Wild Rice -- Mahnoomin

Page Navigation Buttons---

Wild rice is Mah-NO-min in Anishinaabemowin. The -min part of the word rhymes with "bit". It means seed. The first part of the word is a contraction of Manido, spirit-giver of this traditionally important and sacred food grain. As did Maple sugar, manoomin gave its name to the moon (month) of harvest, typically the end of August-early September in northern Minnesota: Manoominike Giizis, the moon (month) when it is harvested. The harvest is a time of fun, but hard work, too, especially processing the grain on the spot, even with some modern aids.

Manoomin grows as reeds about 8-12 feet tall in water about 3-8 feet deep in Wisconsin, Minnesota, and marshes north of the Great Lakes. There are thousands of different varieties, each growing in its own particular niche of depth, temperature, mud, water quality. Wild rice is very sensitive to the environmental conditions of its niche. When a hydroelectric dam was built by Northern States Power Company at Winter, Wisconsin, that flooded burial grounds of the Lac Courte Oreilles Ojibwe Reservation of Wisconsin, the water level was changed only by 1 foot several times yearly in the dam's operation. Even though the rice wasn't flooded out, this water-level changing killed off much of the rice depended on by traditional LCO people, and figured considerably in LCO's long lawsuit against NSP. Victory there didn't bring the rice back. I don't know if there are rice beds in the areas affected by Canada's huge hydro projects, but if there are they won't survive, because the plants don't like changes, the species are perfectly adapted to the way things are in different areas, including seasonal water levels, quality, temperature.

As you will see from all the Anishinaabe words used for everything about rice, it was the most important food in traditional lakes country life. Usually any people has a big vocabulary about that which is very important to them. I use Mille Lacs pronunciation and spell it phonetically. The "oo" in the word mahnoomin does not rhyme with moon, it's a long "oh" with the accent on it.

In the old days, they say, women would go out on the ricefield lakes of a family about 2 weeks before the rice was ripe. They would tie some narrow bundles of rice reed-heads into tight sheaves with basswood twine. The twine was in a big ball in a tray behind the woman. It ran over her shoulder in a little leather loop. She pulled the still-unripe heads together and wound and tied them (mamaawashkaawipidoon). The grains from tied rice wouldn't fall in the water. It could be cut off later in the winter, and shaken out. Those grains took a longer time to cook, but they were very special, they say. It took several days for women to tie up lots of sheaves. No one does this any more.

BAWA'AM -- Knocking the rice

Ricing (mahnoomin ikayng) now is still done in canoes, wiigwaasejimahnug. Well the wiigwaas- (birchbark) part isn't true anymore, they're aluminum now. Poling through the thick, tall reeds of a rice field on a zahgaigun (lake) is hard work; men usually do it. You can't paddle through these thick reeds, a long pole called gahndakeeigunahk is used. The woman sits in the stern as he pushes ahead. She uses bahwaigunahkoog -- 2 long sticks called knockers -- to knock ripe grains into the canoe while leaving some to shatter later and re-seed.

You sweep the right knocker over some rice reeds and bend it into the canoe. You hit the heads sharply with the left knocker, and the ripest grains fall out, then you let the reeds spring back up. Then you do it the other way on the other side, and you keep on doing this one arm, the other arm, till the whole canoe is pretty full. How fast it's gathered depends on how thickly the rice grows, and how ripe it is. It can take anywhere from 2 hours to most of the day to fill a canoe. Nobody goes out twice in one day, but the whole bed will be riced-over maybe half-a-dozen times, as grains in the heads continue to ripen. (Of course you don't take it all, you leave some to re-seed and some for the birds.)

The aim is to keep the long, pointed seeds as unbroken as possible, while threshing it with the knockers, something never true of commercial wild rice. In the old days, if anyone was careless and broke up the grains, pulled off the whole heads or squashed down the reeds, they were asked to leave the lake by the elders. This is not respectful to the rice and the Manido. For a period in the '50's and '60's, there was a lot of drinking going on at rice camps. Some people felt this was why harvests got very bad in the early '70's. There were some other reasons for that, too.

JAAMOKE Problems

In the '70's in Minnesota, the State Department of Natural Resources controlled ricing, but with demonstrations by AIM and some political pressure, Indians didn't have to buy DNR ricing permits on lakes that lay within reservation boundaries. They were still regulated by DNR wardens. They had to show tribal ID cards with pictures. If they caught you ricing without a card on you or on traditional lakes outside rez boundaries, not only were you arrested, they also confiscated the canoes and anything else they felt like taking from the rice camp, sometimes they took pickups or cars. Usually they took any Pipes and Medicine bags. They would say it had dope in it.

