Although not even a member of the rice family, “wild rice” is one of the most nutritious grains. To the Native Peoples of the Great Lakes Region and Prairie Provinces, it was once the “staff of life” that had the same role in their cultures as maize in the Southwest and Southeast. Surprisingly today, the largest producer of cultivated “wild rice” in North America is the State of California.
GRAND RAPIDS, MN – (joltleft.com) – In the “Old Days” late summer and early autumn were a busy time for Native peoples of the Great Lakes Country. Because of the short growing season, most of the vegetables didn’t become ripe enough to harvest until late summer. While the corn was drying on the stalks in early autumn, most of the able-bodied people of the village dispersed in family bands to harvest their designated thicket of wild rice.
Because wild rice only grew in, it was necessary for extended family bands to set up campsites or hamlets near the stands of rice. Some of the teenagers stayed in the village to protect the corn and harvested vegetables from roaming animals. Elders sliced the pumpkins and squash, and then dried the slices of vegetables along with the beans, in the sun.
While some families were still harvesting the remaining ripe kernels of wild rice or going out into the forests to gather nuts, others began drying and processing the kernels. It was necessary to beat them and then winnow them with baskets in order to separate the inedible outer hulls from the nutritious kernels. The dried kernels would then be stored in baskets, and made ready for the trek to the winter camping site.
Wild rice production was critical for winter survival in the Upper Great Lakes Region. When dried, it was extremely light for the amount of nutrition contained. Baskets of wild rice could be carried on the backs of the family bands as they migrated into the hill country for the winter encampments. When blizzards made hunting and fishing impossible, a steaming bowl of wild rice porridge ensured a good night’s sleep and strength to go outside when the weather broke.
Northern wild rice is still a very important element of Native American culture in southern Canada and the northern Midwestern states. The availability of a wide variety of foods in supermarkets has ended the role of wild rice in human survival, but the annual harvesting of the grain is a powerful reminder of tribal heritage, plus it results in tasty, nutritious meals that don’t require expenditure of hard-to-come-by cash.
What exactly is “wild rice?”
Wild rice is a type of aquatic grass. There are two main varieties of North American wild rice, Northern Lake Rice (Zizania palustris)and Southern Marsh Rice (Zizania aquatica.) The Northern Lake Rice grows at the tops of stalks that can reach eight feet in height. It thrives on the edges of clear, deep lakes containing cold water and is highly sensitive to pollution.
Southern Marsh Rice grows in shallow seasonal wetlands that appear in many parts of the Southern Piedmont in the spring. Its life cycle is much more similar to Asian rice than Lake Rice, in that it sprouts after the spring floods and then matures during the summer, after the land has dried out. Southern Marsh Rice is usually three to four feet tall. There is a rare species of Marsh Rice on the coast of Texas, but it is near extinction in the wild because it will only pollinate when stalks are 30 inches or less apart.
Another species of wild rice (Zizania latafolia) once grew wild in the seasonal wetlands of Manchuria, but now it is almost entirely a cultivated crop in China. Even though Southern Marsh Rice still thrives and is similar to cultivated “Wild Rice” in Manchuria, there have never been attempts to cultivate this indigenous crop like Northern Lake Rice.
Northern Lake Rice was never cultivated by the Native Americans, but is grown commercially today in the Upper Great Lakes region, Canada and northern California. In the Southeast, Muskogean “Mound-builder” towns intentionally located near seasonal riverine wetlands so that such water-loving crops as Marsh Rice could be gathered or cultivated, However, it was probably never an important source of nutrition in the Southeast, but rather was used to provide variety to meals; in the same way that wild rice today provides variety to American meals.
Naturally, growing Northern Lake Rice is harvested by striking the plants with wooden staffs, causing most of the kernels to fall into wooden dugout canoes. Those that fall into the water sprout the next spring and renew the crop.
Southern wild rice was harvested with a sickle, in the same manner that early Eurasian farmers harvested wheat. It is probable that Southern wild rice farmers sowed Marsh Rice seeds each year to insure adequate germination of seeds. During the dry months, many wild animals would have feasted on the spilled rice kernels and reduced the potential natural harvest the following year.
The Lake or Marsh Rice was still not ready for consumption after being harvested. The first step of the process was the winnowing of the kernels with woven basket sieves to remove stems. The kernels were steamed, then roasted to complete dry them so they would not mold. Roasting turned the kernels a dark brown color and imparted the “nutty” taste that is so pleasing to wild rice connoisseurs.
