Environment | Opinion

Richard Ackley: The gifts of the Sokaogon Chippewa rice harvest

It is early September as I steady our small canoe (jiiman), keeping my left foot in and my right foot out, while my cousin climbs aboard. It is time to harvest the wild rice.

We are on the banks of the eastern edge of Rice Lake, within the boundaries of the Sokaogon Chippewa Indian reservation, in northeast Wisconsin. Our Rice Chiefs have carefully examined the golden crop and officially declare that this small 320 acre lake is ready for the harvest. A prayer and the laying of tobacco down will ensure a successful day; the air smells sweet. The morning sky provides a dazzling blue canopy, as an inducement to proceed. The sun is as intense as it can be for this latitude and the temperature; a balmy seventy degrees.

My partner carefully makes his way down the center of the wobbly canoe. Holding onto the gunwale, he readily reaches the opposite end; turns facing me saying, "Mii-gwech!" (Thank you) and then sits down.

Stepping into the unstable craft, while performing a balancing act, I blurt, "Howah, looks like a beautiful day for pickin’ rice!"

Crouching down, I grab onto a long and sturdy balsam wood push-pole, then immediately ease it out over the right side of the canoe. My ricing partner attempts to steady the boat a bit, as I slowly stand erect and implant the long skinny pole, with a fork-shaped attachment at its end, into the thick rich clay of the shallow lake bottom.

"Are you ready?" I push down on the pole and our vessel moves away from the bank. I then draw the skinny pole up again for another push. Immediately the bow of the canoe wedges into the tall stalks of faded grass and we move forward into our initial path.

A few more pushes and a startled Great Blue Heron wading nearby broadcasts several harsh croaks as its broad wings carries it into flight.

"Now there’s a good sign" my cousin remarks, "yes, a very good sign especially for a member of the Crane clan.”

September is the time of the wild rice harvest moon "Manoominigiizis." A small number of area lakes, extending north-northwest into Minnesota, are teeming with this year’s bumper crop. The people of the Lake Superior Ojibwa are eager to perpetuate this time-honored tradition. The flavorful green seeds of the wild rice plant are known as "manomin" or "manoomin” in Ojibwe, which identifies it as "the food that grows on the water."

We are anxious to knock off hundreds of pounds, filling our canoe several times, in just a few short days. The harvest is always a welcomed activity as a focal point of late summer activities. The process is carried out in a time-honored traditional way, by Anishinaabeg (Ojibwe) men and women. It is a profound and necessary relationship between man and nature. Moving toward our objective, we anticipate the task and proceed deep into the bounty of the dense growth cloaking the lake.

This brief journey, a journey which our ancestors had taken for eons of time, fosters credence to our Ojibwa heritage and culture. Without warning, a flock of Red-Wing Blackbirds descend into our path like a squad of Japanese bombers over Pearl Harbor, and then quickly scatter in several directions. Within moments we have vanished from view; fused amongst a tall green curtain of vegetation.

Long before the Europeans had knowledge of the existence of this continent and long before the French explorer Jean Nicolet landed on the eastern shores of northern Wisconsin in 1634; the Ojibwe of the Sokaogon (the post in the lake people) routinely gathered this important indigenous food source, which continues to proliferate in the Great Lakes region. This is a very special place, hardly visible to most folks who may not be familiar with the local geography.

The lake which lies just a few hundred feet to the west of the main highway offers, at eye-level, a scene which closely resembles that of a field of wheat. The wild rice plant, a tall and slender marshland inhabitant, is more commonly referred to by biologists, as Zizania Aquatica. It thrives exclusively in the peculiar stillness of this mineral-rich lake. Equally significant is that this continues to be a prime example, of one of the last remaining ancient wild rice beds of northern Wisconsin.

What continues year after year is a perfect undisturbed ecosystem where humans can successfully co-exist with a countless mix of insects, plants, fish and wildlife. This very small and virtually unmolested world contains an orderly combination of consistent water level and temperature to sustain the annual crop. Some might say it’s almost the ideal place, perfectly designed for the precious manoomin to survive throughout the ages. Wild rice is a sensitive plant species and does not tolerate chemical pollutants or drastic changes in water level very well during its growth cycle. One might also say that the crop which flourishes here is the proverbial bread basket “tailor-made” for a culture of people.

Wild rice has long been a staple for the Chippewa diet and this pre-historic vegetation is most likely considered, the oldest agricultural crop in the nation. Scientists have determined that wild rice is the only "naturally occurring" grain in North America. Oats, wheat and barley for example, were imported from Europe.

Working the Rice Domain
With two people working together as ricing partners, one person must constantly push the craft forward while the other gently knocks the seeds loose from the top of the plant; taking care that it falls directly into the center. This requires the use of a pair of small ricing sticks or rice knockers (bawai’ganaak), both of which are handmade from lightweight cedar branches. These slender tools resemble a pair of rather long drum sticks.

