Joe Hoagland, left, pushes a canoe through a wild rice bed as 14-year-old Chris Salazar learns how to harvest the rice.
Harvest season is upon us, but in the U.S.’s northern lakes, it’s not just the last tomatoes and first pumpkins. Through the end of this month, canoes will glide into lakes and rivers for the annual gathering of wild rice, kick started with the popular Wild Rice Festival in Roseville, Minn., on Saturday.
Wild rice – an aquatic grass that bears a resemblance to the edible grain – has been the center of the Ojibway Indian diet and culture for centuries. It’s considered a gift from the Creator, according to Thomas Vennum, who wrote the book on it. According to legend, the Ojibway followed a prophecy to find the place where the food grows on the water, which was around Lake Superior, particularly in Minnesota.
The Ojibway gather wild rice by hand. Ricers went out two to a canoe, one with a forked push pole, and the other with a pair of wooden flails used to knock the rice into the boat. To protect the fields, Minnesota restricts the harvesting season and regulates boats and tools. Tribal harvesters manage themselves, and reservation waters are off limits to other ricers.
I grew up in 1950s Minnesota eating this nutty, earthy grain, and I didn’t realize that in other places, it was a rare treat. But in the 1960s, scientists and businessmen tamed the wild rice, grew it in paddies and harvested by machine. Thirty years later, less than 10 percent of the world’s wild rice was gathered by hand. Unlike the irregular, light brown lake rice, cultivated rice is almost black and uniform in size and shape.
But “cultivated” is a swear word on the reservation. Wild rice is a source of income for the Ojibway, and the cheaper paddy rice dropped the price. There are also other concerns like mining, dams, and inclement weather. This year, severe flooding drowned much of the crop.
Processing — or finishing — lake rice is hugely labor intensive. First, it’s parched, or roasted, over a fire. Then it’s hulled and winnowed. This can involve dancing the rice in a pit. But there have been a few mechanical advancements.
Bruce Savage has been finishing rice since he was 16. He’s now 50 and is called “the young guy” because rice finishing is a dying art. He finished 15,000 pounds last year at his home on the edge of the reservation. Rule of thumb? 100 pounds per person.
His friend Rick Smith, who works with American Indian youth at the University of Minnesota, explains, “Rice is very spiritual for us. That’s why we came here.”