Gathering manoomin: Leech Lake Tribal College offers students a traditional wild rice harvest

Students and staff members of Leech Lake Tribal College recently loaded their canoes and set out on Upper Rice Lake near Bagley to take part in the honored tradition of harvesting wild rice.

September 21, 2022 at 7:20 AM

BAGLEY — Students and staff members of Leech Lake Tribal College recently loaded their canoes and set out on Upper Rice Lake near Bagley to take part in the honored tradition of harvesting wild rice.

Arriving at the lake at about 9:30 a.m., two students enrolled in the six-week wild ricing course, Kendra Haugen and Jamie Chesney, gathered their bearings and got comfortable sitting in the front of their canoes, as they planned to be out for a couple of hours.

The students were each paired with an LLTC staff member — multi-media and marketing specialist Ryan White and STEM program assistant Daniel DeVault — doubling as helpers for the class.

“This is my second year helping with this class,” DeVault said, “but I’ve been parching and ricing ever since I was a boy.”

Elaine Fleming, an instructor of the wild ricing class, mentioned they’ve been taking students out to harvest rice for about eight years. Manoomin (the Ojibwe word for wild rice), is more than a staple food, it’s also a sacred component of Anishinaabe culture, history and tradition.

Along with many wild rice harvesters, most learn from family members and elders. White learned from his grandmother and mentioned she participated in the harvest process until she was 82 years old.

“My favorite experience was going out with (my grandmother). Even in her old age she had experience and knew exactly where to look for the ripe-headed rice,” White said. “Even when younger harvesters who were really strong and fit set out, she still got more pounds of rice than them.”

During the day, White and DeVault were assigned to pulling duty, which involved standing in the back of the canoe maneuvering a 12-foot tall push-pole into the thick mud at the bottom of the lake to propel them across the water and into the rice beds.

“When you’re a teenager in my family, usually you start by pulling. My nephew started ricing when he was 14 and he’s come a long way in four years,” White said with a laugh. “This year I had my 11-year-old son out for three days and my 13-year-old son made it out for eight days.”

In the front of the canoe is where Haugen and Chesney sat with short wooden sticks in each hand, these are called knockers. One of the knockers is used for parting the stalks and bending them over the top of their laps. They use the other knocker to tap the loose seed heads into their canoe.

“We go out and it usually takes quite a while,” DeVault said. “We try to fill up the canoe, but we also recede some of it back into the lake so it grows for next season.”

The process

Although the students were only gathering the rice on Wednesday, earlier in the week of Sept. 12, LLTC students got to experience the entire traditional harvesting process — gathering, parching, jigging and winnowing.

Once the rice is gathered and the canoe is full, the next process is called parching. This entails transferring the rice from the canoe to big cast-iron pans and roasting it over a fire to remove any moisture and make the rice hulls brittle.

After the rice is parched, it’s put into an elk hide-lined pit and stepped on to loosen the hulls surrounding the grain during a process called jigging. Using two sticks to stay balanced, clean moccasin shoes were provided as the students “stepped and twisted” inside the pit.

Finally, the rice is ready to be separated during a process called winnowing. Using a pan or birch bark trays, the students tossed the rice into the air to separate the hulls from the edible grains.

“It’s like flipping a pancake and the wind will carry out the debris while the rice stays at the bottom,” White added.

According to Fleming, another fun addition to the course is the students get to choose what to do with the rice they harvest during class.

“For this class we let the students decide what to do with the rice,” Fleming said. “If they want to parch it and keep it to eat or if they want to sell it, it’s up to them.”

This is Haugen’s first year harvesting rice and she’s still learning about the process and developing her rhythm.

“This is my third time ricing this year,” Haugen said as she grabbed a bundle of rice and swept it into the canoe. “I don’t have the means of processing the rice, so we decided as a class we were going to sell it, all of it goes back to the community anyway.”

LLTC’s mission is to provide opportunities for students to learn and practice Anishinaabe culture, values, language and knowledge in the classroom and through activities like ricing. Haugen mentioned she’s been wanting to try this since she was in high school.

“It’s just really cool that this was offered as a class, I probably wouldn’t have gotten the chance to try it otherwise,” Haugen said. “It’s definitely a learning process and some people have been doing this for decades and say they’re still learning, too.”

To see more LLTC students and the entire wild rice harvesting process, visit the Leech Lake Tribal College Facebook page.

Maggi is a reporter at the Bemidji Pioneer focusing on outdoor and human interest stories. Raised in Aitkin, Minnesota, Maggi is a graduate of Bemidji State University’s class of 2022 with a degree in Mass Communication.