Wild Rice Season is almost upon the Anishinaabe
The time of the Wild Rice harvest is almost upon us…
The time of Wild Rice harvesting created reciprocal relationships between the Anishinaabe and the landscape, and strengthened the bonds between people. When they were not in the rice beds, the families who participated would dance, play games, tell stories, exchange gossip, share jokes, and educate young people about life. These social activities deepened the sense of community and reinforced what it meant to be Anishinaabe.
During Manoominike Giizis, or the Wild Rice Moon, Anishinaabe villages would disband and the families would migrate to their traditional rice beds where they would establish smaller camps that were family (or extended family) oriented. A single rice camp usually consisted of two to five extended families working cooperatively to make their annual harvest. Large lakes with an abundance of rice beds could accommodate several camps comprised of fifteen to twenty families each. Because the process of gathering, processing, and preserving the rice required lots of labor, it required cooperation from all individuals, young and old alike. The communal spirit associated with manoominikewin, or ‘‘making rice,’’ extended into all of the activities the people engaged in at the rice camps.
The wild rice harvest was traditionally led by women. In late August or early September, the women went out to the rice beds to tie the plant stalks into bundles. The stalks were generally twisted, bent over to form a u-shape, and tied with strips of bark or basswood fiber. This helped both to prevent shattering and to protect the grains from being eaten by birds. Binding the rice also served to identify which area of the rice bed each family would harvest and served as a way to “claim” certain areas, as each woman knew her own stalks by the peculiarity of the twist. The rights of this ownership were respected by all other Anishinaabe. Even so, families with more plentiful Wild Rice stands often invited less fortunate families to share their harvest because greed was not a virtue for the Anishinaabe.
Each band traditionally elected rice chiefs to oversee the annual harvest and to supervise the social and ecological concerns related the harvest. Rice chiefs and their committees would monitor the ecological conditions of the rice beds, determined the locations from which families could harvest, and would watch for signs of poaching. Harvesters had to wait until the rice chiefs decided the time was right to collect wild rice and the best manner to do so to prevent waste.
Wild rice was harvested using a technique called “knocking.” When the rice was ready, the women returned to the stands in pairs, with one woman steering the canoe using a long, forked pole that provided traction in the muddy lake bottom, while the second woman (the ricer) would bend the tied rice bunches over the side of the canoe, loosen the bark or twine, and tap the stalk lightly with a bawa, or ‘‘knocker,’’ until the grain dislodged and fell into the canoe. To collect rice that had not been bundled, the ricer used one knocker to draw the stalks toward her and another knocker to tap the ripe rice kernels into the boat. This process was repeated until the boat was full. Harvesting wild rice in this manner supported the wild rice ecosystem because it left most of the grain for resident waterfowl to feed on and ensured enough seed would remain to foster the growth of new plants in subsequent seasons.
Newly harvested wild rice was brought back to the camp for drying, either by the sun or over a smoldering fire. Sun-dried grains were parched in a hot kettle to destroy the germ, loosen the husk, and impart flavor. After drying, the rice was hulled to separate the chaff from the kernel. The hulled rice was then winnowed using either a birch bark fan, or a nooshkaachinaagan – a birch-bark tray that was used to toss the kernels into the air and allow the wind to separate the chaff from the grain. After winnowing, the rice was ready for eating or for storage. Uneaten grains were traditionally stored underground in animal skin or bark containers or in woven cedar bags. Properly cured and stored rice could last for several years and kept people from starving when times were lean.
The Anishinaabe regarded wild rice as a sacred plant. This was (and continues to be) reflected in almost all aspects of life. Ceremonies, feasts, and other important events always incorporate wild rice in some way. It is often the first solid food that babies receive, while it is one of the last solid foods that elders eat before they move on to the Spirit world.
Densmore, F. 2012. How Indians use wild plants for food, medicine & crafts. Mineaola, NY: Courier Corporation.
LaDuke, W. 2007. Ricekeepers: A struggle to protect biodiversity and a Native American way of life. The world as we know it.
Vennum, T. 1988. Wild rice and the Ojibway people. St. Paul, MN: Minnesota Historical Society Press.