Wild And Free

Native Harvest wild rice is uncultivated, undomesticated and untamed. It’s also incomparably delicious.

At the end of August, the evenings grow cool on the lakes of the White Earth Reservation, and night breezes ripple their calm waters. The Manoomin sways and dances in time. It’s the month of the Manoominike Giizis, The Ricing Moon. Over the next few weeks, members of the Anishinaabe tribe will come from the many corners of the reservation in Becker, Clearwater, and Mahnomen counties in north-central Minnesota for a harvest tradition stretching back hundreds of years. To a time long before the Mayflower arrived at Plymouth Rock, all the way back to when the first Anishinaabe people were instructed by the great spirit to walk across the land and go to where grew the “food on the waters.”

Manoomin, or wild rice, is the most sacred food of the Chippewa people, as many Anishinaabe people in Minnesota refer to themselves today. “It’s the first food eaten by a baby when they enter the world, and the last food served to the elderly before they leave,” says Winona LaDuke, of the White Earth Land Recovery Project, which works to regain and preserve tribal lands on the White Earth Reservation. Native Harvest wild rice is a true labor of love.

During the harvest, ricers take to the lake two to a canoe, with one person in back navigating from the rear while the other person sits in the front and bends the rice plants into the boat, gently knocking the grains free from the stalk with a ricing stick. By hand harvesting, only the mature ripe kernels are taken, leaving the immature kernels to ripen and fall back into the water to ensure the next year’s crop. The precious grains are then gathered up into 50 lb. sacks and unloaded onto a dock at the edge of the lake. A good day of ricing will yield over 500 pounds of rice per canoe. From the dock the green rice goes onto a trailer and is driven to a mill on the reservation where it is wood-parched (roasted over a wood fire) according to traditional methods. After that, the rice is winnowed by hand, to remove the dry outer hull. “Our young men are proud to be able to carry on our traditions and support their families,” explains LaDuke. “The hundreds of dollars for a day’s work really makes a difference in our community.”

If you’ve ever purchased it at the Wedge, you may know that Native Harvest wild rice costs more than other brands. That is due to a Fair Trade contract with the Wedge, wherein we pay more per pound, and that extra money goes to White Earth efforts to combat the proliferation of GMO wild rice. Unlike the vast majority of the “wild” rice sold in the U.S., Native Harvest rice actually grows feral and free as a native grass across the lakes of Northern Minnesota until it’s painstakingly harvested by the hands of its tribal stewards. In contrast, a whopping 95% of the “wild” rice that Americans eat each year is owned by a few large corporations, cultivated in diked rice paddies in Northern California and harvested with huge, mechanized combines. There’s really nothing wild about it, and the difference is easy to see as well as taste.

Native Harvest wild rice grains are much longer than conventional wild rice, and the color is much more variable, ranging from a burnished red to jet black. It takes significantly less time to cook and as it does, it releases a vegetal, nutty aroma that is utterly unique. The finished texture is firm but bursts open easily in a way that cultivated wild rice does not. According to LaDuke, cultivated rice doesn’t even compare. “It doesn’t smell like a lake,” she says. “It doesn’t taste like a lake.”

Try Native Harvest wild rice in stuffings, soups and salads. For more recipe ideas, check out White Earth’s collection: http://realwildrice.com/recipes.