For thousands of years, Native American tribes in the Great Lakes region have been harvesting wild rice. They call it manoomin.
But over the past few centuries, this tradition has been dying out. The rice beds have been shrinking, and the cultural knowledge has been disappearing. Many tribes were forced to relocate away from the wild rice beds. Starting in the 1870s, some children were taken from their families, into boarding schools. They were given English names and cut off from their culture and from the knowledge of how to harvest rice.
In Michigan, some people are trying to bring the tradition back.
Roger LaBine is a member of the Lac Vieux Desert band of Lake Superior Chippewa. He says manoomin is central to his ancestors’ migration story.
“And they were presented in visions with seven prophecies and we would know where our homeland would be when we found this food that grows on the water, which is the manoomin.”
Here, on Tubbs Lake near Mecosta, you can still find wild rice. The rice beds look like a bright green meadow growing on the water. It’s the perfect spot for Wild Rice Camp. About 50 people are here, young and old, tribal and non-tribal. They’re here to learn how to harvest and process the rice.
Barb Barton is one of the camp’s instructors.
“So to harvest rice you use cedar ricing sticks, they look like shortened pool cues. You pull rice over the boat and knock the rice into the boat.”
(snd of knocking rice)
After a couple hours on the lake, everyone heads back to camp to process the rice.
Charley Fox has been ricing since he was nine years old. He’s showing us how to soften the rice in a copper kettle.
“It takes the moisture out of the rice kernel, gets the outer shaft brittle to where you can roll it in your fingers. it’s a golden color, it’s ready to go, ready for the next stage where they dance on it!”
Saige Mackay is 11 years old. She’s in a little pit, wearing moccasins.
“I’m dancing on the rice. It shells the rice so you don’t have the husks on it, like husking corn.”
(dancing sound under)
Then it’s on to the winnowing stage. That’s where they use birch baskets to separate the husks from the rice. Then they clean the rice, and it’s finally ready to eat.
Zhawan Sprague is the daughter of a tribal chairman.
“My dad really wanted me to learn more about how to like, harvest rice, so I’m really excited how it’s going to end out.”
A lot of people here are first timers.
Roger LaBine says he loves having all the kids around.
He says to the Anishinaabe people, everything has a spirit. He says the spirit of the manoomin is glad to have them back.
“It’s been waiting for us. By us coming out here and harvesting this rice, it’s helping us to enhance it. Not only the rice bed but it’s a healing process for us, it gives us that incentive to carry it on. We need that. It’s our identity. It’s almost like a language, we lose our identity if we lose our language, if we lose our dance, if we lose our drum.”
LaBine says on the last day of camp, they’ll return one day’s harvest back to the water, to re-seed the rice beds for next year.
“And say thank you, Miigwetch, give us all that we need and no more than we need so that we can carry this on.”
Rebecca Williams, The Environment Report