When Marybelle Isham was a little girl, growing up on the shores of Nett Lake on the Bois Forte Indian Reservation in northern Minnesota, autumn arrived not with the state fair or the start of school, but with the wild-rice harvest. “Years ago, people would come from all over,” she recalled recently. “They’d bring their tents and wigwams and camp all over the village.”
At 10, Isham first went ricing with her family, paddling in the bow of a canoe, her brother steering in the stern. Their father, a tribal delegate to Washington, D.C., sat between them, using long paddles to bend stalks of grass over the gunwale and—tap-tap-tap—knock the grains of wild rice into the boat. By late afternoon, when they’d paddle back to the village, the canoe would be “like this”—she shows me with her hand, perfectly level—“carrying three or four hundred pounds of rice.” The family’s shopping had to wait until they’d sold the rice. “At the time, there was practically no money coming in, so we all had to work at the rice—we all had to pick blueberries. That was part of our getting-food money.” A good harvest might even mean a new car.
But by last fall, Isham, now a village elder, had traded her canoe for terra firma. “When you get to be in your sixties, you slow down a bit,” she said. Instead, she was supervising the parching process, standing next to a long bed of coals, while two of the Ojibwe band’s younger backs roasted the green wild rice in a toboggan-shaped metal pan. Overhead, a leaden sky spit drizzle.
Isham had shock white hair, accented elegantly with strands of silver, and eyes that flashed like copper bowls filled with water. Her parchers, Mark Littlewolf and Francis Littlewolf Jr., wore tattoos and T-shirts. They just happened to be her nephews. Using wooden paddles, they pushed the rice—90 pounds of it—back and forth over the flames. The work was ceaseless, in a way that looked less meditative than exhausting. It had been more than an hour. Like a grandmotherly drill sergeant, Isham looked on and pointed out hot spots.
“They call me the slave driver,” she said, amused. “You have to cook it that long. If you cook it too fast, the rice will pop. But if it’s not cooked all the way through, it’ll be gummy.”
In the last few days, the Littlewolf brothers had parched close to five thousand pounds of Nett Lake rice under Isham’s careful tutelage. They’d both had trouble finding work lately, Mark told me over a hot-dog-and-cigarette lunch, and this job paid cash. Most men their age worked at the band’s casino, Fortune Bay, a half hour to the south.
Isham took a small handful of grain from the pan and gave it to me to taste. “It grows on you,” she said. “You feel like you’ve really missed out on something if you don’t make it up here to do the rice.”
I’d arrived in Nett Lake, seat of the Bois Forte Reservation, just off Highway 53 and not far from the Canadian border, at the end of the season’s harvest, and my tour guide, Chris Holm, a lake ecologist with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, wanted to show me how the rice was finished for sale. After lunch, Holm loaded several bulging sacks of the Littlewolfs’ handiwork into his veteran pickup, pushed the clutter off the passenger seat, and talked rice as we headed into town.
Wild rice, or manoomin in Ojibwe, the “good seed,” is at the center of the tribe’s beliefs. According to legend, while the nomadic band was living in the northeast corner of the continent, as late as 1600, seven prophets appeared to the elders, telling them to move west, following a shell in the sky, until they reached the place where “food grows on the water.” Wild rice abounds in the north woods’ shallow, mucky lakes—millions of pounds grow on the water each year.
When the Ojibwe (or Anishinaabe, as band members refer to themselves) reached the northern borderlands from the far east, they quickly established a seasonal migration route. “They’d start up as far as Grand Marais, as the story goes, and work their way west, paddling through the chain of lakes to end up here,” Holm told me. “Nett Lake was the end of the season because it comes ripe so late.” Wild-rice beds reseed themselves naturally, from wind-blown grains that fall into the mud, but the Ojibwe cultivated them, too. “They made mud balls with the rice and threw them out in the water,” Holm explained. “They carried the rice from lake to lake, seeding it themselves.”
Nett Lake, Holm said, is a wild ricer’s dream. It’s shallow, with a fecund mud bottom and a wetland border, which helps prevent dramatic spring floods. In theory, it could grow a million pounds of rice a year. But in recent decades, annual production has dropped to half that. “Rice, for as tough a looking plant as it is, when you’re out there in the paddy, it’s real timid,” Holm said. By pulling up nuisance vegetation, tinkering with water levels, and doing some traditional reseeding, the DNR was trying to revitalize the native grass.
Holm took me down to the shore and walked me through Rice Ecology 101. Across the restless water, a sea of grass leaned in the wind. “Native rice is a variety that doesn’t ripen all at once,” he explained. It starts at the top and works its way down the seed head. So when the Ojibwe bend and knock the grass on Nett Lake, they’re only taking some of the plant’s rice—and if they’re sloppy, or work too quickly or too violently, the stalk breaks. “If it’s harvested sustainably, if it’s done right, you could potentially go back into the same rice bed for weeks, harvesting it.”
