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A fight to save the tradition of wild rice

Harvesting wild rice has been a way of life for Ojibwa Indians. But the rice is in decline and fewer young tribe members now participate.

By Richard MertensContributor to The Christian Science Monitor / October 13, 2004


The ducks are soaring overhead, the scent of autumn is in the air, and Pete McGeshick is back ricing again. On a bright September morning, he floats in a sea of wild rice, using a pair of yard-long cedar sticks to knock the kernels into his battered aluminum canoe.

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Mr. McGeshick, an Ojibwa (o-JIB-way) Indian from Mole Lake, Wis., has been harvesting wild rice since he was a boy. Now, with decades of experience behind him, he is a virtuoso of the harvest. With quick and graceful motions, he reaches out with one stick and bends the stalks over the canoe, while he delivers two glancing blows with another stick to dislodge the ripe grains. Rice patters like soft rain against the aluminum.

"You don't have to hit it hard," he says. "A lot of people think you do. But you just want the ripe stuff," which falls off easily.

For centuries, the Ojibwa and other Indian peoples have harvested the wild rice that flourished in the rivers and shallow lakes of Wisconsin, Minnesota, and southern Canada. Today, fewer and fewer are willing to devote the time and labor to gathering and processing it.

Another troubling development for the tribe: Half the wild rice has disappeared over the past century, according to scientists in Minnesota and Wisconsin. Their findings confirm what many Ojibwa elders have noticed: "Everyone agrees there used to be more rice," says Darren Vogt, a biologist for the Ojibwas.

And new threats loom. Since the 1960s, the market has been flooded with cheap wild rice from domesticated varieties that have been developed in agricultural research stations, cultivated in man-made paddies, and harvested by machine.

McGeshick and his cousin Roger McGeshick Sr., are rice chiefs of the Sokaogon band of Ojibwa, and two of many elders on reservations scattered across the north who are trying to keep alive the traditions of the harvest.

They spend much of their free time during the summer traveling the back roads of northern Wisconsin, visiting rice beds and monitoring their development. At the end of summer they determine when the rice is ready to harvest, and they encourage young people to participate.

"We're trying to get the younger people to do it," says Pete, "but they have other things to do. They think it's too much work. [Older tribe members] don't think of it as work. We just think of it as something we should be doing."

When French explorers and fur traders arrived in the Great Lakes region in the 17th century, native Americans were harvesting rice in ways not much different than they do today.

By the 20th century, Indians were confined to reservations, and ricing became more difficult. Landowners denied them access to lakes and forbade them to set up rice camps on their land. Some natives gave up rice harvesting altogether.

Harvest was a time of reunion

But ricing continued among the Ojibwa. Wild rice was a crucial foodstuff to them, a commodity to sell for extra cash, an object of veneration, and an important ingredient of social and ceremonial life. The McGeshicks, who are both in their 60s, remember when families camped at Spur Lake and spent days harvesting and processing the rice, mixing hard work with eating, laughter, and storytelling.

"They'd come from all over the place, wherever they lived," Pete says, gesturing to the trees where his family once camped. "They'd come from Minnesota, Chicago, the cities. It was a big family reunion."

Many non-Indians harvested rice, too. In the economically depressed regions of the north, wild rice supplemented modest incomes. Rod Ustipak, a rice expert from Crosby, Minn., recalls that he and other children at his school would skip classes to harvest rice.

Mr. Ustipak still gathers rice each year, though for reasons other than need. "It's almost indescribable, the feeling of being out harvesting, using a method that's been in use hundreds of years," he says.

This year the harvest began late - later than anyone could remember. A cool, wet summer delayed the ripening for weeks and made harvesters impatient. When the McGeshicks drove up to Spur Lake, towing their canoe, one morning last month, eight to 10 cars and pickup trucks were parked along a narrow blacktop road that follows the shore.

The wild rice plants stood shoulder high and extended all the way to a distant fringe of trees, leaving only small patches of open water. Far out, several harvesters could be seen, widely scattered and half- hidden by the rice.

Harvesting wild rice usually requires two people. One person stands in the stern and pushes the canoe with a long pole while the other sits in the front and gathers. The rice grows so thick in most places that a paddle is almost useless. On a good day a pair of harvesters can bring 200 pounds or more of wild rice to the landing. The kernels are purplish red and have long, sharp spikes. They look like thick fur in the bottom of the canoe.