Wild rice, or manoomin, is a staple food among Ojibwe tribes that lies at the center of their time on the shores of Lake Superior. For generations, tribal members have harvested this food that grows on water. Recently, members of the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa made the trek to Pacwawong Lake in northern Wisconsin to pass on the tradition to tribal youth.
At the boat landing, Bad River tribal elder Star Ames is shaving a piece of cedar wood to make knocking sticks that are used to harvest wild rice. As a kid, Ames would go out with her brother in black bottom ricing boats to gather rice for processing. They would lay it out to dry and parch it in a cast-iron cauldron over a wood fire. Then, they would dance the rice, using their feet to loosen the hulls.
Now, around 20 youth from Bad River are taking the day off school to harvest wild rice on this off-reservation lake south of Cable.
“Most of the kids nowadays, I think, have had a chance to participate in the processing of the rice,” said Ames. “This is the first time that they’ve been out on the water getting it themselves.”
Bad River tribal members and guides are giving kids a tutorial before they head out on the water. Kreighton Wolf, a 17-year-old Ashland High School student, is one of a few here who has been ricing before. She’s also chairwoman of the Bad River Youth Council.
“When you go out in the boat, you’re going to have two knockers,” she explained. “You’re going to bring the rice down with one and then with the other knocker you’re going to kind of scrape it down into your boat.”
She first learned how to harvest wild rice with her mom and grandpa in the Bad River Kakagon Sloughs when she was around 10 years old.
“At first I was all scared of the bugs, but it was fun after a while because they taught me how to do it right,” she said. “Seeing them doing it and having it passed on from generation to generation so I can pass it on to my kids – that’ll be a cool thing.”
Older kids like Wolf, who have gone ricing before, pair up with those who are doing it for the first time. They paddle into wild rice beds, pulling plants toward them gently as they glide along.
Bad River tribal member Faye Maday, who is also the home school coordinator with the Ashland School District, said it’s important to connect tribal youth to this part of their history.
“The Anishinaabe at one time lived on the East Coast in the United States, and we were told to follow the Megis Shell to the place where the food grows on the water and that was Madeline Island,” said Maday. “For me, having kids out on the water is like in the traditional aspect – they’re part of that story. They’re part of harvesting that food that grows on the water.”
The tradition has been passed down from generation to generation despite decades of pressure to adopt mainstream American culture. Loren Nelis, a 17-year-old Ashland High School student and tribal member, said he harvests wild rice for his family and his grandmother who can no longer do it on her own.
“I think it’s important to gather rice for, like, we have these ceremonial feasts, sobriety feasts, sometimes for our funerals and just a social gathering,” said Nelis.
He learned how to gather rice in the seventh grade through Ojibwe school. But, he fears the tradition is at risk of being lost among younger generations.
“All these kids are addicted to something and they want to do something else other than learn about what to do with their rice, what to do with their culture, what to do with their tribe,” said Nelis.
He said, for some, they’re addicted to nicotine. Some may be glued to smartphones and video games. Wolf said others party and do drugs.
Lori Lemieux is the indigenous arts and sciences coordinator with the Bad River Education Department. She said tying youth to their culture is also a form of intervention and prevention for the tribe.
“Our community is suffering from different epidemics just like the rest of America. This is our goal. This is our tactic and strategy is to go back and pick up those bundles that were maybe left along the way whether we chose to do it or not,” she said.
Lemieux adds the more tribal youth harvest wild rice, the more the plants will thrive.
“The more we get out and the more we utilize the good foods that are out there for us I believe that, if it’s done in a good way, that the plants will feel loved again,” she said.
Maday added it’s important for youth to maintain access to their rights to hunt, fish and gather resources like wild rice. Those rights were preserved in territories that were ceded to the federal government under treaties with tribes.
“It’s super important for me to have kids out here and exercising their treaty rights so those will never go away for them,” she said.
The practice also gives kids a sense of ownership and accomplishment, according to Hayley Nye, Bad River’s juvenile justice coordinator.
“For them to get out there and see how it works and come back with their own rice that they got themselves, I think that they will take pride in that,” said Nye.
Both Nelis and Wolf say they find a lot of peace being out on the water.
“It makes me feel better inside because it’s just like I can help my community by offering wild rice because we use this for our Native American pow wow in the high school and we’ll use this for other events,” said Wolf.
Lemieux said they hope by sharing their knowledge that tribal youth will be able to carry the tradition forward to the next seven generations.