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The History of Wild Rice

One of Minnesota’s claims to fame is our wild rice. You will find no shortage of wild rice in our grocery stores, gift shops, and even in our very own Duluth Pack. Us Minnesotans love to use it in soups, casseroles, pilaf, just on its own, and some use it in desserts like Wild Rice Krispy Bars. Wild rice is harvested mostly in August and September, so to celebrate harvest season almost being upon us, your friends at Duluth Pack want to give you the history of our state grain.

Wild rice is traditionally called Manoomin by the Ojibwe, which is the largest tribe in Minnesota. The plant itself is incredibly important to our indigenous populations and has been growing in the Great Lakes region for centuries. To the indigenous tribes that harvest it, wild rice is considered a sacred food and there are ceremonies to honor its sacredness in the tribe each year. This is because the Ojibwe and Chippewa tribes, among others, have a history with wild rice. Long ago, these tribes were told by the Great Spirit to move to the land where food grows among water to survive. Tribes started to move westward and knew to stop their journey when they found the wild rice growing plentifully in the water. The food has remained an important staple for indigenous populations, most notably the Ojibwe, Chippewa, and the Sioux.

Manoomin means “good berry” and is highly nutritional, full of protein, and low on fat. This makes wild rice attractive for many different recipes and gives us insight into why its importance still rings true centuries after it first started to be harvested. Furthermore, it stores for an incredibly long time, which is helpful when food is scarce or when you can't use it right away.

Wild rice grows in water and is not rice at all, but a grain. Now that you know the cultural significance of the grain, it should be no surprise that the way it is harvest is very specific and important to indigenous nations. Historically, it is harvest by hand. To this day, native nations continue to harvest wild rice by hand, and it remains a special practice for the indigenous of Minnesota and surrounding states. The harvesting begins when two people travel to the plants in a canoe. One person stands up in the canoe and guides the harvest with a long pole just like a gondolier would, while the other searches the water for wild rice ready for harvest. The searcher is holding traditional sticks called knockers, and with these, they will bend the plant and gently knock the grains out of the plant. On good days, ricers can get hundreds of pounds of the wild rice that will provide sustenance for the entire tribe, sometimes with some leftover to sell.

Nowadays, many companies harvest wild rice as a crop in paddies but take inspiration from the traditional methods of harvesting. Almost all commercial wild rice is harvest in its native state of Minnesota. Though cultivated rice is not the same as traditionally harvested rice, it is an easy option if you don’t have the time or resources to go ricing yourself. If you are looking to start cooking with wild rice in your home, we have you covered. Buy some rice and perhaps a wild rice cookbook to get you started.

We hope you’ve learned more about this special grain in Minnesota. Stay tuned for some wild rice recipes that we especially enjoy in the coming weeks!

 Happy harvesting, friends!