Manoomin: The Good Seed

Stories and Photos By Nick Vander Puy
Reserve, Wisconsin (NFIC) 10-08

Terry Larson holds wild rice several years ago in Spring Lake Minnesota. For hundreds of years wild rice was the staff of life for American Indians in the region. A heavy harvest meant a year of plenty."It would mean literally life or death,"Larson said. AP/The Pioneer of Bemidji Photo by Molly Miron

A long, long time ago on the northeastern shore of Turtle Island, before the light skinned race appeared, a prophet told the Anishinaabe, “If you do not move you will be destroyed.  You will know that the chosen ground has been reached when you come to a land where food grows on water.”

The prophecy proved accurate as the people who stayed behind were either killed or absorbed by the invaders.

For the Anishinaabe, the Megis Shell played an important role in their migration from the upper St. Lawrence  area. According to the Ojibwe, each major stopping point during the Anishinaabe migration would be marked by the appearance of the sacred shell. 

The Ojibwe people were to follow the direction of the Megis shell and by doing so would find their final destination; a place identifiable because it was where “food grows on water.” After centuries of following the Sacred Megis shell’s appearance, the Anishinaabe were eventually led to northern Wisconsin and Minnesota where they found manoomin (wild rice) growing on water.

Earlier this fall Mike Chosa, an elder from Lac du Flambeau, and I set up an old fashioned wild rice camp east of Eagle River, Wisconsin. We ate our meals under the open sky and slept in a canvas wall tent.

We spent about a week together gathering wild rice on northwoods lakes and rivers.

Bobbie Bullet St. Germaine and his companion Pam helped us set up the camp. They cooked for us, too. We came back to camp late in the day to deer meat, rutabagas, and hominy soup. Even a blueberry pie.

Mike Chosa

Mike Chosa gently knocked the tawny wild rice stalks. At seventy-three he’s still a tireless and persistent knocker. We work steady.

Soon, the wild rice fills the bottom of the canoe. It begins to look like a green and gold porcupine. There are bugs in it.  It’s moving and alive. Chosa starts singing and I ask him what did them old Indians do?

Chosa says, “They used to sing, ‘Manoomike Nongoom,’ They’d sing that. Some of them would even tap their sticks on the side of the canoe to keep time. That’s what it was like ricing with my family  back in the nineteen thirties and forties.”

While we’re  poling and knocking rice,  Chosa remembers camping and ricing, back in the late thirties and early forties with his family on a lake near Flambeau.

Mike Chosa has been ricing since he was six years old. As a youth he loved ricing season. He helped his grandmothers gather wild rice on West Ellarson Lake near Flambeau in Northern Wisconsin. It wasn’t a big rice bed, but it was large enough to support two families.

Lucas Wolf and Chad LaPointe

“We camped out there. My Dad built a wigwam for us. Then he put up an old army wall tent. Those old ladies wouldn’t live in the wall tent. They’d stay in the wigwam. They’d sleep in there. My Dad, who was a fishing guide, would bring us fish and muskrats.”

Chosa is happy to be out on the rice beds again this year. Being out here ricing, he’s taking a break from tribal politics, but his cell phone goes off, bringing news from back in Flambeau. Still, we soon get half a boatload of rice.

“It’s awful hard to get half a boatload these days. Right now, there’s probably ten canoes on this rice bed here. It doesn’t stop us from getting rice. But the scarcity of the rice in our old traditional rice beds is telling.”

Chosa reminisces about his family’s old time rice camp.

“We had a good time. We stayed out there in the old rice bed almost a month. When we got done they had maybe the equivalent of two garbage cans (in today’s measurements.)” Filled up with rice ready to eat.”

They worked slow and steady.

“They just kept at it. They didn’t work overly hard. Just steady pace all the time.”

Chosa remembers the little rice hens skittered through the rice stalks. They’d get so fat on the wild rice they could hardly fly.

One time his grandmother snuck up on one with a canoe paddle and speared the small but tasty bird in the head.  Rice hens taste like quail. She’d  throw it in his  lap. “Don’t be afraid,” she’d say. “That’s our supper.”

