In the Ojibwe language,
wild rice (Zizania palustris) is called manoomin, meaning "good
berry," "harvesting berry," or "wondrous grain."
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.Public
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
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).
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
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.
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 andwith some exceptionsthreatened
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.
Ojibwe people both on and off reservations faced a period of difficulty
after World War II. Traditional lifeways could no longer sustain
family needs, and jobs were difficult to find. Many people moved
to cities; others suffered from poverty on their reservations. At
the same time, the North American wild rice market shifted as a
new marketing model began to demand products in large quantities
to be sold across the nation. The price of wild rice rose as it
gained in popularity, and both Natives and non-Natives began to
harvest the crop for cash rather than for home consumption. Inexperienced
non-Native harvesters used methods that began to put wild rice beds
in danger. Technology, including parching, thrashing, and fanning
machines, was further developed to process the rice with more ease.
Processing plants were set up across the stateprimarily, but
not exclusively, by white people.
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.
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.
About the author - Jessica Milgroom
Jessica Milgroom works at the nexus of healthy food, land, and
communities through agroecology and food sovereignty movements.
Other interests include decolonization, socially just policy, access
to land, water and biodiversity, and forced resettlement. She earned
a PhD from Wageningen University, the Netherlands. She is a founding
member of the Cultivate! collective and an associate professor at
the Centre for Agroecology, Water and Resilience at the University
of Coventry in the UK.