in Wisconsin History
Wild Rice Harvesting
Harvested in the early autumn, wild rice was an immensely important commodity to Native Americans, particularly the Ojibwe and Menominee, who lived in the areas where it grew abundantly. The Menominee even took their name from the Indian word for wild rice, manomin, and were often referred to as the Wild Rice People by Europeans.
According to Menominee oral traditions, wild rice was a gift to humans from one of the Underneath Beings. When the rice was mature, the Menominee offered tobacco to this spirit to insure a good harvest. After that, the Underneath spirits and the Thunderbirds could claim their share of the rice. The chief threw tobacco into the fire as an offering to the Thunderbirds so they would not interfere with the weather. At the end of his speech, all the elders would smoke from a pipe passed around the group, and a feast began. Unless someone acted with disrespect, this ceremony assured calm weather for the upcoming harvest.
Botanically, wild rice differs from common rice, and is actually a cereal grass that grows in shallow lakes and streams, ripening in late summer. While the range of wild rice stretches from Manitoba to Florida, the most prolific stands are located in the upper Great Lakes of Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota. Today Wisconsin has seventy major rice fields in thirteen counties. The grain usually begins to ripen in sections of the Wolf and Wisconsin rivers before lakeside areas are ready to be harvested.
Before white settlement and land cessions transformed Indian life, entire communities would move to the lakeshore in time for the fall wild rice harvest. Working in family groups, a man poled two women out to the family's section of the lake in a canoe, where the women, armed with two sticks, would bend the rice stalks over the canoe and knock off kernels until the canoe was full. On shore, the rice was sun-dried or parched over low fires and then pounded and winnowed. Today, double-ended rowboats are often used in place of canoes and instead of the traditional pairing of a man and two women, pairs of men or women now harvest rice as a team.
Though wild rice is now considered an unpredictable crop due to its susceptibility to frost, high water, disease, and insects, the grain fields were once so abundant that they posed navigational problems for early European explorers. The stalks can grow as high as seven feet above the water. Little wonder, then, that Father Marquette hired guides to lead his expedition through the upper Fox River in 1673.
Wild rice was a valuable item for barter during the fur trade era. Carrying only limited supplies, traders, explorers, and missionaries depended on Indians for food. The virtual imperishability of wild rice helped to stave off famine and made it an invaluable source of food during the long winters.
As a staple of Indian subsistence, wild rice also provoked inter-tribal warfare, as various communities fought to protect territory containing prolific stands of rice. The Sioux of northeastern Minnesota and the Great Lakes Ojibwe bands battled for more than a century over access to the rich wild rice territories of northern Wisconsin. One such battle occurred at Mole Lake, in Forest County, between the Sokaogon band of Ojibwe and the Sioux in 1806; according to oral tradition, nearly 500 warriors were killed as the Ojibwe defeated the Sioux.
Wild rice continues to be an important staple food for Great Lakes Indian people. Today, the federal government protects most rice fields, though many Indian families continue to harvest where their families have for generations.
[Sources: The Menominee Indian Tribe (online at http://www.menominee-nsn.gov/); Jenks, Albert Ernest. The wild rice gatherers of the upper lakes: a study in American primitive economics. (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1900); "Wild Rice" Indian Country. Milwaukee Public Museum (online at http://www.mpm.edu/wirp/ICW-36.html#_top)]