For generations, Native Americans in the northern Great Lakes have harvested wild rice. It’s an important food source. For some it’s a way to make a little extra cash. And it’s a cultural touchstone that tribal members are trying to pass on to younger generations.
Thomas Howes is standing at the canoe landing of a small lake, about a half hour outside Duluth, Minnesota. It’s part of the reservation of the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa.
Deadfish Lake is almost completely covered with the tall green stalks of wild rice plants.
“You essentially don’t see water when you’re looking at this, you see what essentially looks like a field of grasses,” Howes says on this sunny, fall day.
LISTEN: “Tribes Work to Keep Wild Rice Harvest Going”
Wild rice is the slender, black grain of an aquatic, reed-like plant that grows out of the muck in the bottom of shallow lakes and rivers. It has a rich, distinctive, nutty flavor when it’s cooked. It grows mainly in Minnesota, but it’s also found in parts of Wisconsin and Michigan.
Howes, who’s the band’s natural resources manager, says to understand why wild rice is so important to the Chippewa, or Ojibwe people, you have to know their history.
They migrated to the Great Lakes region from the Northeast about 500 years ago. According to oral traditions, a prophecy told them to journey west until they came to a place “where food grew on the water.”
“You know we came here from the East Coast of the United States, and were told we’d find our permanent home when we found this wild rice, this manomin, this food, that grows out of the water, and that’s held to be true,” Howes says.
But a lot of the rice disappeared from the Fond du Lac reservation after the government dug drainage ditches in the early 1900s, as part of a futile effort to make the land more suitable for farming. That disrupted the hydrology of the wild rice lakes.
For about 20 years now, the tribe has been working to restore those lakes and bring the rice back.
Along the lakeshore, a pair of men pull up in a canoe, including 58-year-old Ed Jaakola.
He’s been ricing as long as he can remember. “Yep. Probably 45 years for me.”
His partner, Jerrad Ojibway, helps scoop about 80 pounds of green rice out of the canoe bottom into big plastic bags.
“Once we lose this, then we lose, being as a people I guess. Can’t lose this or the language.”
There will be a lot less of it once it’s dried and processed. The finished product sells for about $10 a pound.
Ojibway’s happy to see the rice return to the reservation. But he worries about something else: He says the younger generation isn’t carrying on the tradition of ricing.
“The younger ones that are all on Facebook somewhere,” he says, adding that they’re scared of the water, scared of bugs.
Later, another canoe pulls up to the landing at Deadfish Lake. Bruce Martineau, 20, heaves it onto shore.
He started ricing five years ago with his grandfather. Now he’s with his dad, Francis Martineau. I ask Bruce why he does it.
“It’s my culture,” he says. “Natives done it since the beginning of time. Once we lose this, then we lose, being as a people I guess. Can’t lose this or the language.”
Bruce Martineau plans to print up some business cards and try to sell rice to restaurants. The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources estimates wild rice is worth at least $2 million to the state economy every year.
But most people on the Fond du Lac reservation eat what they harvest. Bruce Martineau says he also always gives some away.
“God gives this, so it’s only right to give it back,” he says. “Give it to other people that can’t go out there.”
Francis Martineau says he’s proud of his son for keeping the tradition of wild ricing alive.
Great Lakes Today is a collaborative led by WBFO Buffalo, ideastream Cleveland and WXXI Rochester.