Wild rice requires extensive soaking in water and cooking before it is soft enough to eat. Thus, part of the work day of Native woman involved pouring the dry kernels into pots so that they could soak for a day or two. Cooking the wild rice might require several hours over hot coals. Prior to the time when Northern Indians learned how to make pottery, wild rice was cooked in baskets with hot stones.
Modern cultivation and harvesting of wild rice
Northern Lake Rice is unique among grains because the plants must continue to grow in shallow water until they are mature enough for harvesting. The plant will only thrive in black, acidic peat soils. It will not grow in conventional soils, even if the fields are flooded.
In commercial wild rice cultivation, paddies are constructed in peat soil that allows the farmers to control the water level and also rotate in other crops after about five years of wild rice cultivation. Commercial wild rice sub-species have been developed by agricultural scientists that ripen all of their kernels at one time. Wild varieties drop some of their kernels before and after harvesting. This insures promulgation of the crop the next year. However, commercial wild rice varieties must be re-sown annually.
New cultivated wild rice farms are sown in the late fall or early spring. The seeds usually germinate underwater in late April. Within a couple of years of cultivation, the natural spillage of kernels provides enough new plants to eliminate the need for sowing seeds. Almost all wild rice farmers fertilize their crops with Nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium. Application of commercial fertilizer increases grain production, but also attracts noxious weeds and algae.
Nitrate levels in artificial paddies must be closely monitored to prevent blooms of toxic algae. Weeds and algae are not usually a threat to uncultivated stands of wild rice in natural lakes. Excessive application of commercial fertilizers can promote the growth of a highly toxic fungus, ergot, in the wild rice grains. Environmentalists and health care professionals are also extremely concerned by the increasing use of herbicides in cultivated “wild rice” operations. Several of these herbicides have been linked to cancer and birth defects. When wild rice paddies are flushed, the chemicals enter the regional waterway systems and eventually, public drinking water systems. Carcinogenic and toxic herbicides may also be absorbed in the wild rice plants and eventually wild rice kernels. The healthful qualities of wild rice may then be negated by a residue of toxic chemicals absorbed by the kernels.
Commercial wild rice farmers drain the paddies immediately before harvesting and use combines to harvest all the kernels at one time. The stalks are typically baled into hay and fed to livestock. Any undesirable chemicals or fungi spores then are absorbed by the animals; eventually reaching humans at the end of the food chain.
Legal conflicts between tribes and non-indigenous wild rice gatherers
During the 1800s government officials in Canada and the United States signed several treaties with indigenous tribes that guaranteed their exclusive rights to harvest wild rice in specifically named lakes. At the time most Europeans considered wild rice to be a barely edible commodity, suitable only for savages. Very few European families lived near the wild rice bearing lakes. Exclusive wild rice harvesting rights seemed to be a concession comparable in value to the $24 paid for Manhattan Island.
Continued compliance with these treaties is not a problem in lakes and wetlands on tribal reservations. However, many of the lakes specifically mentioned by treaties are now owned by state, provincial of federal government agencies. In several situations, tribal lands no longer even adjoin the treaty lakes.
In the meantime, Native Americans have become a small minority in their own lands, while wild rice has become a highly esteemed, valuable food product, for which demand is steadily increasing. Citizens who pay taxes to their province or state can not understand why they are forbidden to harvest wild rice in a public lake, while a certain minority can harvest all that they want.
Some of the issues regarding wild rice harvesting have been settled peaceably in courts, while others continue to be a source of interpersonal conflicts that sometimes result in violence. At this time, the issues have not been solved to all parties’ satisfaction.
The future of North American wild rice
Worldwide demand for wild rice continues to grow annually. Australia and New Zealand have begun growing North American wild rice on a large scale. The Chinese have re-discovered “wild rice” but can not grow their own species, since it was intentionally infected with a fungus that caused the stems to swell and not produce kernels. China is current importing from New Zealand.
Several Southeastern Native American tribes have discussed the renewed cultivation of Southern Marsh Rice, but currently their plans are still in the talk stage. Commercial Asian rice farmers in Arkansas and South Carolina are experimenting on a small scale with Marsh Rice. When that effort goes commercial, wild rice is certain to achieve a more visible presence on the supermarket shelf.