WILD RICE AND THE OJIBWAY PEOPLE, Thomas Vennum, Jr; Minnesota Historical Society Press, 345 Kellogg Boulevard West, St Paul, MN 55102; 800-647-7827. 1988, 358 pages, index, Ojibway glossary, bibliography, notes, photos, map. Hardbound,, $29.95; 0-87351-225-1;paper, $14.95 , 0-87351-226-X
Wild rice, mahnoomin in Ojibwe, or Zinzania aquatica in the scientific Latin of botanists, is a grain that grows in shallow lakes that have an outlet, so the water does not become stagnant, and along slow-flowing slough margins of some rivers in the Great Lakes region, and has been a tribal food staple -- the most important food -- for Anishinaabeg peoples in Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Canada. In the early fall, it bears plentiful grains which still are harvested from canoes poled through the standing reeds by -- traditionally -- a woman using two smooth, lightweight sticks called knockers. This method of harvest leaves enough reseeding grains to fall later, when the last of the head shatters. A few grains fall into the water when the stalks are pulled into the canoe with one stick, struck gently with the other. Traditionally, rice chiefs (now rice committees) observed the rice and declared when it was ready: ripe enough that the dying reeds would not be hurt by canoes crisscrossing the beds, but the stalks would spring back up to later deliver their remaining grains to the mud for the next year's crop. The rice officers traditionally oversaw the rice camps, making sure no one injured the rice. And the people gave thanks for it.
The rice was, and to traditional people still is, considered a gift of the spirits, woven into Ojibwe culture through legends, ceremonies and the fact that this grain was the staple food of life, the central fact of Anishinaabeg peoples' existence. Harvest was a time when families of a band who riced the same lake came together for work, hunting wildfowl who were gorging on the rice to fatten up for their journey south, fish, and for socializing beefore the long winter, when the group disbanded into smaller family units who could support themselves on the winter hunting of a particular woods range.
It is richer in nutrients than all cultivated grains, when prepared by drying, parching and husking. Caches of the grain can last for years, and the grain will rmain viable. Discovered by tourist-hunters, the wild rice became a favored gourmet food, so selling some the harvest also became a means of obtaining small amounts of cash, to buy the various white man's goods that have become necessary in the years since the 1700's, and as a cash crop, too, for relatives who meet their families at the ricing beds, up from the city for the annual fall ricing, to get some food for the city winter, and some cash for the winter hard times.
Vennum's book is divided into 8 sections: The plant (its environment and sensitivities not only to air and water pollution but to water level changes such as are caused by dams), rice as a food (nutritional values, preparation, cooking, and how the rice supported the intrusion of the fur traders); in legend and ceremony (how the rice is central to the culture and identity of the peoples who depended on it); methods and social life of the traditional harvest; the rice camps and the society they were part of. The last three chapters of the book -- the economics, the law, and the future -- take rice into the second half of the 20th century. World War II was the beginning of the end for these ancient traditions. The young men,were away at war, whose strength was so important in the traditional method of hulling, where the rice is "jigged" or danced-on very lightly with a turned foot and grinding motion, in a lined pit. Older men, clever mechanics, began to devise clever improvised machinery for threshing that used paddles in barrels, turned by power takeoffs from old cars or trucks. Thus machinery was also developed for parching, so that instad of stirring the partly-dried grain in its husks over a low fire in a tilted kettle for an hour, the grains were paddle-turned in a heated metal barrel.
This simple technology, made from recycled junk, evolved into small rice-processing plants often operated by tribal entrepreneurs, and to the death of the rice camps. People drove to the rice lakes -- many of them not within reservation boundaries -- got a day's harvest, and drove home, giving it over to the processors, who dry, parch, and thresh the rice with simple mechanical setups. The emphasis changed from an enjoyable social and ceremonial occasion, gathering and celebrating the food that was the center of life to cash-cropping. With this change, women's role (traditionally young women did the harvesting, older women most of the processing, men mostly hunted and fished during the rice camps) declined. The emphasis was on getting a big harvest for big cash, and the ricers in the boats -- except where deliberate attempt is being made to preserve the traditional methods and camps for cultural-educational reasons -- are now mostly pairs of young men. The process is grimly silent and effortful, now, and at the end of a ricing day, everyone drives away from the lakeside. In Canada, mechanical harvesters were developed -- motor boats with adapted mechanical combine-harvesters mounted at the bow. This was so destructive of the rice beds it was outlawed early in Minnesota.
Because most of the traditional beds were not included within reservation boundaries, wild rice supervision fell under state and provincial control in the U.S. and Canada, the cause of great resentment from the people who believe the rice is a gift. But the prospects of mechanization attracted the interest of giant food corporations, several centered in Minnesota, (in Canada provincial political connections to a monopoly rice marketing corporation cut out the chances of Indian people to profit from the cash crop).
In the legal chapter, Vennum discusses the effects that forcing Great Lakes Indian people onto reservations has had, and recent legal struggles around aboriginal hunting and gathering rights reserved to the poople in 19th century treaties. In Wisconsin, the Voigt decision, resulting from two brothers who cahllenged the state's right to regulate winter ice-fishing, resulted in a Supreme Court ruling that the tribes had reserved hunting, fishing, and gathering rights, on state and federal lands, which make up a substantial portion of Wisconsin's northern third or tier. The main political struggle there has centered on tribal early spring spear- fishing. (See review of Walleye Warriors.) Vennhum points out that a similar struggle may develop around wild ricing, too.
