Wild Rice | Wisconsin Historical Society

Historical Essay

Wild Rice

A Brief History of one of Wisconsin's Earliest Crops

Wild Rice | Wisconsin Historical Society
EnlargeIllustration of three Chippewa (Ojibwa) Indians gathering wild rice into a canoe.

Chippewas Gathering Wild Rice

Illustration of three Chippewa (Ojibwa) Indians gathering wild rice into a canoe. View the original source document: WHI 5599

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 tradition, wild rice was a gift to humans from the gods. When the rice was mature, the Menominee offered tobacco to the spirits to ensure a good harvest. The chief threw tobacco into the fire as an offering to the gods so that they would not interfere with the weather. Tribal elders would smoke from a pipe passed around the group and a feast began.

Rice Harvesting

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. The women, armed with two sticks, would then 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.

Wild rice is now considered an unpredictable crop due to its susceptibility to frost, high water, disease and insects. But 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.


EnlargeAn Ojibwe woman, Francis Mike, harvesting wild rice in a boat on Totogatic Lake.

Knocking Wild Rice

An Ojibwa woman, Francis Mike, harvesting wild rice in a boat on Totogatic Lake. View the original source document: WHI 24509

As a staple for Indians, wild rice provoked inter-tribal warfare. The Sioux of northeastern Minnesota and the Great Lakes Ojibwe bands battled for more than a century over access to Wisconsin's wild rice. Nearly 500 warriors were killed when the Ojibwe defeated the Sioux at Mole Lake in Forest County in 1806.

Wild rice continues to be an important staple for Great Lakes Indian people, and is a popular food around the world. Today, the federal government protects most Wisconsin rice fields.

Learn More

[Sources: The Menominee Indian Tribe Online; 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]