Sowing rice seeds

Activity is important to native American tribes, traditions

A handful of wild rice is ready to be seeded in shallow river water. (Houghton Daily Mining Gazette photo by Joshua Vissers)

PELKIE — About 30 people gathered on Saturday at the Keweenaw Bay Ojibwa Community College Arts and Agricultural Center in Pelkie, formerly the Pelkie School, to learn about the culture, ecology and processing of manoomin, or wild rice.

“It was forgotten, much like the language,” Roger LaBine said.

LaBine has traveled to the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community from Lac Vieux Desert for several years to teach at Wild Rice Camp. He learned about wild rice from his family, and has been working to share the knowledge since the 1980s.

Wild rice holds immense cultural importance to the tribes of the Three Fires Council: Chippewa (Ojibwe), Ottawa (Odawa) and Potawatomi (Bodawotomi).

“It’s as core to them as anything in the Bible is (to non-natives),” said Scott Herron, another camp instructor and a professor in Ferris State University’s Department of Biological Sciences.

According to LaBine, wild rice is part of ancient prophecies that the Three Fires tribes credit with their survival. Finding it in the Midwest signaled the end of their migration from the eastern seaboard before European settlement began.

At Wild Rice Camp, LaBine and Herron still teach the traditional methods of harvesting, preparing and planting the crop, with a few minor changes. Because of logging and habitat change, trees big enough to build traditional canoes are difficult to find, so modern canoes were used. The rain early on Saturday morning also flooded the jigging pits dug on Friday to hull rice in the traditional fashion, and so an automatic machine was used.

Different species of rice grow across North America but the preferred species is Northern wild rice, according to Herron. Northern rice grows in areas with colder winters, on shorter stalks that produce larger grains, making it easier to harvest and more productive than Southern wild rice.

“We’d prefer to not have to switch over to Southern rice,” Herron said.

If average temperatures continue to rise across the globe, Northern rice may not germinate in the U.P. anymore. Herron says the tribes would likely adapt to the more-difficult-to-harvest Southern rice, if they have to.

As part of Saturday’s activities, volunteers headed to Net River to spread 1,400 pounds of wild rice seed in an area they’ve been trying to establish for three years, on land owned by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. The rice is not only good for human consumption, but provides fish habitat and is a food source for waterfowl, too.

“We’re always feeding the ducks,” joked Kathy Smith, KBIC Natural Resources Department habitat specialist.

Compared to open river water, Herron says that rice beds create a seasonal marsh, which is incredibly biodiverse and great for insects, fish, birds, duck hunters and fishermen, too.

“They’re going to find bass,” he said.

The Net River rice beds aren’t ready to be harvested yet, but LaBine was still busy helping people create the tools they would need for harvest. Long poles made of straight, light conifers are used to push canoes through the rice beds to avoid damaging the plants or roots. Rice grows in water as shallow as 6 inches or as deep as 6 feet and prefers a mucky bottom. Hardwood forks are lashed to the end of the poles to prevent getting stuck in the muck.

Shorter sticks made of cedar are used to pull the rice stalks over the canoe and beat the seed free. Paddles carved from cedar are also used to stir the rice during the parching process, which loosens the hull from the rice grain.

The camp is the first official event to be held at the KBOCC Arts and Agricultural Center, which the college plans on making the permanent base for the camp and the equipment used.

“Eventually, there’s going to be more community based workshops,” said the director of the Office of Sponsored Programs, Kitty Laux.

KBOCC acquired the property from Baraga Area Schools late in 2017 and have been preparing and renovating the building since, with new flooring, equipment and remodeled bathrooms.