Processing Wild Rice (Manoomin) the Sustainable Way

The Chippewa Nation has been processing wild rice, also known as “manoomin,” in a traditional and sustainable way for generations. Learn the steps of this process and how buying sustainably harvested rice supports indigenous families, Great Lakes communities and sustainable agriculture.


| November 27, 2012



Harvest By Richard Horan

“Harvest” carries the reader on an eye-opening and transformational journey across the length and breadth of America. Part travelogue and part treatise, this book reminds us how our lives are, and always will be, connected to farms.


Cover Courtesy Harper Perennial

Harvest (Harper Perennial, 2012) tells the story of novelist and nature writer Richard Horan as he embarks on a transcontinental adventure across America visiting organic family farms and working the harvests of more than a dozen essential and unusual food crops—from Kansas wheat and Michigan wild rice to Maine Potatoes and California walnuts. What he discovers are strong connections among the farmers, the soil and the seasons that ultimately support the lifeblood of America. Discover how the Chippewa Nation has been sustainably processing wild rice in this excerpt taken from chapter 6, “Wild Rice (Manoomin).” 

You can purchase this book from the MOTHER EARTH NEWS store: Harvest. 

Sixty-five miles northwest of Green Bay, Wisconsin, U.S. Highway 45 turns north at Wittenberg and travels through the heart of Wisconsin’s Northwoods, straight on through to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, where it comes to a dead end at Lake Superior (Gichigami), in Ontonagon. On either side of the highway, north of Antigo, Wisconsin, the land is pockmarked with thousands of kettle lakes—the highest concentration of these lakes in the world—and populated by wolves, moose, and even cougar. This is the central homeland of the Chippewa Nation. It is where the water drum of the ancient Midewiwin Lodge was first heard calling its people to council. Where the earth, Aki, and its four sacred directions—North, South, East, and West—are believed to possess physical and spiritual powers. Where the creator of all things, Gichi-Manidoo, took the four powers and made human beings called Anishinaabe. And where the wild rice, manoomin, still grows wild.

Curing the Rice

In more traditional times, the rice was dried on birch bark or blankets spread on the ground and continuously aerated and sun-dried for two days. About the only nontraditional element to the entire rice harvest was the two plastic tarps they were using to dry the rice on.

Parching

Ever since the arrival of the white man, the cast-iron kettle and later the wash bucket was used to parch the rice instead of the two-day drying method. Like all new inventions, it’s faster and easier, with more consistent and predictable outcomes. Roger then demonstrated the process by filling the bottom of the bucket with the rice, about an inch thick. He then placed the bucket at an angle over the fire and began swishing the hulled rice around and around with an old canoe paddle. Laborious work. He said the rice is properly dried when the kernels snap in half between your fingers. Old hands can simply tell when it’s ready by the rich, nutty aroma. He had my father-in-law do the swishing, then my mother-in-law, and then the rest of us. It took about twenty minutes for that aroma to get just the way he wanted it.

Processing Wild Rice: Jigging or Dancing on the Rice

After parching, the rice is removed from the hull by dancing on it in soft moccasins. Behind us, outside the tent, was a circular hole dug in the ground, about a foot and a half in diameter, with a leather cloth covering its uneven contours. For balance and to help the dancer control the amount of weight applied to the rice, Roger had two poles placed alongside the pit in a V-shape, like stair rails, set up on either side to hold on to. This was the rice-dancing platform, and with his white moccasins on, Roger demonstrated the dancing technique. As a teacher, Roger likes using analogies. Before he began to dance, he asked us who invented the Twist, and we all shouted “Chubby Checker!” Sure enough, that’s what he did, swiveling his hips and shaking his butt, twisting and turning back and forth. We all got to laughing. He didn’t mind. Chubby Checker is a funny name.





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