Carl Eastvoid shares the history of harvesting wild rice while sharing the story of the Anishinabe people.
The Anishinabe and Harvesting Wild Rice
Let me tell you about the Anishinabe and show off my ignorance. It is said by some that the largest Native American tribe in America is the Navaho. It is true the Ojibwe tribe is smaller, but if you go by the name they call themselves, Anishinabe—you must also include the Algonquin, Nipissing, Oji-Cree, Odawa, and Potawatomi—all of which are Anishinabe, plus you'd have to throw in half the Metis for good measure, making it, by far, the largest tribe in North America.
The oral tradition of the Anishinabe, or Shinob, tells the story of the five original clans, Crane, Marten, Loon, Bear, and Catfish, traveling west from the Waaban Ahki or Waabanakiing—the Dawn Land—besides the great salt water (Atlantic Ocean). Though my native blood is greatly diluted, what there is, is Bear Clan. I used to know some of the language, but now all I can remember is how to offer someone coffee. "Gee yee mindicay muckaday meskeeki waboo ina." Of course, that does come in handy. Starts things off on the right foot.
People who study such things tell us the Anishabe started from somewhere in Canada, then went to the Atlantic, and then returned. This great migration took centuries, but the Anishinabe tradition deals only with the return trip.
In the Waaban Ahki (Dawn Land) there was great sickness. Some say this was from malaria—but as malaria seems to be a disease introduced from Europe, this is unlikely as the time frame pre-dates white contact. At any rate, the Anishinabe were ill and many died. To save the people, the great Miigis ("Megis, or Sacred Cowrie Shell) arose from the sea and gave the people direction.
The Great Miigis also gave the people the Midewiwin, the grand medicine society so they could be cured. They were told they should head to the west, where they would find seven Miigis and seven fires along the way. When they reached the seventh Miigis, they would find food that grows on the water—and there, they should settle and never leave.
Now each of these Miigis and fires would be found on a Turtle Island, and we know where some of them are. Manatoulin comes to mind in Lake Huron. Mackinac Island (at the Mackinac Narrows), Michipicoten Island (at the east end of Lake Superior), and, of course, Madeline Island (at the west end of Superior, among the Apostle Islands). Some say Washington Island on Basswood Lake is the Seventh Miigis (some say there are eight). Turtles are good medicine for the Anishnabe, while owls are dreaded. I could tell you owl stories...if a Shinob comes on an owl... but I digress.
The seven Turtle Islands each represent the continent of North America, which, to Anishinabe, is the great Turtle Island. Something to do with the Anishinabe creation story. Too much to go into just now. Yah, right, all very confusing unless you're Shinob.
Yah, well, that's a load of words just to get around to harvesting wild rice, eh?
Wild rice is a food that grows on water. I've been told it isn't really rice, but rather a water grass with nourishing seeds that look like rice. Who cares.
Harvesting Wild Rice
Or, as my grandmother used to put it, "How a woman with two good knockers can feed a family." Grandmother was a salty old gal and could be a bit risque at times. Knockers, of course, are the two 30-inch cedar wood sticks, about an inch and an eighth around, you use to bend over the rice stalks and "knock" the ripe rice. The DNR (Department of Natural Resources) refers to the knockers, in their literature, as "flails," but I never heard that term until about a year or two ago. They've always been "knockers" to me.
In Minnesota, your canoe has to be 18 feet or less and no wider than a yard. If you are able, remove the seats and anything else that will obstruct the rice landing in the canoe. The stuff bounces back into the water if you're not careful. The push-pole should be ten to 14 feet in length and have a fork on end. In the old days, this was constructed out of the crotch of a tree joined to a pole. In more recent years, commercially made duckbill push poles have been available.
The hardest part of the whole operation is finding someone dumb enough to go out with you and pole your canoe around all day. One of you needs to sit in the center of the canoe and knock rice, while the other stands in the rear of the canoe and pushes the canoe to the right spot with a pole.
Harvest opens August 15 and runs through September 30, but there is seldom enough rice ripe before the end of August to make it worthwhile. A permit from the state is $25. You can get it through the Minnesota DNR website. It used to be much less, but Governor Dayton loves to get his hand in your wallet.
Last year we started on Smith Lake in NE Minnesota, getting there at about 8 am. The opening is 9 am, and it's not worth getting caught out early. You have to be through ricing by 3 pm. For ricing, we usually start on the rivers, as the river rice seems to mature a little earlier. Island River is good, and the Little Indian Sioux, especially the lower end down toward Trout Lake. The lakes and rivers below Gabbi-michi-gammi are good too, earlier in the season, but it means a lot of portages. It's an odd thing: it seems wild rice matures earlier the further north you are.