White people from the nearby rural areas had in this period discovered wild rice as a cash crop. They went after it in flatbottomed boats that crushed the reeds down. They pulled off the whole heads with combs made of nails driven into sticks; they sold the rice to commercial processors. Who sold it packaged as Indian Wild Rice, with Hiawatha Gitchee-Gummee pix on the labels. Lakes were not reseeding, both because of this bad practice and also because of acid rain, from the big paper mills on both sides of the Canadian border. But the DNR was trying to blame it on a few Indian people. What they were really doing was trying to save the rice for those who took and sold it, and spoiled it by their manner of taking. The first time I went ricing, 1976, that was how it was, much harassment and many arrests of Indian people ricing by the DNR. White people caught ricing without permits were given tickets, to pay a small fine, not arrested or thrown into jail, and their equipment wasn't taken.

I had no card so I wasn't going to go out. People at the rice camp felt I should. It was a political statement about National Sovereignty, their right to control by whom and how ricing was done on their lakes, I'd been invited, and they had the right to invite anyone they wanted. I wasn't afraid to be arrested, none of us were. But I was afraid for the canoes and the Pipes. A young man who was going to snare ducks (official legal hunting season had not started, but some wild birds are needed for the first-rice feast) didn't want any ID on him anyway, because it was automatic arrest if you were caught, he would give them a false name, so he gave me his tribal card. His mug shot looked like a young Indian guy unusually dark, long black hair, bony face. I have a round face and short, fuzzy hair, light skin, and I was 39 then. ID wasn't too convincing.

"If they catch me, I'll have to tell them I had a sex change operation at the University of Minnesota and the doctors made a few mistakes," I said. But they didn't come around that lake that day, luckily. The men snared ducks and woodcocks that were secretly cooked in clay away from our rice camp. These were offered and eaten in peace and gratitude -- getting the birds was even more risky than ricing, "hunting out of season" as the DNR calls the seasons officially. But it was important to us to be able to offer wild birds along with First Rice. We were tricky, though, we brought some roast chickens along to mix up with the ducks in case they caught us eating them.

BAASAN -- Drying, Parching, Winnowing

All stages of rice-processing were painted by Minnesota Red Lake Ojibwe Patrick DesJarlait. See his and his son Robert's pictures; return here with the BACK button.

Traditional people follow the old ways as nearly as possible the first day at least. Some people go sneaky and get some birds. Others build a drying rack from green branches and cover its shelves with dried grass, with a slow fire under it. A lot of the first rice is dried quickly that way, the rest is spread on big canvases in part-sun part-shade to dry more slowly. Then a washtub of dried rice is parched (giidasigun) to loosen the husks. You put in about about 2 bucketfulls from the drying rack, and tilt the tub to a fire. It's stirred constantly with a flat paddle (uhbwi) for about an hour. This parching loosens the husks and gives it a nice flavor when boiled. Young girls usually stir (mamaajii) it and are careful not to get lazy and burn it.

BOOTAAGAADAN -- Milling and Treading

The rice is then pounded. This is done in a kind of barrel with slanting sides called a bootaagan and long-handled poles whose thick ends are kind of pointed. They are sanded very smooth after carving. The pole is lifted up high, then just dropped down along the slanting sides of the bootaagan, so it jostles off the husks without breaking up the grain -- it isn't really pounding. Then the bootaagan is emptied onto big birch-bark trays and winnowed by tossing in a light breeze, which blows away chaff, while the heavier grains fall back onto the trays (nooshkaatoon mahnoomin). Experienced older women usually do this, it's harder than it looks -- judging the wind, the twist of the toss. Different people take turns, 3 or 4 of them at a time lifting and dropping the heavy poles as the bootaagan is refilled again and again with rice that's been parched.

Winnowed rice still has a few pieces of inner husk sticking to it. These are good to eat, too, so to be really traditional, men "jig" this rice to separate the fine edible chaff (mazaanens) for a different kind of food (mixed into little patties and fried, or served as a mush). A barrel (makakosag) lined with deer hide is sunk 2/3 into the ground and 2 thick branches are arranged nearby as holds for the man who gets in the barrel with new deerskin boots on and dances up and down to break away those little inner husks without breaking up the rice (mimigoshkam). That's hard work, because the whole weight should never come on the rice. He has to dance fast and light.