With the aide of my push pole I continue moving us slowly forward. A curious turtle (mizheekay), a few feet away, pops his head above the surface to inspect the visitors entering his surroundings. My partner continues, gently sweeping the sticks from left to right and moving the sticks back and forth over the slender stalks of the rice plant.

Using one stick, he gently coerces and bends the heavy tips of a group of several individual plants together directly over the wide opening of the canoe. He then gives a swift but gentle tap with the other stick, followed by a quick brushing motion across the tips. Immediately, dozens of the ripened two-inch-long seeds encased in their husks break free and fall. The stalks are then released and allowed to freely spring back into position, bringing no harm to the vegetation. The gentle and repetitive swishing action produces a remarkable rhythmic sound. Always smooth and precise, the skilled rice picker progresses with this alternating action repeated hundreds and hundreds of times while migrating back and forth across the lake.

There is a soothing quality to this repetitive sound, integrated into the stillness of our environment. We become, for a brief moment, immersed in a time warp of absolute harmony with nature. Momentarily our attention is drawn toward a flock of very determined Canada geese, passing low over head. The assertive nature of their honking almost seems to declare, "See you next year!" My cousin immediately shouts out to them, "Boozhoo" (greetings)! The timing of this moment transpires in perfect sequence; almost as if pre-planned and orchestrated solely for insertion into a National Geographic magazine.

As the hours pass by the small vessel finally becomes a bit unsteady and greatly weighted near capacity.

"Ok, it looks like we’ve got more than enough for now!" my partner exclaims. The real trick in returning to shore, without unintentionally dumping the unstable cargo, requires both skill and thoughtful patience. The shadows grow longer as the late afternoon sun hangs heavy on the horizon. We later arrive back to the point where we had earlier embarked. I push our unwieldy craft hard against the soft mud of the bank. Then brace the canoe as best I can with my pole.

My partner steps out onto solid ground. He then grabs onto the bow and begins to pull as I continue to push. A portion of the canoe is now up on land, allowing for better stability. I step out along side the craft and into the shallow water. “Tomorrow we’ll definitely get an earlier start!”

The Next Phases
The act of gathering the wild rice, on this somewhat humble lake, is only the first phase of an entire process. Some of the green rice is set aside for re-seeding purposes. Other portions may be purchased by the Great Lakes Indian Fish & Wildlife Commission for research and study and possibly for the re-seeding of area lakes. Before the rice can actually be consumed however, several steps must be completed.

First, the wild rice is spread out onto a tarp and air dried in the warm September sun. Next it must be parched or scorched beside an open fire to thoroughly remove the outer hull and any remaining moisture. If not it will certainly mold while in storage. This is accomplished with the use of a broad wooden paddle and metal pan. A few pounds are transferred into a large galvanized metal pan, propped up next to a crackling fire.

As the pan quickly heats, the seeds are stirred continuously with the paddle to the point to which a few of the seeds begin to pop open, just like pop corn. The batch of rice is immediately removed from the heat and set aside to cool. After it has cooled, it is ready to be "danced."

Dancing the rice, is a procedure which requires the agility of a person of light-weight build. The batch is poured into a shallow hole in the ground, lined with a tanned deer hide, wide enough to step into with both feet. Dancing the rice requires that the dancer, wearing soft buckskin moccasins, step lightly into the hole. He or she positions a tripod made of cedar poles, next to the hole in which to hold onto and support the body weight.

The dancer then steps or walks lightly "in place" using care, while bending the knees and working the feet in a slow, heel-to-toe style motion. This action causes the thin outer husk to break and separate from the edible seed.

Next, a pound or so is scooped up into a wide and shallow basket (fanning basket) made of birch bark without handles, so that it can be "fanned" (winnowed) to further purify the edible seed. The small amount of rice in the basket is tossed briskly, like a salad, for a while. As the contents go up and down, again and again, the air catches and removes much of the remaining bits of dried husk.

Lastly, a thorough cleaning by hand, to remove any small bits of remaining husk, improves the purity of the product before it is packaged and included into the food pantry of local families. Some is also set aside to be packaged and purchased by anxious consumers. The result is a natural, chemical free, self-sustaining nutritious food will again be available for us to enjoy, just as it has in the past.

Those who have long savored the pleasing flavor of our rice, rich in both riboflavin and niacin, as a delicacy on Thanksgiving Day, indeed recognize the benefits of a healthy diet. The texture and flavor of Sokaogon harvested wild rice is a welcome addition to any dinner table. Long enjoyed, especially on those all too numerous and intensely cold northern Wisconsin winter days. Wild rice is a pleasurable compliment to a myriad of meals, served either as a side dish, or part of a salad or added to stuffing or included in a variety of soups. A special favorite of course, is wild rice soup.

