was June 1897, when William Gordon arrived with his family at the
Bad River Reservation. Tall, straight pines with their solid canopy
of branches sill shaded the soft, deep carpet of needles, the accumulation
of centuries, but they were rapidly disappearing. The beaver too,
which had been the standard by which the value of goods was rated,
were also being depleted due to over trapping, lack of their favorite
food, the birch and aspen, and also from disease.
Philip Gordon and Joe Mesabi would be separated for the first time.
They would miss each other but both were busy learning many skills
from indulgent parents, sisters, brothers and respected older members
of the tribe.
The boys were encouraged to fast while still young and to reveal
their dreams so that they would know what to look for when the time
came for their trial when they would find a spirit to guide them
Mesabi had taken his vision quest and Philip had been conditioned
by an occasional fast so when late that summer, he went into the
forest, he was ready for his manhood trial. Fasting had supposedly
cleared his mind and Philip pondered the possibility of Mesabi one
day becoming a chief of the tribe. Although his mind was receptive,
his visions were confused.
He dreamed of many things out there in the lonely forest, but his
dreams had no significance. Mesabi knew he was designated to follow
Osawati; but when Phil returned home after four days, his quest
was unresolved. He had found no spirit to guide him through life.
The Christian faith of his grandfather was in conflict with the
old Indian tradition.
The hot summer was passing with many things to do and now it was
August. Soon the harvest moon would be shining over the Bad River
and ricing time would be here. Rice was one of the most important
items of food among the Chippewas, and so a good harvest was important
When the top of the grass began to turn yellow, the Indian women
would go out to bind the stalks into the sheaves. A-te-ge-kwe had
prepared basswood fiber from the inner bark of the tree to be used
for tying. She split the long strips, tied them together and rolled
them into a ball. When she went into the rice fields in her canoe,
she wore a special waist with a birchbark basket behind her back
to hold the ball of twine. The fiber was passed through the little
birchbark rings on her shoulder so it was always ready and would
not become tangled.
With a 'rice hoop,' a branch curved and secured with strips of fiber,
A-te-ge-kwe would draw clusters of rice stalks towards her and wind
the fiber around them, bending the tip of the bundle down. This
would protect the rice from the birds, wind, and floods until the
tops turned purple. Then it would be time for harvesting
Phil eagerly anticipated the rice harvest. It was a time of festivities.
Entire family groups established camps for several weeks and all
helped during the process.
In the meantime, there were geese and ducks to be shot or snared
before they migrated south. A-te-ge-kwe and the other women prepared
the green deer hide, placing it over a log and scraping the hair
A-te-ge-kwe was a small woman. When Philip was grown, she only reached
to his shoulder. He was a full head taller, but she had the strength
and agility of her ancestors and worked right along with the other
Phil liked to watch the women as they cut the hide into strips wove
them into nets and placed them in the rice fields. They sometimes
caught forty geese at one time. These they prepared and smoked for
When the rice was ready, usually a man and a woman went out in a
canoe. The man had the strenuous job of slowly poling the canoe
through the water with a forked pole, skillfully guiding it between
the rows of tied bundles. The woman sat in the stern of the canoe
and rhythmically beat the stalks on each side to knock off the rice
When the canoe was filled, they brought it to the camp. First they
picked out by had the pieces of dried stalks and debris that had
fallen in with the rice. Then they spread the rice on large blankets
to dry, being careful not to put it directly in the sun where it
These were good times for Phil and his friends. In later years he
returned at every opportunity for the ricing.
The next step, parching, was a critical one. One of the women put
a few pounds of rice at a time in a big kettle over the fire. She
had propped the kettle in a slightly slanting position so she could
sit on a rush mat and stir the rice with a slender paddle. The fire
had to be well regulated and the rice constantly stirred so it would
Many family camps were processing rice at the same time. Phil would
always remember the rich, zesty aroma that hung over the area when
the parching fires blended with the maple-sugar flavored meat stewing
for the evening meal.
Parching loosened husks, cured the rice, and gave a nutlike flavor.
It was a slow and tedious process but it was the best method. Another
method was producing what was known as 'hard rice,' which was greenish
black, much darker than parched rice and required longer to cook.
This method was similar to drying berries. A layer of hay was placed
on a rack and the rice spread on it and dried over a slow fire.
During the parching, the women had winnowing trays beside the fire
into which they emptied the parched rice. Others would take it to
a spot where there was a breeze to blow the chaff when they poured
the rice onto a sheet of birchbark on the ground. The next step
known as pounding the rice, was not really pounding, which would
destroy the kernels, in a barrel or wooden container of rice, a
wooden pestle about five and a half feet long was dropped carefully
around the outer edge of the container to free the husk from the
This year, Phil would help with 'dancing the rice.' He put on the
moccasins that had been made for the purpose and tied them tightly
around his ankles while A-te-ge-kwe placed some rice in the barrel,
which was sunk into the ground. Leaning on the diagonal poles on
each side, Phil preformed a sort of dance, which would dislodge
the last fragments of husks without harming the kernels. The chaff
was also saved and cooked into the rice. The Indians took pride
in carrying out each step of the ricing process.
There would be rice seasoned with maple sugar, for the evening meal,
along with fish the women had caught in their nets that morning
and the rabbits the boys had hunted, already stewing over the campfire.
After a long day of hard work, there was dancing and drumming on
the sore at night when all the families, who had not seen each other
in months, got together. These events would forever be burned into
Phil's memory and were an influence later in his life.
Many preparations were made for the long, severe winter months.
All during the summer the Indian families had been gathering berries,
fruits, and herbs to preserve and dry for the winter. Later they
would travel to the cranberry bogs to harvest the berries to dry.
These, or sometimes blueberries, were used to make pemmican. They
were mixed with chopped venison and smoked, the stomach of a deer
being used as a casing. This would keep a long time and was handy
to take along on a trip.
Most of the garden vegetables, -- corn, squash, and potatoes - were
already stored away. The Indians lacked many luxuries but they were
festivities to enjoy and good food when the harvest was plentiful.