As the Anishinaabeg Ojibwe tell the story, Nanaboozhoo, the cultural hero of the Anishinaabeg, was introduced to wild rice by fortune, and by a duck.
...One evening Nanaboozhoo returned from hunting, but he had no game...As he came towards his fire, there was a duck sitting on the edge of his kettle of boiling water. After the duck flew away, Nanaboozhoo looked into the kettle and found wild rice floating upon the water, but he did not know what it was. He ate his supper from the kettle, and it was the best soup he had ever tasted. Later, he followed in the direction the duck had taken, and came to a lake full of manoomin: wild rice. He saw all kinds of ducks and geese and mud hens, and all the other water birds eating the grain. After that, when Nanaboozhoo did not kill a deer, he knew where to find food to eat....
Manoomin is a centerpiece of the nutrition and sustenance for our community, a gift given to the Anishinaabeg from the Creator. The word manoomin itself contains a reference to the Creator, who is referred to as Gitchi Manidoo. In the earliest of historic teachings of Anishinaabeg, there is a reference to wild rice as the food which grows upon the water; the food the ancestors were told to find so they would know when to end their migration to the West. This profound and historic relationship is remembered in the wild rice harvest on White Earth and other reservations. It is a food uniquely ours, a food used in our daily lives, our ceremonies, and in our thanksgiving feasts.
But manoomin has left its home, its eastern North American wetland bioregion. From its "homegrown" wild market, wild rice production has spun out into a growing national and small international commerce (the primary markets are for wild rice processed as one ingredient in Uncle Ben's, Pillsbury, and Gourmet House specialty products, and for little gourmet bags for specialty shops). There's a Wild Rice Council scouting the expanded markets, particularly in Europe and Eastern Europe. The price no longer varies with rains, drought, hail, wind, and flooding. Commercial competition, especially from paddy "wild" rice grown in California, has entangled our people with the global economy.
It is the wild rice moon, Manoominigiizis, in the north country, and the lakes teem with a harvest. "Ever since I was bitty, I've been ricing," reminisces Spud Fineday of Ice Cracking Lake. This year, Spud, with his wife Tater (a.k.a. Vanessa Fineday), started ricing at Cabin Point and then moved to Big Flat Lake; both lakes are within the borders of the Tamarac National Wildlife Refuge. "Sometimes we can knock four to five hundred pounds a day," he says, explaining that he alternates the jobs of "poling and knocking" with his wife.
The Finedays, like many other Anishinaabeg Ojibwe from White Earth (and other reservations in the region), continue to rice in order to feed their families, to buy school clothes and fix cars, and to get ready for the ever-returning winter. The wild rice harvest of the Anishinaabeg feeds the soul, continuing a tradition generations old.
The crispness of early fall touches my face as we paddle through the rice on Blackbird Lake. Four eagles fly overhead, and a flock of geese moves gracefully across the sky. Through the rice, I can see officers of the law ensconced in their work. They are ricing. Eugene Clark (a.k.a. Beebzo), Ogema mayor and Becker County deputy sheriff, and John MacArthur, a Mahnomen County sheriff, are Anishinaabeg. Today they are continuing the harvesting tradition. As they move swiftly through the rice bed, MacArthur knocks and Clark poles. Clark started ricing at 14, and is 53 now. MacArthur, as well, began ricing as a teenager. "We're out here to eat, not to make money," they tell me; they are ricing for their families. That day they bring in a couple hundred pounds of green rice.
It's said that there are fewer rice buyers this year on the reservation, although Beebzo maintains that "there were more people at the rice-permit drawing for (Tamarac Lakes) than vote in most elections." By two weeks into ricing season, Native Harvest (White Earth Land Recovery Project; producer and distributor of Native products) had bought from thirty or forty ricers.
Although new varieties of wild rice have been under study by the University of Minnesota since the 1950s, industrialized "wild" rice did not take off until the late 1960s and early 1970s. Minne-sota's paddy wild rice production became aggressive in 1968 (about 20 percent of the market). By 1972, government-supported research led to varieties that wouldn't prematurely shatter when combines harvested drained "lakes." Minnesota's 1973 yield was some four million pounds. The increase in production attracted large corporations (Uncle Ben's, Green Giant, and General Foods), began to skew the perceptions of what was "wild" about "wild rice," and altered the market by representing paddy wild rice as hand-harvested lake-grown.