The Green of Life, Original Creation

Rice processed this way -- the same day it was brought in -- is called green rice (ohshki bagoong mahnoomin--the word for green rice color is special, means "first original color" ozaawashko is more ordinary blue-green). Oshki Anishinabe means First, original, people. There are connotations of sacred, growth, and creative in the word "oshki". Green rice has a lighter color (light brown speckled, actually) and a different flavor than rice that dries in the sun. If it dries for several days in the sun, it turns very black (makadewiminagad, black seed-grain only, black anything else is makadewizi). It will keep forever. If not too broken up, it can also be used as seed grain to re-seed damaged or over-harvested lakes. Some of this black rice is always cached near where you got it, because rice won't usually grow in a different lake. Black rice takes much longer to cook. If husked mechanically, its grains are usually broken.

After there's enough First Day rice prepared for everyone and the offerings, dinner is cooked, usually with some wild birds and fish, and if no berries grow nearby some will be brought -- dried Juneberries (miinan) and strawberries (odeiminun) from earlier in the summer, dried blueberries (miinun) and raspberries (misko minun) from the previous fall, maple sugar if you have any. Fresh elderberries (forgot the word) taste awful, but sun-dried they're good. Some rice is boiled with and without meat. Some is parched in fat, where it pops like popcorn (if the grains aren't broken and it's fresh). And lots of other food too, of course. There is now singing and praying, and sometimes if a Pipe carrier is there, a Pipe is smoked around. Dishes are prepared for the Manidowug and left in several places -- out in the ricebed, in the woods, by a stream. Then we eat! Miish, miijing Mahnoomin!

First Rice feast, by the side of the ricebed lake in the rice camps is like Thanksgiving for American white people, or at least like how I assume that holiday feast once was for them -- a celebration and thanks for the fruits of the harvest. Migwetch (thank-you) Mahnoomin is the name of Anishinaabe First Rice feast. It is the rice, not the wild birds, which was the staple most important food, and is the focus of the prayers and thanks. If you live in the city and somebody gives you some First Rice, you should also leave plates of food outside, pray and sing your thanks for it. Some people say "Oh, a dog will just eat it if you leave a plate outside for the spirits," but that really doesn't matter. Probably animals eat the food we leave by the woods and waters, too. That is giving it to the spirits, although maybe there are different ones in the City. Zagaswe'iwe! give a feast with it, for friends and relatives.

BOOTAAGANIKEWIN -- Making a Rice-Mill

Elder Maude Kegg (Naawakamigookwe), of Mille Lacs Ojibwe Tribe, was born around 1904, and raised at Portage Lake, midway between Mille Lacs and Bemidji in Minnesota. She recalled helping her uncle make a bootaagan, the mortar for pounding parched rice:

I used to help my uncle when he made a bootaagan. I held it for him. He cut a log, then sawed it straight. Then he pointed one end and carged some wooden pieces, pointing them so they'd fit well and make the bootaagan round. When he was through carbing them, he dug a pit and put grass in it. It was long grass that he put in it. Then he put a willow strip bent into a circle. He pressed the grass down. Then he fitted the boards together in it again. I held them as I watched him.

After he got done fitting in those things, the pieces of carved cedar, he tapped in the round piece of log. It looked just like a pail. He formed the boards into a circle. Then he put in the willow strips. It held them. It was round. No sand could get in then. We took care of it properly so it didn't get wet, covering it perhaps with a birch bark roll when it rained or at night when we weren't using it.

That was where they pounded or trampled the rice. When it was through being used and they were done picking rice, they took it apart and stored away the parts. Whenever there was ricing, he used the bootaagan. He was always putting it together. That's all.


Maude's step-mother told her an interesting story about meeting Memegwesiwug (Little People) once when ricing:

We always went to Boy River, we were always doing something there at Boy River. We were ricing there, and were sitting down towards evening. She (Maude's step-mother) was saying that they had seen Memegwesiwug.

They too knock rice there on Boy River. The river turns there," she said. "We were knocking rice along there," she said.

"Maybe there is someone over there," her old man was saying, so they stopped there and put down the knocking sticks. Sure enough, the sound of knocking was coming along toward them where they were sitting in the water, and then a canoe suddenly appeared. They just sat there watching those two knocking rice.

They wanted to see who it was, but when they blinked their eyes, they disappeared from view. "He said 'Memegewesiwug', " she said, "that's what he said; those Memegwesiwug have hair on their faces."

I wonder what kind of creatures they are.

These hairy-faced Little People live in river bank caves, they say. It's interesting to compare this recollection of Maude's with the research Pat Paul did on Little People at his Reserve, Tobique, New Brunswick. After I posted that story, I got quite a bit of email from Indian people who said "I thought nobody knew about those Little People except on our rez." They didn't tell me any stories, though. Anyway, it looks like Minnesota's Little People like wild rice, too! I wonder if the DNR ever arrested any of them?

