One of the food staples particularly enjoyed by the Ojibwe and Menominee was wild rice.
Wild rice is not a true rice, but rather a cereal grass -- Zizania aquatica -- which grows in shallow lakes and streams. It ripens in late summer, usually from the middle of August to early September. Native people in the Great Lakes boiled rice and ate it with corn, beans, or squash. Meat, a small amount of grease, or maple sugar was often added for seasoning. As a treat, it was occasionally parched like popcorn. For storage, rice was placed in birchbark containers. If a family wished to leave some rice in an area they would return to later in the year, they buried a dugout canoe full of rice on the sunny slope of a hill, so rain water would drain off and not spoil the grain. It was said that rice cached this way would keep as long as two years.
Wild rice was so important to the Menominee that they became known as the Wild Rice people. In their oral traditions, wild rice was the gift of one of the Underneath beings and sacrifices were necessary to insure a good harvest. When the rice was ready for harvesting, tobacco was offered to this spirit (it was put in a tiny hole dug for the purpose) and the chief asked for four days of good weather during which his people could gather the rice. After that, the Underneath spirits and the Thunderbirds could claim their share. The chief threw tobacco into the fire as an offering to the Thunderbirds so they would not interfere with the weather. After the speech all the old people had a chance to smoke the tobacco as the pipe was passed from one to the other. Then a feast was held. Calm weather was thus assured, unless someone did not act with due respect or made excessive noise. Menstruating women were not allowed on the rice fields, nor were families in mourning for individuals who had passed on during the previous year.
Harvesting the Rice
In the morning, the men set out in their canoes with a woman to knock the rice. The woman sat in the prow of the canoe, facing the rear, while the man usually stood in the stern. Because it was impractical to paddle through the dense rice stalks, the man propelled the canoe with a crotched sapling ten to sixteen feet long, using it to grip the roots of the rice. With a twist of the pole he forced his boat through the tall stalks. The woman, using a cedar stick about three feet long, pulled bunches of rice over the gunwales and, with a shorter stick, knocked the ripened grain into the bottom of the canoe. It was hot and tiresome work, but the people all moved with a rhythm they had learned as children. In more recent times, double-ended rowboats were used instead of canoes. Instead of the traditional pair of man and woman working together, pairs of men or women also now harvest rice as a team.
Each family had its particular rice field. Some travelled from one lake or stream to another, or gave permission to a relative to harvest rice in a certain place. Some groups appointed policemen to watch over the rice until it was ready for harvest while others had watchmen announce when it was ripe. When the chief was informed that the rice was ready to gather, he instructed the policemen to make an announcement to the people: Tomorrow, we will commence the harvest. All of these protective measures -- the policemen, special feasts, and offerings -- were necessary because the people had to gather the rice before the waterfowl ate it or storms destroyed it. As they set out in the morning, each person automatically threw an additional pinch of tobacco into the water to guard against storms and assure the success of the harvest.
When the canoe was filled, the party returned to shore and, putting the rice into bark or wooden containers, carried it back to their own section of the camp. Traditionally, a small amount of rice was prepared and cooked, blessed by the chief, and then eaten by everyone assembled as a ritual offering to the spirits. Today, this feast of thanks survives, as each family gives thanks when they eat the first of the new rice crop -- but this is ordinarily done after most of rice has been processed rather than on the first night.
Processing the Rice
After the rice was cleaned of extraneous material -- twigs, pieces of stalks, small stones, and worms -- it was spread out on sheets of birchbark, blankets, or canvas to dry in the sun. When it was dry enough, the women put several pounds of rice in a big iron kettle or galvanized iron washtub and parched it over an open fire. To keep it from scorching, they stirred it constantly with a wooden paddle. This parching process cured the rice and also helped loosen the outer husks. Final removal of the husks was accomplished by “dancing the rice.” A man put on special moccasins with high cuffs that were wrapped around the ankles which prevented the rice from getting inside. He then stepped into a hole in the ground that had been lined with skin or into a wooden tub sunk in the ground. Leaning on a diagonal post for support, he tramped on the rice, moving first on one foot and then the other. This process further loosed the husks from the rice, preparing it for the last step.
The final chore was to separate the rice grains from their chaff, and this was done by the women on a breezy afternoon. Placing a quantity of rice into large birchbark winnowing trays, they flipped the rice kernels into the air. The chaff blew away and the heavy grains sank to the bottom of the tray. This technique took a good deal of finesse and practice, and young girls just beginning to learn the process were scolded if they allowed too much rice to fall to the ground.
For several weeks the family stayed in the ricing fields. In spite of the hard work -- gathering the rice in the morning, and parching, tramping, and winnowing it in the afternoon -- the people were happy because there were always plenty of friends and relatives on the lake shore, with dancing and drumming at night -- a chance to visit with families one had not seen for months.
Wild rice is a staple food for Great Lakes Indian people. Today, most ricing fields are protected by the federal government and shared by all Indians equally, but many families still return to the same fields that were allotted to them by their tribal chiefs. Blackbirds, waterfowl, storms, and periods of drought all combine to determine a good or bad rice harvest. Dams erected many miles away can also affect the harvest, for wild rice grows in the shallow parts of lakes and streams, maturing best if a fairly constant water level is maintained. At one time, among the Ojibwe, it was a rather common practice to tie unripened sheaves of rice into a sort of “shepherd’s crook.” This may have been done to establish definite areas for each family to harvest, but it also protected the grain from the birds and high water, and prevented heavy winds from blowing the ripened grain into the lake.