However, it is science that has caused the biggest changes in the situation. Once commerce -- the marketing of rice as a gourmet food through third and fourth parties -- entered the picture in a substantial way, there began to be pressures and lobbying for scientific support. Th Minnesota legislature appropriated funds to the University of Minnesota School of Agriculture for research to "tame" the wild rice -- make it cultivatable in artificial paddies, less sensitive to environmental conditions, growing in thicker grains with looser husks for mechanical processing, and finally, less sensitive to water level, so paddies could be drained and mechanically harvested with slightly modified agricultural crop harvesters. All this has been done. By the 1970's, much commercial zinzania was tame or paddy rice, grown by white farmers in the economically depressed areas of northern Minnesota. Lobbying by Indian groups got a state law passed that required paddy rice to be labeled as such, and to stop the labeling which suggested it was a gently-harvested traditional crop, whose sale benefited Lo, the Poor Indian, paddining their canoes through lake beds. Some tribes formed their own marketing collectives -- notable for many years has been the Ikwe Woman's Collective at White Earth -- but these have never been able to compete in price with paddy rice, so their limited sales have been to reservation tourist, and a few non-Indian city health food co-ops.
Federal agricultural price-support law, though, has resulted in the most devastating industrialization of the tame paddy rice. Because there was overproduction (i.e. the food sold too cheap) of white rice, California farmers have been paid to set aside the huge paddy fields alrady constructed and not farm rice there, but to prevent erosion, they must plant these inactive paddies in a grass. Zinzania in all its varieties is botanically a grass. The new, scientifically-developed strains which can be mechanially harvested with the paddies drained, then reseeded with the paddies mechanically plowed under, and which are insensitive to the natural environmental conditions that require fresh-flowing water at particular levels all throughout the growing cycle, are planted in the new varieties developed with tax monies appropriated to the University of Minnesota. The paddy grounds are chemically fertilized, and sprayed with chemical pesticides from the air during the growing season, leaving residues within the grains, which (as with some varietis of monoculture wheat) has also lost a lot of the nutrients found in the older, wild-growing varieties. This tame rice is not only very cheap to produce; the California operators also receive the federal subsidy for "not planting" the white rice paddies to keep the prices up for white rice. Thus the tame paddy operators in northern Minnesota cannot compete, though this doesn't matter to the giant food corporations (which are international in scope) since they buy anything wherever they can make the greatest profits.
It has affected the tribes in several ways. Most northern Minnesota tribes have made some experiments in tame paddy rice farming, although this saddens -- sometimes outrages -- the remaining traditional people. Cross-breeding, cross-pollination of tame and wild rice, has resulted in new strains infesting the ricebed lakes, where the traditional hand-harvesting by canoe can still be carried on. This is considered desecration of the gift. The cash-crop small market, has almost disappeared, because of the very large price differential. Hand-harvested rice, even if partly mechanically-processed on small machinery that does not require large capital investment -- tribal or individual rice processing enterprises -- must be sold for higher prices, if the harvesters (and small processors) are to make even a small amount of money for a whole family's efforts during the several weeks of the harvest. (Of course, those few weeks come right at the start of the school year, which tends to mean no young people can be involved.) For several years, while I was on the board of my neighborhood food co-op, I was able to get it and some others in the Twin Cities to carry hand-harvested rice marketed by Ikwe, but in recent years the price difference has grown and tame paddy rice is all that these co-ops carry now. "No one but you buys any," I was told.
Vennum's book is, in a way, a funeral oration , modern-style. He ends "While these signs of change and suggestions for improvement [in land and water government management] are promising, they do not address the immediate, fundamental economic problem: to what extent and by what mans can the Ojibway expect to reap financial reward from their wild rice crop?" Tribal spokespeople have suggested making the entirety of ricing (including paddy growing) an Indian-controlled industry. This sems unlikely, it has already gone out of control. In the preface to a book containing info about the scientific studies and agriculture, one writer says "To take the attitude of some sociologists and welfare agents that 'the rice should be left to the Indian' is to close one's eyes to facts....To curb th trend [to massive capitalist industrializing] by stubborn, lethargic do-nothingness will be to lose the business to another state with vision and will to prosper its agricultural community. If the Indian is to be raised to equality and respectability and become a self-supporting part of the Minnesota economy, it is criminal neglct to let him waste his heritage and make no effort to better the one economic heritage that is uniquely his."
With racist scientists, economists, and politicians whose views and actions are summarized in that statement, all firmly in the camp of multinational, hugely capitalized food industry, the economics of this unique heritage is gone already, betterment, so-called has once again come by theft. "For cultural reasona alone, the Ojibway pople will probably never give up ricing willingly," Vennum concludes, after having pointed out that the traditional beds are threatened by everything from dams to environmental pollution (fertilizer runoff, acid rain) to a huge mining enterprise near the Mole Lake, Wisconsin, Ojibwe rez.
"We have a deep feeling of satisfaction and gratitude as we sack up the rice again toward evening....I often wonder what my children will do whn the rice is gone forever. What will take its place when this last tradition is gone?" These words from Norma Smith of Mole Lake end the book. For now, Ojibwe people living on reservations and in the cities take their kids from school for a fw days of traditional ricing. Hand-harvested rice is used in feasts and ceremonies. But this is an act of educational cultural preservation, it no longer a vital and delightful part of everyday life.
You can find out more about wild rice -- its traditions, its history, harvesting and processing traditionally, legends, and recipes, here at my web unit on Traditional Food, Health and Nutrition. See also review of The Sacred Harvest: Ojibwe Wild Rice Gathering, for Middle school reading level. Reviewed by Paula Giese
You can order this book on-line from amazon.com:
Wild Rice and the Ojibway People; Thomas Jr. Vennum; Hardcover (Hard to Find)
Native American BOOKS, text and graphics copyright Paula Giese, 1996
Last Updated: 6/6/97