I grew up eating wild rice (Zizania palustris), and I have always loved the nutty, smoky flavor of fire-parched wild rice. (Personally, I believe that the rice from the area around White Earth in Minnesota tastes the best, but everybody has their preferences.)
Psíŋ (Dakota word for “wild rice”) or (Manoomin, “the good berry” in Anishinaabemowin) is the seed of an aquatic grass that grows in lakes and rivers in the heart of Turtle Island. Today, many people associate wild rice with Anishinaabe (or Ojibwe) people. But Dakota and Lakota people, as well as many other Native Nations, have a long history with it.
Wild rice, which people have hand-harvest by canoe for millennia, is an important traditional food for many indigenous peoples. It is an excellent source of protein and minerals, and has many health benefits
Here is a basic guide for cooking wild rice. Here are some of my favorite ways to eat it, as well as some serving suggestions from friends who are Native cooks:
-Wild rice porridge
-Wild rice pancakes
-Wild rice muffins
-Puffed wild rice
-Wild rice flour cookies
-Eat with berry pudding (wóžapi)
-Delicious by itself
-Add to soups & stews
-Wild rice casserole
-Put cooked meat/fish/veggies on top
-Cook with mushrooms, dried fruit, nuts, & other local foods!
Wild Rice is one of the few Indigenous North American traditional foods that I consume regularly but have never harvested myself, or (knowingly) seen in the wild. I was planning to go to Minnesota last summer to help a friend with the harvest, but the pandemic made that impossible. Fortunately, she shared pictures of her process, so I am grateful to be able to share her photographs with you. Hopefully I will be able to visit in person next year.
The photographs and slides I share here are part of a presentation I am doing on Monday, 2/15/21 as a fundraiser class for Ancestral Apothecary’s Student of Color Scholarship Fund.
One thing I found interesting in her pictures was noticing that the raw rice, at the time of harvest, was not a uniform color. Some of the grains were actually bright pink! This color fades when the rice is parched (more about that later) but I found the variety of colors quite fascinating, and beautiful. These pictures, and almost all other rice pictures on this post, are from Star Lake in Minnesota. (The rice from different lakes can have slightly different qualities.)
I want to share some of the things my friend shared with me of her wild rice harvesting experience this past year. First of all, here are some pictures she took was she was waiting for the rice to ripen:
As you can imagine, when the rice is ready to harvest, it doesn’t take a lot of force to knock it off of the seedhead, and into your canoe. One poorly-timed summer storm can seriously compromise a year’s rice harvest. (Not all the grains are ripe at the same time, but a storm can still do significant damage.)
Some people go out to harvest rice in pairs. This has the advantage of making the work go faster. But it’s still possible for someone to efficiently harvest rice alone. Here is my friend’s setup:
The traditional method of harvesting rice involves bending seedheads over the canoe, knocking the seedheads with a set of two “knockers” (short poles), and letting some of the grain fly into the canoe. Some of the grains will fall back into the water. I’ve heard stories of salespeople, inventors, and university scientists trying to convince Indians to pursue more “efficient” harvesting methods. One of their big arguments seems to be that it’s a waste to let so many grains fall back into the water. But people who propose these new methods (or those who use them) are making a big mistake: if you don’t let some of the seeds go back into the water, there won’t be any new plants taking root to provide us with rice in the coming years.
Another thing that I learned about the canoe-harvesting wild rice from my friend: it is extremely hard work. Not only do you need a lot of strength to propel your canoe through the rice beds with a long pole, but your hands can blister up from the pole and the knockers. It’s hot and humid, but you have to wear long sleeves and multiple layers: you surrounded by mosquitoes, and there are also worms in the rice beds, who bite — hard. Then, at the end of the day, you have to haul your canoe out of the water, pour out and pack up the rice you harvested, and (assuming you’re not fortunate enough to live right on the shores of a rice lake, which most people aren’t), lift your canoe, tie it to the top of your vehicle, and go home. When I consider everything that goes into the process of harvesting wild rice, I now believe that paying (what seemed to me like) a “high” price of $15-20 per pound is actually a bargain!
Once you’ve harvested the rice, the next step is to dry it. Here, my friend laid it out on her deck to dry in the sun. In the middle picture, you can see the long hulls still attached to each seed. The purpose of drying it is to lose water weight, which will make the parching process go more easily.
The next step is parching the rice. There are different methods for doing this.
When I was 18, living away from my mom, and buying wild rice on my own for the first time, I was surprised to see that some of it was a shiny, dark, reddish-black color, instead of the tan color of the rice I’d grown up with. I thought this difference must just be due to the fact that it was from somewhere different. But I was wrong — my rice-harvesting friend explained to me that the final color is determined by the parching method.
Parching, if you’re unfamiliar with it, means drying the wild rice. The main reason for doing it is to dry out the rice enough to separate the hull from the grain. Traditionally, people parch rice over a wood fire. This explains the slightly smoky, toasty flavor of the rice I grew up with. But these days, some people opt to parch their rice over a gas flame. This, my friend explained to me, causes the rice to turn reddish-black. In my opinion, it also imparts a different (and not as good) flavor to the final product.
The next step is winnowing the rice, to separate the hulls from the edible seeds. This is traditionally done in a big, sturdy, birch bark basket. I don’t have any pictures, but the process is similar to what I have previously blogged about with corn and beans.
Once your rice is parched winnowed, it’s ready to be put away for storage. I’m not sure how long wild rice is supposed to last, but I’ve eaten some that I’d stored in a sealed jar for 6 years, and it was still perfectly good and fresh.
California Colonizers and GMO Rice
When I started talking to non-Native friends about wild rice, I realized that many of them had purchased a product from the supermarket that was labeled “wild rice” — but the price was way too cheap. And I also started seeing “wild rice” that was grown in California, a place where there is no indigenous wild rice. Something seemed off, so I decided to look into it.
