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How wild rice has sustained the Ojibwe people

In the Ojibwe language, wild rice (Zizania palustris) is called manoomin, meaning “good berry,” “harvesting berry,” or “wondrous grain.”

photo of wild rice harvest
Citizens of the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe harvest rice on Mud Lake, located on the Leech River, seventeen miles downstream of Leech Lake Dam, on September 3, 2015. USACE photo by George Stringham.

Wild rice is a food of great historical, spiritual, and cultural importance for the Ojibwe people. After colonization disrupted their traditional food system, however, they could no longer depend on stores of wild rice for food all year round. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, this traditional staple was appropriated by white entrepreneurs and marketed as a gourmet commodity. Native and non-Native people alike began to harvest rice to sell it for cash, threatening the health of the natural stands of the crop. This lucrative market paved the way for domestication of the plant, and farmers began cultivating it in paddies in the late 1960s. In the twenty-first century, many Ojibwe and other Native people are fighting to sustain the hand-harvested wild rice tradition and to protect wild rice beds.

Ojibwe people arrived in present-day Minnesota in the 1600s after a long migration from the east coast of the United States that lasted many centuries. Together with their Anishinaabe kin, the Potawatomi and Odawa, they followed a vision that told them to search for their homeland in a place “where the food floats on water.” The Ojibwe recognized this as the wild rice they found growing around Lake Superior (Gichigami), and they settled on the sacred site of what is known today as Madeline Island (Moningwanakauning).

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In the Ojibwe language, wild rice (Zizania palustris) is called manoomin, meaning “good berry,” “harvesting berry,” or “wondrous grain.” It is a highly nutritious wild grain that is gathered from lakes and waterways by canoe in late August and early September, during the wild rice moon (manoominike giizis).

Before contact with Europeans and as late as the early twentieth century, Ojibwe people depended on wild rice as a crucial part of their diet, together with berries, fish, meat, vegetables, and maple sugar. They moved their camps throughout the year, depending on the activities of seasonal food gathering. In autumn, families moved to a location close to a lake with a promising stand of wild rice and stayed there for the duration of the season. Men hunted and fished while women harvested rice, preparing food for their families to eat throughout the following winter, spring, and summer.

Traditional harvesting methods

Ojibwe people harvested wild rice, and continue to harvest it today, in pairs, with one person pushing or paddling a canoe and the other knocking rice into it with sticks (bawa’iganaakoog). When the wild rice is ripe, the grains fall easily into a canoe, and the grains that fall into the water lodge themselves into the mud, then grow into the following year’s stands of rice.

Freshly harvested manoomin is called “green” rice. When processed in the traditional way, it is parched (roasted) over a fire, then threshed by being stepped or danced on. This motion, called jigging, loosens and removes the fibrous outer covering of the grain. Finally, to separate the hulls from the grain, wild rice is “winnowed” or “fanned”—tossed up in the air with birch bark trays (nooshkaachinaaganan) so that the hulls are blown away and only the edible grain is left behind.

The work that goes into preparing wild rice for eating and storage was traditionally carried out collectively. Women marked the areas designated for particular families by binding a number of heads together. This ensured that everyone in the community got the rice they needed, and it also made harvesting easier.

Taking care of the natural world that sustains us forms a central part of the Ojibwe people’s way of seeing the world. Traditional wild rice harvesting practices reflect this, protecting wild rice beds for the long-term wellbeing of the ecosystem as well as the community. Designated elders would, and on reservations still do, carefully monitor lakes to prevent premature or excessive harvests, “opening” and “closing” lakes to ricing as necessary, and leaving some mature grains unharvested for re-seeding.

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Loss of a traditional food system

As far back as the early fur trade in the mid-1600s, some Ojibwe families traded wild rice for goods. For the most part, however, they collected it for household consumption or trade between tribes. Processing wild rice is a labor-intensive activity, and families harvested only as much as they could process.

Colonization, land loss, the establishment of reservations, and dependence on government food and payments separated Ojibwe people from their way of life and—with some exceptions—threatened their traditional food system. As people stopped eating their traditional diets in the mid-twentieth century, major health problems like diabetes emerged. Harvesting practices also changed as they lost access to the lakes and rivers in which wild rice grew, and as they adapted to the changing world around them. Men began to harvest wild rice together with women, gathering it in aluminum canoes rather than birch bark ones and processing it with machines. Until the 1950s, Ojibwe people remained the primary ricers.

As the national market for wild rice grew, more people became interested in figuring out how to cultivate it as a crop, like paddy rice. This led to domestication efforts at the University of Minnesota and the expansion of many acres of paddy rice in both Minnesota and California. Wild rice was made the Minnesota state grain in 1977. Unfortunately, however, the cheaper production costs of cultivated wild rice drove down demand for hand-harvested wild rice, leaving Ojibwe people without this source of income.

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Restoration and regulation

As far back as the 1930s, the health of wild rice beds has been a serious concern. In 1939 Minnesota passed a law outlawing mechanized harvest and limiting how and when wild rice could be harvested. Since then, it has enacted other protective policies, including limiting the number of hours in the day during which it is permissible to rice and limiting the length of the canoe used for ricing. In the 1990s, wild rice was identified as an endangered food. The plant is sensitive to water levels altered by dams as well as road construction, pollution, poor harvesting practices, invasive species, genetic engineering (genetic contamination of the wild rice from the paddies), and climate change.

In response to these threats, Ojibwe and other Native people organized. For example, in 1994, the Fond du Lac and Bois Forte bands developed a “Wild Rice Restoration Plan for the St. Louis River Watershed” designed to restore lost stands of the crop and manage its harvest. In the same decade, the White Earth Land Recovery Project began to sell hand-harvested wild rice, and multiple bands formed reservation wild-rice committees to manage harvests.

In the 2020s, Ojibwe people continue to defend and protect this vital plant and the cultural, health, and spiritual importance that it holds. Individuals as well as tribes organize ricing camps to teach traditional practices of ricing, parching, and finishing. Others are actively fighting against the Enbridge Line 3 oil pipeline replacement project that would cross wild rice habitat, or collaborating in a movement for Native food sovereignty.

For more information on this topic, check out the original entry on MNopedia.