catches and removes much of the remaining bits of dried husk.

Lastly, a thorough cleaning by hand to remove any small bits of remaining husk improves the purity of the product before it is packaged and added to local family’s food pantries. Some is also set aside to be packaged and purchased by consumers. The result is a natural, chemical free, self-sustaining nutritious food.

Those who have long savored the pleasing flavor of our rice, rich in both riboflavin and niacin, as a delicacy on Thanksgiving Day, indeed recognize the benefits of a healthy diet. The texture and flavor of Sokaogon harvested wild rice is a welcome addition to any dinner table, especially on those all too numerous intensely cold northern Wisconsin winter days. Wild rice is a pleasurable compliment to a myriad of meals, served either as a side dish, or part of a salad or added to stuffing or included in a variety of soups. A special favorite of course, is wild rice soup.

It is very important to understand, however, that our rice is not the same as the wild rice you found in retail grocery stores. The rice in stores is probably either “paddy rice” or river rice, which has been commercially grown, mechanically harvested and processed by heated air and packaged for mass distribution. Our rice, as with all authentic Native American harvested wild rice, is in limited supply; both labeled and sold at a higher price than commercial rice. It is important to note that Sokaogon Chippewa wild rice grows naturally and is processed in a traditional Indian way.

GoldForest.com / Retail rice seen in a grocery store is nothing like the manoomin harvested on the reservation.

Shortly after the wild rice is stored, the cool Wisconsin nights of mid-October (binaa’kwii-giizis’) induce a delightfully enigmatic fog upon the lake. Soon, the first snowfall of early November sends the brief deer-hunting season into full swing and if luck has its way, just might engender a glimpse of the ephemeral aurora borealis.

The surface water begins to freeze, (gashkadino-giizis) and local hunters delight in the fact that the deer are preoccupied by a short-lived yet fervent mating season. The cycle of life triumphs as winter (Biboon) finally takes full command. It is a time to reflect on the dreamy days of the harvest and anticipate the next.

Wikimedia Commons / A whitetail deer in winter.

A Sacred Activity

The annual harvest of this tiny seed is a sacred and vital activity and will ensure that our unique culture and heritage will endure, against the influences of industrialization.

This modest plant, guided by the whims of Mother Nature, also played a decisive role in the defeat of a proposed deep-shaft mining operation. The plan to open a metallic-sulfide mine in an effort to tap into an estimated $20 billion in metals, adjacent to this pristine and vulnerable landscape was defeated. Plans for the Crandon Mine began in the early 1970s. This 30-year controversy came to a dramatic end in 2003, as the Sokaogon took ownership of the assets of Exxon’s Nicolet Minerals Company. Mining would surely have already occurred here, had this area not been recognized for its ancient wild rice bed and headwaters of the Wolf River Watershed. It is a place critical to the traditional subsistence activities surrounding the culture and religious beliefs of a people who have always remained stewards of the earth.

No one knows the full impact of sulfide mining, and the use of cyanide for processing the ore, would have caused this area. However, the toxic by-products certainly would have had far reaching negative impacts on the fragile ecosystem. The degradation of an irreplaceable and highly complex system of natural underground aquifers, in exchange for a temporary access to copper and zinc, would have proved an incomprehensible and reckless crime against the consciousness of humanity. Although the possibility of mining could re-surface again, our accountability to the land remains paramount.

The harvest is a time for us to remember our ancestors, who passed their knowledge down to us. It helps renew the mind, the body and the spirit as an important part of cultural seasonal activities. It is meaningful because it is a time of transition from the old to the new. It is also a special time to give thanks to our Creator for this priceless gift of food. We honor Mother Earth called “Aki” in the Ojibway language, as well as the water, “NiBi,” for providing us a place to gather the manoomin.

Holding Onto the Land

The food that grows on the water is ground zero for this tiny Native American community and its compelling story of survival, which continues into the 21st century. Our Sokaogon ancestors held fast to this land, refusing to give it up during the fierce Battle of Mole Lake in 1806, resulting in the death of some 500 warriors. After Wisconsin gained its statehood in 1848, our ancestors stood firm against the threats of Zachary Taylor’s 1850 Presidential Removal Order. This U.S. president attempted to have the Wisconsin Chippewa removed from their homeland and access to traditional rice beds, sugar maple orchards, traditional gathering and harvesting grounds all essential to survival.

Our ancestors survived the U.S. government’s endeavor in the early 1900s of removing the youth from their villages and homes and into government boarding schools. This final attempt at forcing them to relinquish their Ojibway traditions, language and culture had been designed to assimilate them into white society, as they were not yet recognized as American citizens. Our grandparents successfully petitioned the government following the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934 and finally gained permanent deed to this small piece of unspoiled land in Forest County, in 1937.

Even as late as the 1980s, racism proliferated in northern Wisconsin, during the Anti-Indian Movement. For a brief time, attempts by specialized groups of individuals driven by racism and hostility, tried but failed to abolish the long-standing Chippewa treaty rights of harvesting fish each spring on ceded lands. At the beginning of the new millennium, Wisconsin’s then acting governor denied our attempt at expanding pursuits of economic self-sufficiency, vital to our community’s future. But as in the past, the stalwart Sokaogon shall remain steadfast, in concert with the timeless endurance of the wild rice.

Wild rice will always link the past to the present for the people of the Sokaogon Mole Lake Band of Ojibwe. It is a food that is used almost daily, and reigns as the centerpiece of our culture and our traditions. The harvest is truly a gift that we shall pass on to our children and our grandchildren. And remains a reminder of who we are and why we make this very special place our home.

This piece, while written in 2011 and published at Indianz.com, still rings true, even for this year’s crop.

Richard D. Ackley Jr. is a member of the Sokaogon Mole Lake Band of the Lake Superior Chippewa in Wisconsin. Contact him at the University of Wisconsin-Extension/Forest County at richard.ackley@ces.uwex.edu.

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