In 1977, the Minnesota state legislature made wild rice our official state grain. That was perhaps the kiss of death for the lake wild rice crop. With an outpouring from the state coffers, the University of Minnesota cranked up its efforts to develop a domesticated version of the wild rice crop. By the early 1980s, cultivated "wild rice" outstripped indigenous varieties. Ironically, with an it-can-grow-anywhere variety now available, Minnesota lost its monopoly to California. In California, water is bought, not rained down; no wind, no hail. You just put the rice seed in, tend it, and harvest it, pretty much like any other commercial crop.
By 1983, California had produced 8.3 million pounds compared to Minnesota's five million. About fifteen years ago, the federal government paid California white-rice farmers not to grow their crop. Left with flooded fields, harvesting equipment, and an infrastructure custom-designed for rice, Californians turned the government incentive into a galloping "wild" rice cash crop. By 1986, 95 percent of the "wild" rice harvested was paddy grown, most of it in northern California. Flooding the market drove down prices. Minnesotan lakeside prices crashed, devastating the Native wild rice economy. Wild rice had leapt from local to national to global economics, and to a concern for consumers who had no idea who profited or which wild rice still bore the taste of our lakes and muds.
Joe LaGarde, members of the White Earth Tribal Council, and other Indians worry about not just economics but biology. "Man thinks he can improve on something that's been developing over thousands of years. Eventually, he might end up with nothing." Every ricer knows that the wild rice is distinct between lakes. "There's sand-bottom rice (usually shorter grains), muddy-bottom rice, all of that. We're concerned about possible crossbreeding of these hybrid cultivated varieties with our lake rice." The White Earth Tribal Council wrote a letter to the University of Minnesota, asking them to "quit messing with the rice." There appears to be little state regulatory interest in ecological preservation of indigenous wild rice varieties.
A pickup pulls up at the rice mill, and Eugene Davis and Tony Warren bring in around 300 pounds of rice off South Chippewa Lake. They are tired, wet from the recurring rain of morning, but happy. "I like it when it rains out there," 19-year-old Eugene tells me. "It's nice; you can't hear anything but the rain." It is that peace which brings the ricers back. It is also the memories. I ask Eugene what he thinks about the fact that probably five or ten generations of his family have been on that same lake. "I like knowing that they was on the same lake, it makes me feel good," he responds, and smiles.
Receiving the rice are Ronnie Chilton, Pat Wichern, Pete Thompson, and a few other men who gather under some tarps at the offices of the White Earth Land Recovery Project on Round Lake. The sweet smell of parching rice wafts through the dusty air. Ancient machines shift and creak as the husks blow off and the rice slowly moves through a long chain of events, at the end of which the shiny dark green, tan, and brown wild rice glimmers in the September sun. The equipment is virtually antique, and much of it handmade: a 1940s Red Clipper fanning mill, a handmade thrasher, a 1980s set of George Stinson's parching drums (George is a Deer River celebrity), a 1950s-vintage gravity table. (Most newly produced equipment is for the large operations?like those in California, not here.) The men fiddle around with the machines, fine-tune the gravity table. The air is filled with the dust from the rice. Ronnie, Pat, and Pete look a bit like Anishinaabeg chimney sweeps, covered in rice hulls, but smiling beneath all of it. They are local producers, and this is the quality perfection of the small batch, and the simple joy of this life. They are doing their job, and that rice, like that of their ancestors, is going to feed families, and feed spirits.
To Pat, Ronnie, Spud, Tater, and the rest of the ricers of White Earth, the Ojibwe Wild Ricing Moon is the season of a harvest, a ceremony and a way of life. "I grew up doing that," reflects Spud Fineday. "You get to visit people you haven't seen for a whole year, because just about everyone goes ricing." Far away, a combine is harvesting wild rice somewhere in California, and consumers are eating a very different rice. The Anishinaabeg would not trade for that rice, or for the combine. In the end, this rice right here tastes like a lake, and that taste cannot be replicated.