Wild rice is a cereal native to North America. It has a greater nutritional value than wheat or oats and was harvested extensively in Wisconsin, Minnesota, parts of Michigan and northern Ohio, Iowa, Illinois, and Indiana. Today, the range is more restricted. The plant is a grass that grows in fresh or brachial water from a bed of alluvial mud. In mid-summer a stalk grows out of the water up to ten feet. Then, four-feet high spikes emerge from the stalks and by late summer a fruit head containing the grain has formed on the end of the spike. The fruit head has yellow-green blossoms that turn purplish as the seeds mature. Beneath the fruit head are three antlers that hang and move in the breeze. The grain is shed into the water when it ripens in early fall, and it lies in the alluvial mud until spring, when it germinates and grows to the surface. Harvesting the rice requires great care and skill so as to allow the plant to produce the following year.
How is wild rice harvested?
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Today rice is harvested in a similar manner in Upper Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota, though in an aluminum or fiberglass canoe or boat. Native people still rely on poles to move boats through the rice fields and use sticks to pull in rice stalks. After the rice is hulled, they clean it by hand, then it is transported in cloth sacks and stored in homes rather than underground. Today, harvesting wild rice plays a central role in Native society and religious life. Native origin stories tell how humans received the gift of wild rice from a spirit being. This gift has to be repaid by treating harvesting with respect and giving thanks to the spirit provider. Offerings of thanks can be made by sprinkling tobacco into rivers and lakes or elsewhere. Today, some communities oppose sowing, as opposed to collecting wild rice, because it seems disrespectful to the powerful being who created the plant and gave instructions regarding its use. Wild rice can be used in curing, for example, a poultice for skin inflammation, made by mixing wild rice with herbs. And, wild rice is a ceremonial food. In fact, in some ceremonies, such as funerals, it was the only, or only required, food offering. Today families likely set up camps with tents, rather than wigwams, but communities still work together, promoting a spirit of unity, and the memories of the rice camp and the interactions between young and old become part of collective identity. It is understandable, then, why wild rice has great cultural significance.
When the United States demanded land cessions in the early 19th century, Native people insisted on protections for their subsistence activity, including the harvesting of wild rice. Today, federal courts have reaffirmed treaty rights, but harvesting is threatened by environmental degradation and commercially produced wild rice.
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