‘Manoomin will carry you through’

Melanie Connors, Bad River Ojibwe, harvests manoomin in the sloughs of Lake Superior. (Photo by Mary Annette Pember)

Mary Annette Pember

The healing power of the annual wild rice harvest transcends the pandemic

Mary Annette Pember
Indian Country Today

Every fall, Ojibwe go down to the river and lake sloughs surrounding the Great Lakes region to manoominike, or make wild rice, in two-person teams in canoes. 

One person stands in the rear of the canoe, propelling it forward through the rice beds with a long pole, while the other person sits in the front, bending the rice stalks with two wooden sticks and knocking the grains into the bottom of the canoe. Some of the grains fall back into the water during the process, thus allowing the manoomin, or wild rice, to reseed itself.

The annual manoomin harvest goes from late August until mid to late September as it has for time immemorial. This year is no different, even with the coronavirus altering nearly every aspect of human life.

Since harvesting manoomin is by nature a safe, social-distanced activity, it is providing a much-needed sense of normalcy during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Manoominike is the perfect antidote for us now, especially after being worried and cooped up inside for so long,” says Philomena Kebec of the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa in Wisconsin.

Bad River leaders declared a state of emergency in March in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, closing the tribe’s casino and lodge and in July requiring citizens to wear masks inside buildings. The community avoided infection until early September, when two of its citizens tested positive. Those testing positive, along with nine others, have been isolated and quarantined, according to the tribe’s public health and emergency response team.

Manoomin is a staple in the traditional Ojibwe diet. Manoomin is the quintessential broad spectrum medicine, providing not only physical sustenance but also spiritual, mental and cultural enrichment according to Kebec.

To harvest rice is to be part of the natural processes of the earth; the act of knocking rice into a canoe works to help the rice reseed itself and continue its growth cycle.

“If people didn’t harvest the rice, it wouldn’t be there for us anymore; that interaction we as Anishinaabe have with the natural world is really profound,” Kebec said.

Wild rice is actually not rice at all; it is a semi-aquatic grass or cereal that historically grows in lakes, tidal rivers and bays, in water between 2 and 4 feet deep. Manoomin contains more than double the protein found in brown rice. Gluten free and low in fat, manoomin is a good source of minerals such as iron, potassium and phosphorus and vitamins like thiamin, riboflavin and niacin. With its long shelf life and ease of storage, it is always served during feasts and ceremonies.

The medicine of manoomin, however, goes far beyond its role as food.

Mary Bigboy, 81, Ojibwe from Bad River, recalls that entire families would camp out close to the sloughs, processing the rice at the end of each day.

Manoominike is a time to go out into the fields. You can put your worries aside and just be happy to be together and be part of a tradition that’s been there for a long time,” she said.

Bigboy recalls that her family processed the rice by hand. After drying the harvested rice in the sun, her mother would parch it over the fire in a large metal tub, stirring the grains over and over with a large wooden paddle until the husks began to pop.

“My job was to put on a pair of new moccasins and dance the rice after it was placed in a cloth-lined hole in the ground,” she recalls.

Often done by youngsters, dancing the rice removes the husks.

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Afterwards, the rice is winnowed in large birch bark baskets in which the rice is tossed in the air to separate it from the remaining chaff.

“All the fires would be going along the river as families made their rice. It was a happy, good time,” she recalls. “We would all stop for lunch, circling our canoes together out in the sloughs. We’d share our food, laugh and visit.”

Although ricers continue to enjoy being out in nature and visiting with others, only a few people still process their rice by hand.

Many people have built homemade parching and thrashing machines; some people bring their green (unfinished) rice to larger finishing operations such as Spirit Lake Native Farms on the Fond du Lac reservation in Minnesota. Owned by Bruce and Tawny Savage, Ojibwe and Lake Paiute tribe of Nevada, Spirit Lake produces and sells traditional maple syrup and manoomin and also finishes rice for others.

According to Bruce Savage, more people have been making rice this year than in the past.

“You almost have to have a middle class income to afford to go ricing today. In addition to a car, boat and money for gas you have to have time off from work,” he said. “COVID has given people more time off to enjoy ricing; they don’t have the stress of having to get back to work.”

Manoomin, good seed or wild rice is a staple for Ojibwe. (Photo by Mary Annette Pember)
Manoomin, good seed or wild rice is a staple for Ojibwe. (Photo by Mary Annette Pember)

Spirit Lake remains open as the Savages and their employees wear masks and adhere to strict social-distancing practices.

“We’ve been hugely impacted economically since so many of the restaurants that buy from us have shut down,” Savage said.

“I’ve been trying to quit the business for a long time, but haven’t been very successful,” he joked. “Ricing and finishing is just one of those things we do, I guess.”

Melvin Maday, Ojibwe from Bad River agrees. “Ricing at this time of year just feels like the right thing to do,” he said.

Maday, who is in his 70s, no longer goes out to the sloughs.

“As I’ve gotten older, I’ve gotten into making the knocking sticks and the poles; I’m more aware of how much preparation it takes to go out and rice. As we age, our contribution to the process changes,” he said.

According to Maday, interest in harvesting manoomin has grown as young Ojibwe gain more interest in learning about their heritage.

Indeed, citizens of Bad River or Mashkaziibi, medicine river, are known as the wild rice people due to their close proximity to the great sloughs of Lake Superior. It’s said that all the medicines needed to keep Ojibwe healthy can be found along the banks of Mashkaziibi which runs into Lake Superior.

The Bad River reservation or Mashkiibiibii, Medicine River, is located along the shores of Lake Superior. (Photo by Mary Annette Pember)
The Bad River reservation or Mashkiibiibii, Medicine River, is located along the shores of Lake Superior. (Photo by Mary Annette Pember)

Rice harvesting season is also a time to gather other medicines, according to Kebec.

Manoominike, however, is hard work.

“When you’re out there [on the sloughs] your clothes get all wet and itchy but somehow it just feels like that’s where you’re supposed to be,” Maday said.

Beginning in the 1980s Bad River created its annual wild rice powwow usually during the last weekend in August. This year, due to the pandemic, the event was canceled.

“People were disappointed; but some of the women and girls did a social-distanced jingle dress dance as a way to heal and give thanks,” Bigboy said.

Before the annual powwow was created, however, families often gathered to honor and give thanks for the rice with a big feast, according to Bigboy.

This year of the pandemic has been a return to those simpler days.

‘‘Most of us have grown up with manoomin being a big part of our lives. All the holidays, feasts for funerals, birthdays and anniversaries always include rice,” Bigboy said.

“During feasts my parents and grandparents told us about certain teachings and aspects of our traditions. We would enjoy each other's company, share thoughts and feelings. Now, I do the same with my children and grandchildren; I hope it never gets lost for our people,” she said.

Manoomin will carry you through the winter when times get tough, like they are now,” she said. “You know you can always make a kettle of rice soup for your family.”

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Mary Annette Pember, citizen of the Red Cliff Ojibwe tribe, is national correspondent for Indian Country Today. On Twitter: @mapember. Based in Cincinnati, Ohio. Pember loves film, books and jingle dress dancing.

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