Smith Lake is choked with rice. There is really no possibility of doing anything else on this lake. It is strictly a "ricing" lake. Poling the canoe is a big job, as the bottom is soft, and the rice stalks are so thick they impede the canoe. I usually end up in the drink at least once while poling on Smith Lake. We also rice on a lake up near the family homestead. This lake is hard to get to, and I seldom see anyone but family ricing there. There isn't as much rice as on Smith Lake, but ricing is a dream, as the lake has a hard bottom and poling is easy. We camp in a clearing on the NE end of the lake where my family has had a ricing camp for generations (you notice I haven't named the lake).
Rice matures at different times, and we usually end up on Wigiwam Lake. The lake is named for the ricing wigwams of Grandma Baker, an old woman in our family who lived to be the oldest woman, of her day, in the state of Minnesota.
You know, I'm getting off subject again, but Grandma Baker was a hoot. She was from the south shore of Lake Superior by Madeline Island, but about 1900 she heard the government was sending all the Indian kids to a government school, so she gathered up her grandkids and great-grandkids and paddled them up to the north shore, across Lake Superior, and lived traditional back in the woods. She wasn't too interested in a government school. My great-grandfather, who had a big logging camp, saw her there and looked out for her, proving up on a homestead claim and turning the land over to her. Some of her grandkids married into the family.
She was very industrious, hunted, trapped, riced, made sugar, speared fish, and made hundreds of pairs of snowshoes for the US Forest Service (I have a pair). But she did have one vice. Twice a year, she would hike out to the shore of Lake Superior and get drunk: once in summer and once in winter. When she was about 100, she had a bit too much and fell down in the snow while snowshoeing home and froze herself pretty well. They stuck her in a nursing home in Superior, Wisconsin. She settled in there—at least until spring—then she escaped. No one knew what had come of her, but after a couple of months, she reappeared at her cabin on the Cross River—a matter of over 100 miles.
The Sheriff, Emil Nelson, went up to collect her, surprising her in her garden. Unfortunately for Sheriff Nelson, she had her cast iron fry pan with her, and Sheriff Nelson decided to leave before she made a lasting impression on him.
Sheriff Nelson returned later with a deputy. This time Grandma Baker was ready for him and had her old cap-lock shotgun ready. Sheriff Nelson never bothered again. It seemed like shooting her just wasn't going to help the situation, and getting shot might be worse. She lived on the Cross until she died, 103 or 105, depending on who you talk to. The deputy, who was later the Lake County court bailiff, told me about this. Can't think of his name.
Back to Ricing
As you approach the rice, the "knocker (person knocking rice)" bends the rice stalks over the canoe with one "knocker (piece of wood)" and gently taps, or strokes, the tops of the rice stalks with the other "knocker (piece of wood)" causing the ripe rice to fall into the canoe.
Though some people will put a tarp in the bottom of the canoe, I've found this problematic, and it is not traditional in our family. For us, the rice just ends up in the bottom of the canoe, and you just dump the rice out of the canoe—when you get to land—onto tarps laid out on the beach. You move the rice around from time to time on the tarp until it's dry. The most rice I've managed to get at one 9 am to 3 pm period is about 75 pounds of rice. Some of my Shinab cousins—who have no time limit—can get 300 pounds in a day, but they start at "can-see" and go to "can't see."
I should mention there will be bugs, mostly just those little annoying flies that don't bite but manage to get up your nose or in your eyes when you haven't got a hand free.
Most of our harvested rice goes to a small local processor. They get part of the rice for their efforts. However, every year, we like to hand-process some of the rice like my ancestors did. To do this, I build a fire and set a stone beside it. I place a 25-gallon kettle on the stone, so the bottom of the kettle is canted at an angle partially over the fire (no water in the kettle!). With a small carved paddle, I keep swishing the rice up over the hot part of the kettle. Gravity pulls the rice back down to the part of the kettle which is not over the fire. After a bit of this: the "beards" are burnt away, and the rice is ready to thresh.
Threshing the Rice
Threshing can be done using a hollowed-out stump as a mortar and a large log as a pestle. This is boring!
I prefer another method: "Dancing" on the rice. To do this, you dig a small pit, line it with split cedar shakes around the edges, and a clean canvas tarp (my grandfather used deer or moose hides, newly worked). Next to the pit, you set up a railing, two uprights and a cross-piece. You use this to maintain your balance. You put the rice in the pit and, with newly made moggasins, you dance on the rice. Someone pounding a drum is good to help you keep the beat, but a Sony Walkman will do in a pinch.
Once the chaff is removed from the grain of the rice, you place the rice with the chaff in a birchbark tray. You take the tray to an area with a good breeze (I've been known to take it home and use an electric fan) and toss the rice and chaff in the air. The wind will take the chaff, while the rice will fall back down into the tray. You have to do this many times.
The wild rice you end up with is a far better product than what you buy in stores. This "hand-processed" wild rice will cook in 15 minutes, while the "farm" rice you buy in the store takes 45 minutes to an hour to cook.
Wild rice will last about forever if you keep it dry. For the last several years, I've had about 60 pounds unprocessed out in the shed—in some of those three-gallon holiday popcorn tins—just waiting until I feel like dancing.
© 2016 Carl Eastvold