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Don’t Knock It, Once You’ve Tied It

1 September 2010

By Dave Wilsey, UMN Extension

The Anishinaabe Nation fulfilled its seventh fire, or teaching, when the people arrived at Lake Superior and found manoomin: the food growing on the water. Historically, manoomin was the primary grain consumed by Ojibwe people. For many, this remains true today. How did the means to harvest and prepare “the good berry” come to the people and how is what we think of today as “ricing” similar or different from the process over time?

I was introduced to ricing, manoomin ikayng,  two years ago in the Moose Horn River. I stood in the back and pushed with a balsam pole, gahndakeeigunahk, while my partner knocked rice into the canoe with cedar knockers. We didn’t fall in; we were lucky. I’ve since learned of two important and much discussed variations to the rice harvesting process.

Ethnographer Francis Densmore observed Ojibwe rice camps in the 1920s and wrote that families once made claim to portions of rice fields just as they claimed a sugarbush. Women arrived at the lake and literally “staked out” the bed for their family. Women tied rice plants into small sheaves, or bundles, using the inner bark of basswood, wiigob.  The sheaves resembled sage smudges tied with cotton string, tapering at the end. Sheaves were left standing until the rice ripened. Rice was harvested by untying the sheaves, allowing the ripe rice to fall into the canoe. The tying process had an additional benefit of creating a passage through the rice bed.  Tied rice was noted to have a different flavor and size than the rest of the crop. Rice left untied was referred to as “free rice.” The knocking method we are familiar with today was used in transit to gather free rice. According to Densmore, “It was considered a test of a good rice gatherer to free the ripe kernels without dislodging those that were unripe.”

Densmore also observed that one person, usually a man, pulled the canoe from the bow (front) while a passenger, often a woman, untied the rice sheaves in the stern (back). I learned to push the canoe from the stern and have only seen this practice, but have heard much discussion around Fond du Lac about the old ways of pulling and its survival as a preferred method among certain harvester groups and Ojibwe Bands. I tried it once and nearly fell in the river!

I learned to push with the pole, but have heard much discussion around Fond du Lac about the old ways of pulling and its survival as a preferred method among certain harvester groups and Ojibwe Bands. I’d like to see it sometime because I tried it once and nearly fell in the river!

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