It is very important to understand however, that our rice is not the same as the wild rice you may happen to find in a retail grocery store. The rice you find in a store is most probably either "paddy rice" or river rice, which has been commercially grown, mechanically harvested and processed by heated air and packaged for mass distribution. Our rice, as with all authentic Native American harvested wild rice, is in limited supply; both labeled and sold at a higher price than commercial rice. It is important to note that Sokaogon Chippewa wild rice grows naturally and is processed in a traditional Indian way, going back before recorded history.

Shortly after the wild rice is stored away, the cool Wisconsin nights of mid-October (binaa’kwii-giizis’) induce a delightfully enigmatic fog upon the lake. Soon, the first snowfall of early November sends the brief deer hunting season into full swing and if luck may have its way, just might engender a glimpse of the ephemeral aurora borealis (northern lights). The penetrating air, intruding from the north soon gains control of an overly obedient landscape.

The surface water begins to freeze, (gashkadino-giizis) and the lake surrenders itself to a well deserved diversion of rest and rejuvenation. The local hunters delight in the fact that the deer of course, are preoccupied by a short lived yet, fervent mating season. The cycle of life triumphs as winter (Biboon) finally takes full command. It is a time to reflect on the dreamy days of the harvest and anticipate the next.

A Sacred Activity
The annual harvest of this tiny seed is a sacred and vital activity and will ensure that our unique culture and heritage will endure, against the influences of industrialization.

This modest plant, guided by the whims of Mother Nature, also played a decisive role in the defeat of a proposed deep-shaft mining operation. The plan to open a metallic-sulfide mine in an effort to tap into an estimated $20 billion in metals, adjacent this pristine and vulnerable landscape was defeated. Plans for the Crandon mine began in the early 1970s. This 30-year controversy came to a dramatic end in 2003, as the Sokaogon took ownership of the assets of Exxon’s Nicolet Minerals Company. Mining would surely have already occurred here, had this area not been recognized for its ancient wild rice bed and headwaters of the Wolf River watershed. It is a place critical to the traditional subsistence activities surrounding the culture and religious beliefs of a people who have always remained stewards of the earth.

No one knows exactly the full impact of what sulfide mining, and the use of cyanide for processing the ore, would have caused this area. However, the toxic by-products certainly would have had far reaching negative impacts on the fragile ecosystem. The degradation of an irreplaceable and highly complex system of natural underground aquifers, in exchange for a temporary access to copper and zinc, would have proved an incomprehensible and reckless crime against the consciousness of humanity. Although the possibility of mining could re-surface again in the future, our accountability to the land remains paramount.

The harvest is a time for us to remember our ancestors, who passed their knowledge down to us. It helps renew the mind, the body and the spirit as an important part of cultural seasonal activities. It is meaningful because it is a time of transition from the old to the new. It is also a special time to give thanks to our Creator for this priceless gift of food. We honor Mother Earth called ‘’Aki " in the Ojibway language, as well as the water, "NiBi", for providing us a place to gather the manoomin.

The food that grows on the water is ground zero for this tiny Native American community and its compelling story of survival, which continues into the twenty-first century. Our Sokaogon ancestors held fast to this land, refusing to give it up during the fierce Battle of Mole Lake in 1806, resulting in the death of some 500 warriors. After Wisconsin gained its statehood in 1848, our ancestors stood firm against the threats of Zachary Taylor’s 1850 Presidential Removal Order. This US president attempted to have the Wisconsin Chippewa removed from their homeland and access to traditional rice beds, sugar maple orchards, traditional gathering and harvesting grounds all essential to survival.

Our ancestors survived the US government’s endeavor in the early 1900s of removing the youth from their villages and homes and into government boarding schools. This final attempt at forcing them to relinquish their Ojibway traditions, language and culture had been designed to assimilate them into the general society, as they were not yet recognized as American citizens. Our grandparents successfully petitioned the Federal Government following the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934 and finally gained permanent deed to this small piece of unspoiled land in Forest County, in 1937.

Even as late as the 1980s, racism proliferated in northern Wisconsin, during the Anti-Indian Movement. For a brief time, attempts by specialized groups of individuals driven by racism and hostility, tried but failed to abolish the long-standing Chippewa treaty rights of harvesting fish each spring on ceded lands. At the beginning of the new millennium, Wisconsin’s then acting governor denied our attempt at expanding pursuits of economic self-sufficiency, vital to our community’s future. But as in the past, the stalwart Sokaogon shall remain steadfast, in concert with the timeless endurance of the wild rice.

Wild rice will always link the past to the present for the people of the Sokaogon Mole Lake Band of Ojibwe. It is a food that is used almost daily and reigns as the centerpiece of our culture and our traditions. The harvest is truly a gift that we shall pass on to our children and our grandchildren. And remains the incessant reminder of who we are and why we have chosen to make this very special place our home.

Richard D. Ackley, Jr. is a member of the Sokaogon Mole Lake Band of the Lake Superior Chippewa in Wisconsin.

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