According to legend, the Anishinaabe people were led by a prophecy to migrate west from the east coast of North America. This prophecy guided them to a land where “food grows on the water” (David et al., 2008). Over many seasons, the ancestors of the present-day Ojibwe traveled until they found manoomin growing on the banks of rivers and the shores of lakes. Manoomin, the Ojibwe word for wild rice, translates as “good berry” or “good seed”.
For the Ojibwe and Potawatomi tribes, northern wild rice was a staple grain during winter when energy sources were limited. It was dried for storage and often cooked with meat or animal broth. Both the Ojibwe and Potawatomi have a tradition of sweetening wild rice meals with maple sugar. Today wild rice is still of great importance for the tribes, and many people in the Northwoods still harvest it by hand using carved cedar sticks.
Conserve school students and staff got the chance this fall to experience the entire process of wild rice harvesting. We first traveled to Treehaven, an education and research center of UW-Stevens Point, where we carved our own cedar “knockers” and learned from Peter David, wildlife biologist with the Great Lakes Indian Fish & Wildlife Commission, about the anthropological history and ecology of wild rice.
The next day, our neighbor Roger LaBine, member of the Lac Vieux Desert Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, came to Conserve School to teach us how to use the 15 foot balsam push-poles that students helped make. Through stories and hands-on demonstrations, we all learned some great pointers and got plenty of practice maneuvering our canoes out on Conserve School’s Big Donahue Lake.
The following weekend, with homemade tools in hand, we headed out for an afternoon of harvesting. The crisp fall air was exhilarating and inspired a feeling that many northern animals are also sensing right now: get ready, winter is on its way! In just over three hours and with five canoes, we gathered over fifty pounds!
We are all looking forward to Parent Weekend, October 4-6th, when Roger will be back to show us all how to finish our dried rice. Parents, don’t forget to bring your dancing feet! Everyone is encouraged to help in jigging and winnowing our rice, the culminating experience of this wonderful local tradition.
~ Donelle Scaffidi, Graduate Fellow
David, P., Rasmussen, C.O., Erisckson, S. (2008, Fall). Anishinaabe manoomin. Mazina’igan Supplement. Great Lakes Indian Fish & Wildlife Commission.