A gentle wind tousles Winona LaDuke’s raven-black hair and carries her tobacco smoke and prayer across Buffalo Lake to a bay where wild rice grows thick as a woven rug. The 4-foot-tall plants, which grow naturally in northwestern Minnesota, wave in the breeze, as if to welcome Winona and her canoe. “We’re lucky,” she says. “We’re the only ones the Creator gave rice to.”
She steps into the stern and begins poling like a gondolier, easing the canoe into the wild rice bed. Winona’s ricing partner holds two cedar sticks called knockers. She will use one to bend the plants over the hull and the other to gently tap the grains from the seed heads, a labor-intensive technique that has hardly changed over hundreds of years.
About 90 miles northeast of Fargo, White Earth Nation has the richest wild rice beds in the United States—47 lakes and more than 500 other bodies of water where manoomin, or the “good berry,” grows. (In fact, the reservation’s largest community is called Mahnomen.) Ojibwe legend says that a duck dropped wild rice into a pot of boiling water to show the spirit Nanaboozhoo that a bounty of nutritious grain was growing in the lake. “Where there’s rice, there’s Anishinaabe. Where there’s Anishinaabe, there’s rice,” Winona says, using the tribe’s original name. “It’s the first food of a baby, the last food for an elder. We simply can’t be a healthy people without our rice.”
That mantra—food as salvation—comes up a lot with Winona, who sees native foods as an antidote to the tribe’s diabetes epidemic and as an environmentally sustainable source of economic growth. In 1989, she started the White Earth Land Recovery Project (WELRP) to fulfill that vision and found herself in the political spotlight. Both Time and Ms. magazines recognized her as one of the nation’s leading activists, and the Green Party nominated her as a vice presidential candidate. But her heart is in these waters.
“My friends just called me last week and said, ‘Hey Winona, we’re gonna go get arrested at this big protest in D.C. You gotta come with,’” she says. “I said, ‘Sorry, guys. The rice is in. I gotta harvest!’”
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.
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).