In short, what I found was that the University of Minnesota and Norcal Wild Rice Company worked together to genetically engineer Zizania palustris, the wild rice plant. They developed varieties that could be grown in paddies. They got a patent for this new variety — and, for reasons I do not understand, they are still allowed to call it “wild” rice. This innovation allowed them to drive down production costs, resulting in more profit for them, as well as a cheaper product. Today, according to several sources I examined, the vast majority of wild rice that we eat is grown in paddies. However, they often disguise this fact, and use images of Indians in a birch-bark canoe to market their products. Also disturbing: my sources indicated that more wild rice is grown today in California than Minnesota.
(Side note: Lundberg, the main manufacturer of California-grown “wild rice,” has marketing materials filled with wholesome-looking, feel-good images and slogans. Their website proclaims that their product is organically grown, sustainable, a family business, and “Goodness.” Sounds great, right? But if you look beyond the greenwashing and marketing hype, you see a definite colonial bent to their messaging. They use language like “pioneers” and talk about “founding fore-farmers” with no acknowledgement of whose land they’re on. They do not mention from whom, or from where, the “wild” rice they grow originates. And I also have serious questions about the sustainability of growing a thirsty crop like wild rice in a water-deprived place like the region of California where they farm — a place that was devastated by recent wildfires and droughts.)
But this is about more than corporate theft, identity politics, or a battle between old and new ways of doing things. The genetically modified “wild rice” poses serious threats to the real wild rice population. This is because of the possibility of gene drift. (If you’re unfamiliar with the concept, there’s a really good, easy-to-understand article on gene drift by Heather Landry of Harvard that I recommend.)
Gene drift is an especially big concern with wild rice because of a particular quality that has been bred into the GMO rice. Namely, Norcal Wild Rice Co. patented GMO wild rice with “cytoplasmic genetic male sterility” (a male terminator gene). In other words, the male plants are sterile, and can’t reproduce — meaning, they can’t produce a next generation of plants. If this escapes into the wild, it could kill off the wild populations of rice.
According to an article I read by Winona LaDuke (I can’t find it at the moment, but I’m still looking for the original source), the field tests they did on this rice were just on the distance that the wind could carry the pollen. They determined that the wind wouldn’t carry the pollen far enough to drift from GMO rice paddies to rice lakes and rivers. Therefore, they concluded that it would not harm nearby wild rice populations.
But in their studies, they left out the key piece of the process of how rice gets transferred from one body of water to another: the ducks. According to LaDuke, in the Anishinaabe stories of how rice came to the people, the Duck was the one who distributed rice throughout the northern waters. Ducks play an important role in how wild rice seeds move around today — and ducks do not distinguish between a wild rice lake/river, and a paddy of GMO rice. (I found at least one seller of GMO rice that included images of ducks on their packages.)
But in my research, I also realized some ways that you can help, if you want to support psíŋ/wild rice.
1. Boycott paddy-cultivated “wild” rice. Make sure that the rice you are buying does not say “paddy grown.” Also beware of the word “cultivated,” another common word used to describe paddy rice. Become an informed consumer, and pay attention to make sure you are getting the real thing: wild-harvested wild rice.
2. Support Native harvesters instead of big corporations. While a lot of us buy rice from our friends, you don’t have to know someone to get good rice. Several tribes sell rice to the public, and are willing to ship. I will put a list of sources I know for rice at the end.
3. Be willing to pay a fair price. This is a big one. I mentioned earlier how much hard work it is to harvest rice. Personally, I believe in paying people what their time and labor is worth. The going price for wild rice these days is $15-20 per pound. That’s a lot, but I believe it’s well worth it — and you can get more meals out of a pound of dry rice than you might think.
Is it possible that you can find someone selling wild-harvested rice for $10 or $12 per pound? Maybe, depending on where you live and who you know.
But is that person getting a fair price for their rice and their labor? Probably not.
And is buying rice too cheaply driving down the cost that other Native harvesters are able to get for their rice (which, for people who live close to the land, can be a major part of their yearly livelihood)? Yes.
So, out of respect for Native harvesters and the rice plant itself, I am not going to seek out bargain rice any longer.
Here are a list of wild rice producers/resellers that I personally know of:
Nett Lake Wild Rice: According to my ricer friend, Nett Lake rice is known to be particularly good for popping. It is isolated from major pollution sources, and protected by the tribe from fertilizer runoff, outboard motors, etc. In the pictures, you can see some beautiful traditional winnowing baskets.
White Earth Wild Rice: This is the stuff I grew up with. This is a White Earth Nation tribal enterprise, selling canoe-harvested, wood-parched wild rice and several other local traditional food products.
Native Harvest: Another source for White Earth wild rice. This is a division of the White Earth Land Recovery Project. They sell other local products, too.
My friend Dana’s Etsy shop: A one-woman operation, with canoe-harvested, wood-parched wild rice from Star Lake, MN. The photos I showed here are hers — please support her business if you can! She also makes wonderful local fruit vinegars and other wild foods, as well as stunning quillwork on birch bark.
Spirit Lake Wild Rice: This is another Minnesota source. They are currently sold out, but they have a few other things for sale now. For rice, I’d check back next fall.
All the other sources I found, I decided not to include, because one or more of the following was true:
-They sold both true wild rice and cultivated paddy rice. Because of how I feel about paddy rice, I didn’t want to promote businesses that sell it.
-They were a non-Native reseller, who bought rice from Native harvesters (rather than a Native reseller or Native harvester).
-I didn’t find enough information to verify that they were legit.
If you have any suggestions for businesses to include that sell true wild rice and support Native harvesters, please feel free to comment or message me so I can update this list.