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

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.

On a chilly morning at the beginning of the rice harvest, pickup trucks park bumper-to-bumper for more than a quarter-mile on both sides of the narrow dirt path leading to a creaky wooden dock at Big Rice Lake. The sun rises over hundreds of people in the tawny rice beds. Two Ojibwe to each canoe, one poler and one knocker. Occasionally a head of long black hair tied back by a bright red bandana will pop up above the prairie of rice to get a sense of direction.

By noon the ricers reemerge, their canoes listing from the weight of their burden. Many will sell their harvest, but others will keep the rice to feed their families through the winter. Robin Davis ties her canoe atop her pickup. Just 27 years old, Robin knows wild rice is a sacred link to her ancestors and to the land. “When I eat this rice, I can taste the turtles that live in these waters, the fish that swim in them, the roots that grow at the lake bottom,” she says. “I can taste the lake.”

South of Big Rice Lake, in the village of Nay-tah-waush, an afternoon powwow celebrates the harvest. Clad in a bonnet of deer hair and porcupine quills, George Earth Sr. steps to the drumbeat. George gathered rice with his grandfather, a White Earth chief, in a birchbark canoe in the 1940s. Now he comes back to the reservation each year for the powwow. “I come to dance,” he says, “and to thank the spirit for the wild rice he brings us every year.”

White Earth travel and product information

Order White Earth Land Recovery Project's wild rice and other food products from the reservation through Native Harvest. (888) 274-8318; nativeharvest.com You can also shop at the White Earth Transit in Detroit Lakes. (218) 844-5212 If you visit the White Earth Nation in Minnesota, sample Ojibwe cuisine and other casual fare at the Minwanjige Cafe in Ogema. The cafe is open Wednesday to Sunday (May through August).

 

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