Wild Rice Cooking: History, Natural History, Harvesting and Lore with Recipes 1989 Minnesota Book Award
Chapter One Excerpt
Manoominike-giizis: Wild Rice Moon
From the prehistoric times of about one thousand years ago to the historic times of approximately four hundred years ago, the Woodland Cultures (Laurel People) of the western Great Lakes area of North America were settled on the shores of the lakes and rivers of land that includes what is now known as northern Minnesota. These peoples were processing wild rice, and developing pottery and burial mound technology. During the same period, the prehistoric peoples to the south, now called the Mississippian Cultures, strongly influenced by Mexican agriculture, were developing agricultural technologies.
During the last of the prehistoric period, the agricultural tradition made its way into what is now southern Minnesota, but the geographical exigencies of the western Great Lakes area did not favor its development further north. The harvesting and processing of wild rice, along with hunting and fishing, persisted from prehistoric into historic times.2 Still, there remained a cross-fertilization of influences. Wild rice harvesting continued into the nineteenth century as far south as Nebraska and as far southeast as Illinois. Southern pottery influences are evident in the western Great Lakes area.
Historic times are marked in North America by the arrival of the Europeans, who kept written records, often in the form of diaries and reports. These Europeans arrived in the western Great Lakes area in the seventeenth century. The Minnesota area was then populated primarily by the Dakota tribe of the Sioux nation, and the Wisconsin area primarily by the Menominee tribe, meaning ìwild rice people,î of the Algonquin nation. Both nations harvested wild rice.
The arrival of the Europeans marked the beginning of a westward movement of the eastern populations of what would become the United States. As explorers and fur traders sought new territory, so did the Algonquin Ojibwe people. Originally from the Atlantic coast, they were forced to move west as their lands were appropriated by European settlers.
The transition from Dakota to Ojibwe predominance in Minnesota took nearly two hundred years. The period was marked by increasing strife and warfare between the two tribes, until 1851 when the Dakota were finally forced from the area. However, for a long time the Dakota continued to risk attack by returning to harvest rice in their old territory.
The conflict between the two tribes was in great part over hunting lands that were also wild rice territory. With the incursion of the Europeans, wild rice had become a useful trade commodity in addition to its continuing use as a food staple. Later, it would even come to be regarded as a luxury by white people, according to a news item in a 1913 issue of the Scientific American.
The earliest written descriptions of wild rice confirm its value to any human living or traveling in the area. References to it are found in the 1633 memoir of Pierre Gaultier de Varennes, sieur de la Verendrie (Verendrye); the 1673 writings of Father Jacques Marquette; and in a 1751 scientific tract by Peter Kalm. Perhaps the most eloquent entry comes to us from Pierre díEsprit sieur Radisson in 1668, in a missive to Charles II of England:
Our songs being finished we began our teeth to worke. We had there a kinde of rice, much like oats. It growes in the watter in 3 or 4 foote deepe. There is a God that shews himselfe in every countrey, almighty, full of goodnesse and y preservation of those poore people who knoweth him not. They have a particular way to gather up that graine. Two takes a boat and two sticks, by wch they gett ye eare downe and gett the corne out of it. Their boat being full, they bring it to a fitt place to dry it; and that is their food for the most part of the winter, and doe dresse it thus: ffor each man a handfull of that they putt in the pott, that swells so much that it can suffice a man.
Knowledge of wild rice harvesting traditions comes to us today primarily from the Ojibwe. Until 1988, with the publication of Vennumís definitive work Wild Rice and the Ojibwe People, most of the stories came to us through the observations of non-Indians. Vennum, while drawing from previously published reports, also went to the Indian people and recorded their stories directly.
While there are some differences in detail between the stories recorded by non-Indian observers and those told to Vennum, and even among the stories told to Vennum, there is general agreement regarding the traditional methods of harvesting and processing wild rice.