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(Many Paths)
An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America
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Camp Teaches Native American Way to Harvest Wild Rice
JAMESTOWN TOWNSHIP — Not often is dancing part of processing food, but the traditional method of removing wild rice from its hulls involves a fun little twist.

Participants at a demonstration of a wild-rice camp Saturday strapped on moccasins to “dance” on the rice, much like Native Americans in the Great Lakes region have done for centuries.

It was only one part of a process that provided a staple of nutrition to tribes such as the Odawa and Potawatomi, while creating a bonding and connecting experience.

“It’s a laborious process, but there was community in it,” said Barb Barton, who led the demonstration at Mud Lake Farm in southeastern Ottawa County. “We don’t have that a lot today. It’s a wonderful bonding process for the community and family.

“You’d starve if you tried doing it by yourself,” she said.

Wild rice, or manoomin, as Native Americans called it, grows in water and once was common in Michigan. Today, it is a rare grass plant — not related to rice from Asia — that some enthusiasts are trying to restore to inland lakes.

Unlike commercial U.S. hybrid wild rice grown in paddies, mostly in California, true wild rice is still harvested via canoe in areas with a large diversity of plants and animals. The rice plants even provide habitat.

Barton explained how harvesters use cedar sticks to bend the plants over the canoe and shake loose seeds into the vessel. They push the canoe with long tamarack poles.

Seed heads are parched in a basin over an open fire to dry them. Someone stirs constantly in a rhythmic swish.

Then, the dancing begins.

At a genuine wild-rice camp, Native Americans would beat drums and sing. Here, Barton played a CD of the music to give a little beat for the twisting.

The resulting mix of hulls and wild rice — which now has a nutty, roasted flavor — must be separated by winnowing. That involves tossing it into the air so the wind blows away the chaff or shaking it in a birch bark tray stitched with spruce roots to separate the chaff from the seeds.

The length of the process explains why traditional processors charge $15 a pound at tourist shops in the Upper Peninsula.

But buying the product might not be as satisfying as taking part in the harvesting and processing.

Barton, who works at the Great Lakes Lifeways Institute, said the process provides a direct link between people and food.

“When I eat wild rice, I go right back to being on the water,” she said. “When you experience the harvesting and the labor of processing, you’re more connected to the earth and respectful and appreciative. If you’re more respectful and appreciative, you become a better steward of the earth.”

The West Michigan chapter of Slow Food sponsored the demonstration.

“What could be more natural food than this?” asked chapter President Veronica Phelps. “It’s there for the taking.”

Participant Anelo Lopez Jr., whose ancestors were Odawa, said he attended to connect with other local food enthusiasts so he can get ideas for helping to open a local food restaurant with Tim Fairman, who also attended.

But he said he liked learning the history.

“It’s just good to see what they went through,” he said, speculating that his ancestors collected wild rice.

Slow Food is a worldwide organization promoting “good, clean, fair, local farms, slowing down and enjoying food,” Phelps said

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