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Knocking the Rice as Autumn Descends in the Great Lakes Region

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Recently, an ancient strain of rice has risen in perceived value and popularity, as the crop has become more threatened by development of natural resources, industrialization and genetic modification.

Wild rice (called manoomin by the Ojibwe people), the only grain indigenous to North America, is steeped in rich tradition. Wild rice is largely associated with the Ojibwe people, although in the 17th century, the Dakotas regularly harvested the grain—a source of strife between the two nations, who competed for both hunting territory and the wild rice range.

Over the course of 200 years, the Dakota moved west, away from the the Menominee (“wild rice people”) in the Great Lakes region.

During this period, Europeans from the east descended upon the area and discovered wild rice. The harvesting of this aquatic grass was not an easy task. The Ojibwe had established set, traditional ways of harvesting, also known as knocking the rice.

To this day, women bind the stalks prior to harvest as a way to mark their territory and also protect the stands from wind and birds. Then individual families or a group of families set up ricing camps by the shore. Women generally manage shelter for a couple of days, while others harvest the grain.

Collecting the rice in canoes—the best way to traverse the marshy offshoots of waterways, incidentally—was a remarkable feat in itself. In the rear of the vessel, pushing it, would be a pole handler. In the front, someone would sit and steer while working the two knockers, a pair of ricing sticks usually carved from lightweight wood—thin and about three feet in length. One stick held down the stalks over the canoe and the other was used to knock the ripe kernels into it. Families could nearly fill the canoe and take home sacks of processed rice for a winter’s worth of use.

Following harvest, the rice is immediately dried for two to three days so it does not become moldy. Then it is parched, the process of roasting the kernels to reduce moisture and loosen the hull from the grain—essential for preserving the food. Next, the manoomin is hulled to help remove the chaff from the rice kernel. The practice involves digging a small pit in the earth and “dancing” on the rice over a cloth with special knee-high, unbeaded moccasins, which never touch the ground. Lastly, the manoomin is winnowed. It is taken to a high place or somewhere windy and gently thrown up into the air over a birchbark tray so the wind can remove the remaining hulls and chaff.

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The first rice to be processed and finished is cooked at the camp and served as part of a feast, or thanksgiving to the Creator and the good spirits who made the wild rice.

Manoominike-Giizis, a.k.a. the wild rice moon, is usually in late August or early September. The harvesting period runs about two weeks. The kernels that are lost or fly away while being hit with the knockers are seeds for next year’s harvest.

Wild Rice, Quinoa & Pine Nuts

2 cups of cooked wild rice
1 cup cooked quinoa
½ sweet Vidalia onion, diced
2 garlic cloves, minced
½ green bell pepper, (or jalapeno) finely chopped
3 tablespoons roasted pine nuts
4 tablespoons golden (blond) raisins
1 golden delicious apple, chopped
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
2 tablespoons fresh parsley
1 teaspoon seasoned salt, pepper to taste
½ cup water or chicken broth

Sauté onion, garlic and peppers until golden, a couple of minutes. Combine all ingredients in a baking dish and toss lightly. Bake at 350 degrees for 40 to 50 minutes.

Note: You can also stuff squash, such as acorn, with this mix before baking. It's the perfect partner with smoked turkey breast or duck.

Dale Carson, Abenaki, is the author of three books: New Native American CookingNative New England Cooking and A Dreamcatcher Book. She has written about and demonstrated Native cooking techniques for more than 30 years. Dale has four grown children and lives with them and her husband in Madison, Connecticut.