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 , Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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.

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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.

Once harvested, the rice requires complicated processing. Traditionally, the Ojibwa dried it, parched it in iron kettles, and trod on it - or "danced the rice" - to remove the husks. Today most people use the services of a professional processor. The McGeshicks still process their own rice, parching it in an old tub and hulling it with a small machine.

The harvesters at Spur Lake were a mixed group of Ojibwas and non-Indians who paid $8 for a state harvesting permit. Albert McGeshick, Pete's older brother, worked with a friend in a fiberglass canoe painted to look like birch bark. "I love doing it," he says.

Nearby were the Koenigs of Rhinelander, Wis., an older non-Indian couple who are longtime ricers. They sell their harvest to a nursery specializing in native plants. "It's a lot of work," says Mr. Koenig, who's hot and sweaty from shoveling handfuls of rice from his canoe into white cloth bags.

Most people keep some rice for themselves and sell or give away the rest. Tribal and government agencies buy wild rice for restoration projects. Some Ojibwa bands sell wild rice over the Internet. Joe Allen, owner of Singing Pines Wild Rice, in Grand Rapids, Minn., pays $1 to $1.50 a pound for unprocessed rice, but says fewer people are willing to harvest it.

Wild rice grows in shallow water under fairly specific conditions. Biologists say subtle changes in water levels and flows have hurt the rice in many lakes. Human activity - the building of roads, small dams, ditches, and culverts - is largely to blame. In Minnesota, beavers dam lake outlets and drown the rice. The beavers flourish because heavy logging over the past century has changed the composition of the forest and encouraged trees, such as aspens, that beavers love.

Lately, biologists have been working to halt the decline and restore wild rice in some places. These efforts include planting rice, uprooting competing plants, such as waterlilies, removing dams, and seeking other ways to restore the ecological conditions in which wild rice flourishes.

In Minnesota, the state pays trappers to catch beavers that threaten rice lakes. But Chris Holm, a biologist on Minnesota's Bois Forte reservation, says reversing the decline of wild rice is a complicated process. "It could take 100 years to bring it back," he says.

Natives worry about genetic engineering

Today researchers are decoding the wild rice genome, raising fears among some Ojibwa that genetically engineered rice could someday contaminate their lakes.

Ojibwas from Minnesota's White Earth reservation have been trying to stop the University of Minnesota from decoding the wild rice genome. They consider the research an affront to their culture and religion.

They also argue that the research invites the development of genetically engineered wild rice. "Once that happens, we stand a good chance of losing our rice," says Joe LaGarde, a White Earth elder. "Then what happens to us as a people?"

The university has promised not to engage in genetic engineering, but has refused to stop its research, on the grounds of academic freedom. "The academic view and perhaps the view of Western science is one of curiosity and research, and the need to learn as much as you can," says Charles Muscoplat, dean of the College of Agricultural, Food, and Environmental Sciences and vice president for agricultural policy. "The native American view is different. They don't need to understand wild rice."

Like other Ojibwas, Roger and Pete McGeshick consider wild rice a part of their patrimony that they must defend. "You have to learn how to take care of it and use it," Roger says. "It's a sacred thing. It's a matter of respect for the Creator and what He gave to us."

But visiting Spur Lake troubles them. They relish the harvest, but it reminds them too much of what has been lost. They complain that the rice at Spur Lake is shorter and thinner than it once was. Thirty years ago, they say, you couldn't see the people in the canoe next to you, although you could hear them if they fell in.

Inevitably, too, they recall their first rice camps and the elders who brought them, now all gone. They wonder who will follow them to teach respect for the rice and carry on the knowledge of the harvest. For years, Roger has been making videotapes of each harvest, compiling a record of what they have seen and done.

"We're following people who have passed on," he says, gazing out over the rice. "We're hoping to keep it alive. It seems it's a lost art."

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