GiiWaadin Wild Rice

3 10 2008

by Ben Kjos with edits by Emily Larson and Sarah Milnar

Wild Rice- Ben KjosWhile enjoying the Minwanjige Café’s wild rice and buffalo soup, many people may not give much thought to the history of the ingredients sitting in that bowl. But underneath and amongst those tender pieces of local buffalo, swimming alongside those recently harvested potatoes, and soaking up freshly made broth is the ingredient that has one of the most important stories to the people of White Earth: the wild rice. However, the wild rice from harvesters at White Earth should not remotely be confused with the generic wild rice you purchase in a Minnesota grocery store.

We learned the two characteristics to look for when purchasing wild rice are “hand-harvested” and “wood-parched.” Initially, we thought these two characteristics were minor details that separated identical items, such as the difference between quarters minted in Philadelphia and the ones minted in Denver. How wrong we were! It wasn’t until Bill Paulson, a wild rice miller and seller, showed us a package of Native Harvest wild rice that we understood the blatant difference between White Earth rice and the commercial kind produced elsewhere.

The main differences were the slightly pitted surface of the White Earth rice, and the dull, matte finish instead of the shiny black version I had grown up knowing. The White Earth wild rice was dark brown, instead of black, and had a longer grain. Since Bill mills and gets the wild rice ready for sale, he is the main contact for rice harvesters.

Two men arrived at the café to see if Bill was buying any rice. We asked Bill if he thought that the two harvesters would show us what freshly harvested rice looked like. “You want to see rice?” one harvester said. “You’ve never seen fresh wild rice before?” We sheepishly grinned and admitted that we hadn’t, and followed them to their car. Since fresh wild rice was something they’d grown up with, I could see how they’d be shocked that something they viewed as commonplace as so new and exciting to outsiders. As MCAD students, I’m sure we would be just as surprised to find out someone had never used an Apple computer.Bill Paulson - by Ben Kjos

After opening the back of his vehicle, the harvester pulled out a heavy, white, woven plastic bag – the kind you expect to see used for sandbags. As he untied the twine from the top, we hunched down with anticipation to see what was inside. I don’t know about the others, but I really didn’t know what to expect. Would the bag be filled with grains of the wild rice? As it opened, I was pleasantly surprised to see a bag filled with dense, wet, green stalks. Bill stated earlier that a common misconception is that wild rice is a grain, when it’s more appropriately considered a grass. By looking closely, the rice could be seen shooting up out of the stalks at different intervals.

As we thanked the two harvesters for teaching us about their wild rice and letting us snap a few pictures, they mumbled something to each other and chuckled, probably concerning our naivety about wild rice. I had to smile as well.

After getting my hands on a bottle of the Native Harvest dressing I had with my lunch at Minwanjige Café, it was time to follow Bill to our next stop. A short ride later, as our small caravan of cars sped along a winding dirt road, we arrived at our destination: GiiWaadin. GiiWaadin, meaning “a learning place,” is where Bill lives, works and teaches. Wild Rice Mill - by Ben KjosWe entered a long garage and saw a dozen heavy bags of rice. At their side was rice in flat wooden boxes and a large, cylindrical piece of machinery affixed to the ceiling that extended to the back of the garage. With a heavy handed push, Bill pushed the cylinder outside, showing us that it was attached to a garage door track so it could move outside or inside. This device, which Bill re-manufactured himself, was a giant roaster that was delivered to Earl Hoagland by the White Earth Land Recovery Project and was in need of repair and some slight modernization.  Originally designed as a stationary unit, he could now slide it outside, light a fire under it and then turn on the motor, thus rotating rice in the giant device over the fire. This further dried the rice and cooked off the excess inedible parts of the grass. Unlike other mills where many people are required to bring a heavy roaster in from the rain, or build a shelter over it, Bill needs only himself to push the roaster inside thanks to his garage door track idea. Prior to Bill’s more commercial style of milling, elders roasted the wild rice by stirring the rice in a heavy metal cooking kettle left by the pioneers as they traveled, or against a small mound built of hardened clay, both would have a fire built behind them to warm the kernels of rice. Elders slowly stirred the kernels with a paddle until it was dry enough to store through the winter. Afterward, the women and children (being lighter) would place the kernels in a hole lined with hides or canvas and dance (called jigging) on the rice to loosen the hulls from the grain. Then they would place the rice in birch bark containers called “winnowing” trays and in a precise action toss the grain upward and catch it again in the tray to allow the wind to sweep away all the light, extra pieces of hulls and grass.

Bill’s way of removing the hulls was quite interesting. A drum that was let into the chassis of a pickup truck was controlled by the transmission and had beaters in it that thrashed the rice to do what the “jigging” was doing originally. From here, the rice was put into its last step of the milling process, being shaken and sifted through a series of different screens in a milling machine that was rescued from an old grain mill. This divides the full grains of rice from the broken ones. Bill then sells the full grains to Native Harvest and uses the broken grains for soups. Traditionally they would be used for  the children or the elders since it is much easier for them to eat a porridge style food made from the broken grain.

We exited the garage and walked down to the lake. Our class understood we probably wouldn’t get to go directly onto the lake, since harvesting rice is a very protected activity for the Anishinaabe people on the waters that they control on the reservation. But we were ecstatic when Bill instructed us to pull some canoes down to the water. There are usually two people in a canoe while harvesting rice. The knocker carries two carved wooden sticks and the pusher carries an extremely long pole. The pusher slowly navigates through the Wild Rice Boat - by Ben Kjostall grasses of the lake by standing to the rear of the boat and pushing off from the bottom of the lake with his long pole. The knocker harvests the rice by gently swiping it with the carved wooden sticks into the canoe. This gentle action allows the ripened rice to fall not only into the canoe, (it is illegal to harvest unripened wild rice) but also down into the water so it can reseed itself. Unripened rice remains adhered to the stalk and experienced harvesters could go back in a few days to harvest again as it ripened more. This ability of Natural Wild rice to ripen over a period of time allows the grain to ensure its own survival and is one of the main reasons for the need to keep the original wild rice from being compromised by genetic engineering to produce a grain that can be cultivated.

Bill went on to tell us this wasn’t some large-scale operation, and that the rice they sell is meant to educate those that buy it. “When you cultivate rice, you are trying to make money,” he said. “When you harvest rice, you are trying to feed your family.”  The opportunity to sit in a canoe on the lake and learn a trade passed down from generation to generation instilled in us a deep respect for Bill and his desire to teach outsiders the meaning of harvesting rice and to share the history of his people. How else would we have learned where actual wild rice comes from, how it is harvested, or where it is found? By bringing people onto the reservation and teaching them about his people, Bill said then we could share what we learn with others. Through this sharing, the tribe is much better off. Wild rice is something that should be sought out and appreciated. And it tastes a whole lot better than that shiny black pellet stuff.

To view more images see the Wild Rice Slide Show




One response

7 07 2009


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