‘Spiritual currency': The Ojibwe's special bond with wild rice production

For 500 years, Mahnomen, or wild rice, has been the grain that feeds life into the Annishinabe, or the Ojibwe.

They are a people that, in the 1600s, found security and food in Wisconsin and Minnesota.

“As the Ojibwe were migrating over from the east coast following a prophecy to follow the mega shell, or cowry shell, the prophecy was to go to where the food grows on water and going there will save your people. The Annishinabe people will be saved. So traveling on and pushing forward with the prophecy, which may have taken a century, we eventually arrive here in central Minnesota and northern Wisconsin where the food does grow on water,” said Pat Kruse, an Ojibwe. 

In those days, the pristine waters in our northern lakes grew wild rice by the thousands of acres. By comparison, the rice grows sparse today, which is one of the reasons modern day Ojibwe like Pat Kruse and his son Gage hold the grain in the highest regard. 

“This is what we do as Ojibwes,” Kruse said. “You throw it up in the air like that on the way out and make an offering back. Because we were fed, we feed it back.”

While wild rice is very much a staple of the Ojibwe diet, for those still gathering it by canoe, push pole and stick, it also represents spiritual nourishment.

“For generations and generations and generations, it’s very important to get this rice for us Ojibwes,” said Bradley Harrington. 

Ojibwe believe all that is traditional about wild rice gathering feeds a culture that in many ways is still fighting to stay alive today.

“When we start talking about cultural revitalization, who are we as a people, wild rice plays a key factor in that, just like any other sacred food item, sacred item, language and customs, the wild rice will be there,” said Harrington. 

It’s an Annishinabe labor of love with more work ahead.

Traditional Ojibwe ricing does not end at the shore of a lake. The Mahnomen actually passes through several hand-on and feet-on steps, always under the watchful eye of an Elder.

Shirley Boyd is 80 years old. Those years have given her a keen eye, ear and feel for the stirring motion needed in parching the rice, heating it to loosen the husks from the kernel.

It may be hard for her to admit, but her time now working the rice is limited, so the next generation of Ojibwe take on the task, with Shirley often over their shoulder.

“They do a good job,” she said. “I did it quite a few years. We did our own. We never took ours out to have someone else do it. My husband and I did it all, all of it ourselves.”

That work also included “making sure there’s nothing in there that shouldn’t be in there, like a leaf falling from a tree, grass we may have missed,” said Harrington. 

Cooled and clean, young men in traditional leather moccasins dance on the wild rice. A breeze helps carry the husks away in the winnowing stage.

Years upon years of perfecting this tossing motion formed the memories this proud Ojibwe woman finds in the rice.

Sending that tradition even deeper into the Ojibwe Nation is what this day on Lake Onamia is all about. It’s a ricing field trip. A teaching opportunity for the youngest in the tribe.

“Culturally, it’s significant,” said Harrington. “And if the kids aren’t doing it, we’re going to lose that aspect of the culture.”

“Annishinabe practices are a labor of love and a labor of healing,” said Harrington. “It’s the spiritual intent that you put into harvesting the rice with good thoughts.”

“It’s like depositing into spiritual currency that when you have a finished product and you feed other people, it’s like cashing in your spiritual currency,” Harrington said.

“Letting the kids see that, tomorrow, they’re going to be the ones teaching their kids,” Harrington said.