Native Harvest: Ojibwe Wild Rice Gathering in Minnesota | Midwest Living
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Native Harvest: Ojibwe Wild Rice Gathering in Minnesota

For centuries, the Minnesota Ojibwe have turned to the land to feed their families. Our story takes you inside the traditional Ojibwe wild rice harvest.

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  • 1
    On a good day, a pair of experienced Ojibwe ricers will fill their canoe with as much as 400 pounds of wild rice.
  • 2
    Winona LaDuke guides a canoe through a wild rice bed.
  • 3
    A parade of pickups signals rice season in White Earth Nation.
  • 4
    Organic farms on the reservation grow traditional Ojibwe crops such as corn.
  • 5
    Ojibwe elders celebrate the harvest.
  • 6
    Winona spearheads the White Earth Land Recovery Project.
  • 7
    Ricers ride in canoes and use cedar sticks to gather rice.
  • 8
    Ricers use cedar sticks to gather rice.

She’s not the only one to block off early fall on her calendar. Experienced ricers (and food-lovers) know that this is the tastiest wild rice anywhere. The kernels swell with milk during hot August days, and on cold autumn nights, that milk solidifies into an uncommonly large, flavorful grain. When roasted and finished the Ojibwe way—parched, or toasted, in a wood-fired cauldron—the result is an earthy, nutty grain that noticeably plumps and softens when cooked. It bears little comparison to the boxed supermarket stuff most of us have in our pantries, which comes from cultivated paddies. (White Earth residents joke that you know commercial rice has finished cooking when you drop a rock in the pot and the rock turns soft.)

Back on shore, Winona steps out of the canoe and shovels her rice into a burlap bag. She hauls the day’s harvest in a pickup to the WELRP’s headquarters at an old school in Callaway. Besides harvesting, processing and selling rice, the organization cultivates fruit and vegetables, including heirloom varieties; grows tobacco for tribal ceremonies; and taps 7,500 maple trees. Soon, a wind turbine will provide renewable energy.

In the school gymnasium, Barb Warren pours hot maple syrup mixed with a bit of butter into maple-leaf molds. Barb is a one-woman assembly line for Native Harvest, WELRP’s retail arm. She spends her days fulfilling orders for hominy, pancake and fry bread mixes, chokecherry syrup and, of course, wild rice.

“This is the time of year when I get dizzy,” Barb says while the leaves sit to cool. “Pretty soon we’ll be into Christmas orders, and I’ll be shipping 50 boxes a day.” This batch of candy is bound for New York City, and Barb has shipped 2,000-pound freight orders of wild rice to a restaurant in Italy. But in keeping with the WELRP mission, plenty of the food harvested stays on the reservation, nourishing the people who grew it.

Wednesdays through Sundays during the summer, Native Harvest’s Minwanjige Cafe serves Ojibwe cuisine in a log cabin along a country road in Ogema. The bakery-cafe gives traditional food an epicurean twist, showing locals and visitors alike how White Earth Nation products have a place in modern kitchens. (Look for dishes shared by tribe members throughout these pages.) The breakfast menu lists buffalo sausage, egg sandwiches and rhubarb bread. At lunch time, cherry tomatoes and raspberry vinaigrette top a mixed wild green and spinach salad, and local roast beef fills sandwiches made with homemade bread. Wild rice adds nutty flavor to bratwurst, sage perfumes the biscuits, and assorted pies tempt visitors.

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