One of Mike Chosa’s favorite memories is not going to school during ricing season.

Chad LaPointe

“But then it was good going out with Grandma ricing. Didn’t have to go to school, went out and helped them and didn’t have to go to school,” he emphasized. “Probably a better teaching than what I got in school anyway.”

After a week on the water we gathered a substantial harvest. We saw muskrats making their winter lodges and heard the Sandhill cranes. We saw many rice birds.

And as we got more exercise gathering “the good seed” our health improved. Chosa’s blood sugar level fell and I got stronger poling and lifting the canoe.

During the first week Chosa and I camped near Eagle River, Wisconsin, then we headed south to rice on the Miller Flowage. We hit Miller about right, harvesting more than a hundred pounds the second day.

Making my way back to the Lac Courte Oreilles Reserve I stopped off at Wolf Point to talk with Duke Wolf and his clan.  The next day we put three boats out on Smith Bridge near Minong. Duke riced with Willie, while I poled Lucas Wolf around, and Nick Wolf worked with Chad Lapointe. The rice was falling pretty good.

That wasn’t the only thing falling.  When we got back to the landing we heard from another boat that Duke and Willie had taken a spill in their canoe,  losing most of their harvest. Something that will be remembered for a long time.

One day I harvested with Chad LaPointe from Lac Courte Oreilles.  LaPointe is twenty-two years old.

The night before Chad LaPointe went ricing he was out drinking and said he got shkwebi (Ojibwe for spinning head). While heading out to the lake rice beds in the truck, the next morning, he didn’t look too well.

Chad says he drinks sometimes because he’s lonely, and as a young person he has a lot of peer pressure.

manomin_bowlrice08-030.jpgBut Chad LaPointe talks about getting healthy. If you run across him often, you can tell when he hasbeen drinking and using drugs, or when he has been able to put the bottle down, because in Chad’s life, when it comes to drinking, it seems to be all or nothing.

Chad recently enrolled in the Lac Courte Oreilles Ojibwe Community College. He is thinking about taking Ojibwe language classes as an elective, and he takes interest in the history of his people.

But most of all, he is proud of the traditions of the Ojibwe people he knows about. The chiefs and warriors he has heard about around Wolf Point, a place he seeks refuge. You may find him there picking up the cigarette butts of others off the ground, or putting a pinch of tobacco out as a “thanks” for the gifts of nature, or somewhere in the back of his mind, the strength to overcome the personal fight he is keenly aware of.

Most recently you could find him there near the sound of the thrasher, fanning rice and showing off the bowls and bags of finished rice with a smile – “manoomin,” or in English, “the good seed.” Perhaps the rice will become his medicine. Perhaps it already is.

Chad is a hard worker. After knocking rice with rounded cedar sticks for a few hours he begins to perk up. Seeing several inches of rice gather in the boat he feels more productive. He is refreshed by a gulp of clean water and the bracing air. The sound of the rice falling, the birds flying overhead, turtles and muskrats swimming nearby all began to work their magic. It’s the Chad LaPointe we know, without the bottle.

Chad thinks other young people on the rez could be helped, and maybe healed, if they took up hunting, fishing, and gathering again for their families.  “That’s what it’s all about,” he says, “family.”

Duke Wolf

After our gathering we laid out the rice in the sun on tarps to dry. After two or three days we parched the rice in a cast iron kettle over an open fire. It was pleasant parching the rice and making good smells while looking out on big Lac Courte Oreilles. Coming off the parching a nice tawny color, someone in our group referred to the parched rice as “Ojibwe Gold.”

The next step was thrashing.

Duke Wolf, who is very handy guy, this year made a rice thrashing machine from a cement mixer and and an old pressure tank. Wolf mounted a shaft and hard felt pads to separate the husk from the seed.

After a half hour or so of thrashing the rice began pouring out in front of a fan.  Soon the gorgeous brown, green, and black seeds, began piling up in a bowl.

During the evening we shared some enjoyable time in the garage picking the rice and feeling prepared for winter.