All stages of rice-processing were painted by Minnesota Red Lake Ojibwe Patrick DesJarlait. See his and his son Robert's pictures.

Recommended reading (grades 3-6): The Sacred Harvest: Ojibway Wild Rice Gathering, by Gordon Regguinti, photos Dale Kakkak. $19.95 hardcover, $6.95 paper (discounted to schools). Lerner, Minneapolis, 1995 catalog; 800/328-4929. Has received several awards as children's book of distinction. Lerner publishes a series of native-cent4ered social studies books for Middle School children, and several for young adults. You can order this discounted on-line from Amazon.com:

For adults, Thomas Vennum has told the story of wild rice historically -- including how it is being destroyed genetically, and why Lakeland Indians can no longer make any money off it (Hint: Think California):

Custom Search

Navigation Buttons

TOP of

CREDITS: The canoe logo was drawn by me (FreeHand) in 1994 to use on a flyer for a Heart of the Earth Native Science Project-sponsored stortytelling about Wild Rice by a project staffer. For these web pages, I added a big harvest moon and colored it. Credits for the paintings and drawings used in the "Desjarlait" section linked-to here are on the Minnesota Indian Artists page, which honors the Red Lake Ojibwe Pat DesJarlait and the DesJarlait artist-family. Several old photos or drawings here are from Canada SchoolNet's CanaDisk image library.

Others were scanned by me from Frances Densmore's Chippewa Customs, material she collected from 1905-1925 (U.S. Bureau of Ethnography) which was reprinted in hardcover by Ross and Haines Old Books, Minneapolis, 1970, long out of print (a defunct company). Nodinens story about maple sugaring is taken from there. Densmore's How Indians Use Wild Plants for Fooid, Medicine & Crafts compiled over the same priod as her other Ojibwe books is the source of some photos of sugaring and ricing tools.

Densmore's long-out-of print reports to the Bureau of American Ethnology were reissued by Dover (in paperback) and by the Minneapolis firm of Ross and Haines Old Books, but are out of print from both sources; several have been reissued by the Minnesota Historical Society. Densmore, a woman trained in music, is unique among American anthros in having had a very strong interest in the crafts of native daily life and beauty; she collected recipes, info about medicine plants, and beadwork and other clothing/craft patterns, methods, and tools, in her extensive work with Native women (whom most anthros ignore). She also collected (and was musically equipped to transcribe melodies, during the early period where recording technology was inadequate) extensive collections of Ojibwe songs and rites of Midewewin. Her Ojibwe material is incomparable, there is nothing else like it in the history of anthropology or ethnography. She was fortunate in having a brilliant and highly interested interpreter, Mary Warren English, whose brother's book on Anishnabe history -- the only one by a Native until the late 20th-century -- was written before his early death in the 19th century.

Maude Kegg told many stories of her life in Indian to John D. Nichols when she was teaching him Anishnaabemowin, the language, in 1970 - 1986. The stories were first recorded, then she dictated it slowly, and he wrote it. Then later, she listened and read, and gave a translation. The stories were published in facing-pages English and Anishnabemowin in 1991 by the University of Minnesota Press. She has been a guide and interpreter at the Mille Lacs Indian museum since her husband died in 1968. In 1990, she received a National Heritage Fellowship from th National Endowment for the Arts (which is going to be put out of existence by the present Congress) in recognition of her achievement as a flk artist (she is a master craftsperson at beadwork), and her role as cultural interpreter. Her book, Portage Lake: Memories of an Ojibwe Childhood is very highly recommended even if you are not learning the language and don't bother with the facing pages or the incomprehensible professional linguist material Nichols put at the end (part of his PhD thesis). Although 1/2 of 178 pages isn't very much stories for $18 (paperback). It was also published in Canada by the University of Alberta Press. Nichols also published most of the stories from it in various other books and journals.

I "learned by doing" for both sugaring and wild rice by accompanying students at the AIM Survival Schools Red School House (St. Paul) and Heart of the Earth (Minneapolis) on sugaring and ricing camping trips in 1976, 1979, 1982, 1985, 1987, and 1994, and participated in cooking with maple syrup and wild rice at various fund-raising events, and regular school feasts. I learned a lot about the traditions and science of wild rice from participating as a researcher/investigator for the lawyers in LCO's long lawsuit (eventually won) against NSP.

Webmistress --Paula Giese.Text and graphics copyright 1995.

Last Updated: 6/6/97