Swish, tap, tap, tap, swish, tap, tap, tap. So, goes the rhythm of harvesting wild rice.
Wild rice is generally harvested by two people in a canoe, but can also be done solo. The person in the bow of the canoe uses two wooden sticks called knockers to bend the rice over the gunnels of the canoe and then taps the rice two or three times to knock the kernels of rice off the stalks and into the boat.
The person in the stern of the canoe uses a long pole with a “duck foot” on the end to push the canoe though the rice beds. The pole person keeps a look out on the rice bed and tries to steer the canoe towards the areas where the rice is thickest. The person operating the push pole must match the speed of the canoe to the rate that the bow person is able to knock the rice into the canoe.
If the wind and other conditions tangle the rice plants up, pushing through them can be very difficult. When ricing solo, the ricer gives a shove on the pole, then knocks the rice for a bit, then gives another shove on the pole.
In addition to knocking the rice kernels into the canoe, a variety of bugs are also knocked into the canoe. The most prominent being rice worms, spiders, and little black jumping bugs.
Rice worms are white caterpillars that are about an inch long. The worm is a stage of a moth in the noctuid moth family. Once in the canoe, the rice worms crawl anywhere and everywhere. After an hour of ricing, the worms may number in the hundreds. The rhythm of the harvest is often interrupted to dispose of errant rice worms. The spiders too, are very industrious and soon after landing in the canoe, have a myriad of webs spun in the corners.
After the harvest is completed, the rice must be processed to be made edible. The Native Americans developed a process for deshusking and drying the rice. First, the rice is spread out to dry out and to allow the bugs to escape. Next the rice is roasted in a kettle over a fire for a short time.
While it is in the kettle, it is stirred continuously with a canoe paddle. If roasted too long, the rice will begin to pop like popcorn. Once finished roasting, the rice is then cooled. Next, the rice is “danced”.
In bygone days, the young women of the village danced on the rice, which was placed in a hole lined with deer hide until the husks came off the rice. After the husks were removed, the rice was winnowed using a birch bark basket to remove the crushed hulls. After the rice is winnowed, it was stored in a birch bark container. Once dried, the rice can last for years.
Some rice gathers still follow this ancient routine with their wild rice. Others opt to have processors take care of the rice using mechanical — and often homemade — equipment to do the drying, deshusking and winnowing. Approximately fifty percent of the weight of the harvested rice is lost during the processing procedure.
Wild rice grows in shallow water that is two to three feet deep with a soft muddy bottom. The rice will grow between two and four feet above the water level. In the best rice beds, the plants grow very densely together — other times the rice will be spread out in thin areas.
Rice is dependent on weather and water conditions. Too much or too little water will negatively impact the ability of growth. Late summer storms can also damage the rice and make a harvest impossible. During a good year, a good team can harvest 100 pounds of rice in about half a day.
Wild rice is an annual plant and so it must reseed itself every fall. Harvest regulations help the reseeding by restricting wild ricers to using canoes and wooden knockers no more than 38 inches long. The canoes must be 17 feet long or less and must be propelled by muscle power.
Wild rice —which is indigenous to the upper Midwest and Canada — is very nutritious. It is low in cholesterol and fats, and has lots of fiber, minerals and vitamins. No wonder it was such a prized food among the Native Americans in the upper Midwest.
The Anishinaabe people were told in a vision to migrate from the East Coast to a place in where the food grows in the water. The Great Lakes region was that place and wild rice was that food. When asked to give up their land to make room for settlement, the elders of the tribe made sure to retain the right to harvest wild rice on lands that were ceded to the U.S. government.
Wild ricing a great way to participate in an ancient tradition and to put some good food on the table. After all that work, a meal of wild rice is a must.