Until about 40 years ago, the only way to harvest wild rice was to pole or paddle out into native beds and knock it by hand. Minnesota supplied half the world’s total production, and in 1968, more than 16,000 Minnesotans applied for permits to go ricing. “Everybody had their own rice camp,” Holm said. “Everyone had their own customers. Everyone had their own income stream from it.”
By the early 1970s, though, the University of Minnesota’s agricultural school had hybridized a new strand of once-native grass that was shatter-resistant, meaning its seeds ripened all at once, so it could be cultivated in man-made bogs and harvested with machines. Today, the number of hobby ricers is down to a couple thousand, and the “wild” rice supply has exploded, owing to commercial paddies scattered across Minnesota and California. Farmed rice turns black, and not a little tough, when it’s processed, but it sells for a fraction of the price of its native cousin.
Unable to compete, most of the Ojibwe in Nett Lake sell small quantities to long-time customers, or directly to the tribal government, which pays three dollars a pound for green rice on the dock, then finishes and packages it as a niche-item, sold online. But even tribal iconography has been co-opted by commercial farms. I could pay $15 a pound for native wild rice on the tribe’s website—or $11 a pound on Amazon for Lundberg Organic Wild Rice, cultivated on 17,000 acres in California, whose label is replete with a soaring eagle and two men paddling through a rice bed. And two-day shipping on Amazon.com is free.
Nett Lake is a village of just 500, but most trips around the reservation involve a stop at the BP in the center of town, so much so that, when you’re looking for someone, and his truck isn’t parked in his driveway, the BP is a good next bet. This is where we found Pete Isham, a local rice finisher who runs a one-man operation in his front yard.
Once green rice has been parched, the grain needs to be separated from its inedible outer husk, the chaff. Traditionally, jigging the rice with moccasined feet in a large pot and then tossing it with a shallow bowl in a steady breeze did this. The wind carries off the chaff, and the heavier rice remains. The first ceremonial harvest of the season is still prepared like this, but most families today use a finisher like Pete, who will thrash and winnow their rice for a small cut of the product. If you bring him 100 pounds, he’ll keep 10 for himself: winter food and a gift for Mom.
Isham’s finishing machine, built from scavenged parts and housed under a canopy of worn blue tarps, would have made Rube Goldberg blush. It involved the drive train of an old pickup, its chassis stripped of everything but the rusting cab, a revolving steel drum, several hoppers, screens, and shakers, and an industrial fan. When it refused to turn over, he used his mouth and a bit of hose to siphon some gas from his truck, and fed it to the machine. This time, it sprang to life.
Over the tremendous roar, Isham told me that he’d grown up in a family of 16 kids and gone to school on the reservation. After getting kicked out of college for owning a motorcycle (he later finished), he joined the Marine Corps in 1968. “Got infantry, just like I wanted,” he says. “I was way up north by the DMZ, no spit and polish.” As we talked, he scaled a shaky ladder to empty a bucket of rice into the machine, then squatted down in front of a vibrating screen, sifting the finished grains through his calloused fingers, looking for imperfections. “They called us the walking dead because we lost so many people.” He flicked bad rice into the dirt.
Back on the reservation, he’d worked as a logger and sawyer for 27 years. On the side, he’d rice with his brother, bringing back 700 pounds in a day. “These guys today, they don’t know what a boatload is,” he laughed. Before long, he was paddling out to harvest with his new wife, Doris. “If I hadn’t a met her, I’d be dead by now. I was a wild man.” As it happened, the couple made an excellent pair of ricers. “We’d come off the lake with as much as anybody. Then her knees went to hell.”
Pete, 66, had spent his life putting in long days, and the finishing operation seemed to be as much a way to satisfy his urge to tinker than anything else. Wild ricing, he said, “is kind of like deer hunting. You shoot it and then the work starts.”
As the sun dipped, Pete gave me a bag of finished rice. It had been harvested the day before, parched that morning by Marybelle and her nephews, and finished under Pete’s careful eye by late afternoon. In that time, it hadn’t traveled farther than a mile from Nett Lake. I asked him how to prepare it and he paused to consider.
“I don’t know,” he admitted. “I’m not really a cook.” A little butter and salt, he finally decided.
I did just that when I got home. The rice tasted smoky and nutty, not unlike the way the north woods smell on the first cold morning of fall.
Kevin Charles Redmon, who grew up in Minnesota, is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C. He profiled author Larry Millett in the April issue of the magazine.