Harvest, Poach, Jig, Winnow: Ricing Process is Tribal Tradition


By Brett Larson, October 1, 2015

The Anishinaabe lunar calendar has 13 moons, or months. Late summer is “Manoominike Giizis,” or “Wild rice making moon.” It was the time rice would be harvested and processed into the staple food the Anishinaabe would depend on throughout the year.

During the weekend of Sept. 19 and 20, staff members, volunteers and guests at the Anishinaabe Izhitwaawin in Rutledge (aka the Ojibwe Language and Culture Center) were engaged in traditional activities that date back hundreds of years, to the time the Anishinaabe first laid eyes on the land “where food grows on the water.”

George Lussier of St. Paul was parching rice over an open fire, using a wooden paddle to stir the grains in a cast iron kettle. “My mom and grandma and dad did this up in Red Lake when I was pretty young. I got the opportunity to come here and help out, and it brought my spirit up. I never thought I’d do it again. It’s a good feeling.”

Green rice was drying in the sun. That step in the process kills the bugs that live in the rice, which need moisture to survive.

At the jigging pit, Joe Regguinti of the Leech Lake Band had his moccasins on and was “dancing” on the rice to separate the husks from the grain. “Back in the day they used to have a hand drum and sing songs for the person dancing on the rice,” said Joe.

He leaned against two poles tied to a tree trunk, to stay light on his feet. Too much weight, or a heavy step, can break the rice grains, so jigging was usually the job of young men, girls or boys.

At Mille Lacs, women were not allowed to jig rice after they’d reached maturity.

Out on the lawn, Laurie Harper, a Leech Lake Band member and Mille Lacs Band employee, was winnowing rice, using a birch bark tray to toss the rice in the air. “I need more wind,” she joked. Normally this was done on a windy day, with the breeze blowing the chaff away while the heavier rice grains would fall back in the basket.

Adrienne Benjamin, who works at the center and brought the group together, was picking hulls out of finished rice — a painstaking process that would consume the long, dark days of winter. It’s the sort of activity that inspires silent contemplation or cheerful conversation.

Also taking part in the day’s activities was Band member Chris Matrious, who brought his daughter and nieces to learn about their traditions. Chris hopes to help out at Anishinaabe Izhitwaawin in the future.

As Chris watched and helped out with the ricing process, the young girls learned from Larry Barber of Lac Courtes Oreilles how to make a birch bark winnowing tray.

Ready for the harvest

The ricing season begins with preparation: making sure your equipment is ready, because you never know for sure when the rice will be ripe. As it gets close, you may see the heads starting to lean, or the bottom of the plant turning from green to brown.

“When you get out there you can open it up, and if it’s milky, it’s not ready yet,” said Joe. “It’ll sink when it’s ready. When it’s ripened up it’s heavier, as it takes up the nutrients from the ground.” The grains will gradually harden and darken from greenish to blackish — and then it’s a mad rush to get as much rice as you can during the short season.

As with many traditional activities of the Anishinaabe, ricing begins with putting out tobacco. Adrienne said that in earlier times, certain words might have been spoken, but today, a silent prayer may be offered, thanking the spirits, or asking for help and safety. “We’re offering the tobacco to the manidoog (spirits) who live in the water,” said Laurie. “We’re asking permission to be in their realm.”

Adrienne and Laurie have been out ricing several times this year. Adrienne prefers to pole while Laurie knocks, but if she’s with someone who prefers poling, she’ll try her hand with the knockers.

The pole is usually made of cedar or tamarack — something hard, straight and light. A fork is attached to the bottom of the pole to better push off on the muddy bottom of the lake. It also protects the roots of the rice.

The knockers, also made of cedar, are used to pull the heavy heads of rice over the canoe and knock or brush them into the boat. Hundreds of pounds can be harvested in a day by a good ricing team. The finished rice will be about half the weight of the unfinished.

The poler needs great core strength and balance, according to Laurie. Both poler and knocker need to be focused on the task.

The harvesting process is not completely peaceful and calm. There are spiders and worms and other bugs. The ends of the rice have “beards” — long, thin hairs that fly everywhere — into your mouth, your nose, your ears, your eyes. That’s why some ricers wear mosquito nets over their faces, and most wrap duct tape around their clothing to keep the rice from getting up their shirts and down their pants.

Nowadays you often see a man poling and a woman knocking, or a young person poling and an elder knocking, but there are no set rules across Ojibwe country. In East Lake, the poler stands in the front of the canoe. In most other areas, the poler stands in the back.

“Years ago it was a woman’s role to be in charge of the rice camps,” said Laurie. “The men would be taking care of hunting and snaring. The kids would be helping or watching. My dad (Dennis Harper, White Earth Ojibwe) taught me it wasn’t until the 1940s or ‘50s that it became more of a male thing. Social security was introduced, and marriage was a big push. Men were told they had to support their families, which led to a shift in our cultural ways.”

While certain aspects of the culture have changed, and others will change in the future, some things are timeless: the need for good tasting, healthy food; the pride that comes from self-sufficiency; the joy of companionship with friends and family; and the serenity of a day on the lake.