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Natural Reaction: The changes and challenges of harvesting wild rice

September 20, 2019 by Jacob Friede

The Wild Rice Festival, which took place in Lac du Flambeau last Saturday, was an enlightening experience. I had no clue how wild rice was harvested when I arrived and I walked away with a pretty good understanding of the process. This was thanks to the explanations of Leon “Boycee” Valliere who demonstrated throughout the festival the different stages of wild rice’s journey from lake bottom to table top. 

But he also spoke about the changes and challenges wild rice harvesters now face and they were as intriguing as the ancient process itself. 

“Most people that harvest wild rice today, they harvest it out of canoes, they use paddles or push pulls to propel themselves through the rice beds,” Valliere said. “They have wooden sticks for knocking the rice and so that has gone unchanged for centuries.”

But other aspects of wild rice harvesting have changed.

For instance, wild rice is no longer able to be bundled before harvest. Valliere explained modern laws have been put in place to dissuade this assumed ownership of wild rice.

“They outlawed one of the original harvesting practices that was used by my ancestors, and that’s the process of tying and bundling wild rice,” Valliere said. “In that practice several rice stalks would be gathered together and tied with basswood cord and it would be akin to avenues where the canoes could pass through the tied rice and the advantage of tying rice was that the birds, the wind, the storms, the rain wouldn’t affect that rice when tied in a bundle and the rice would ripen and when it was at it’s peak ripeness the harvesters would go through these avenues.”

Regulations from state agencies like the Department of Natural Resources are themselves a change in traditional wild rice harvesting. Valliere said the harvesting process used to be regulated by tribal chiefs.

“In the original rice culture of the native people the original laws or government that dictated when and how rice was harvested was overseen by rice chiefs,” he said. “So rice chiefs would have full authority over what, when, how, who could harvest on a bed of rice. The only authority our rice chiefs have today is determining regulated lakes opening dates.” 

There are regulated and non-regulated lakes for wild rice harvesting. Regulated lakes will not open until a tribal rice chief says so. 

“The custom is to allow the majority of the lake to ripen and then you can go in that lake and harvest rice efficiently, effectively, righteously,” Valliere said. “Regulated lakes are regulated by tribal chiefs. We have rice chiefs who are watching those lakes and those lakes are locked until our rice chiefs say theres enough rice ripened in that lake to open it. That’s the co-management agreement that we have with the State of Wisconsin.”

On non-regulated lakes which don’t require the expert supervision of a tribal rice chief, anyone with an $8 permit can start harvesting a body of water whenever they want. This can be detrimental to the rice if people don’t know what they’re doing said Valliere.

“Unfortunately again we have people going way too early,”?Valliere said. “We’ve had people picking rice for a month already in those non-regulated lakes. The regulated lakes just opened yesterday. So that will tell you what’s going on in the world today. What’s happening is the rice hasn’t formed. It’s not ripe. It’s actually still in the flower stage and you have inexperienced people out there trying to beat unformed rice off the stalks.”

Once a rice stalk is struck, the stalk breaks and the rice will no longer develop. When people try to harvest premature rice too early they waste the rice because it will not fall into the lake to reseed and it can’t be eaten by people. 

“It’s desecration,” Valliere said.

This year, tribal rice chiefs have only opened up two regulated lakes. The rest have failed to produce enough rice to be open for harvest and this is largely due to high water levels, which in addition to uninformed harvesters are one of rice’s major challenges.

“One of the biggest factors is rainfall and water levels. The water gets too high,” Valliere said. “That seed plant has to make a journey from the lake bottom to the lake surface so the plant only has so much energy to do that. It reserves X amount of energy to get from here to there, and so if that plant now has to encounter additional inches of water it doesn’t have the energy to do that.”

Ideally, a rice stalk breaks the surface of the lake, floats on the water for awhile, then continues to stand up where it begins the flowering stage.

“We want the rice to make it to the flowering stage and once it gets to the flowering stage now what happens is a milky substance starts to fill the seed heads in with what’s going to be rice seed,”?Valliere said. “So we are dependent upon bee nation for pollination.”

When the rice hulls are able to sink when they hit the water they are ready for harvest.

Wild rice harvesting is completely dependent upon the right natural conditions as well as patience from the harvesters.  

Having the opportunity to inform people of how delicate this ancient process is, and how detrimental any interruption can be, is what Valliere views as a very valuable aspect of the Wild Rice Festival.

“It’s an excellent opportunity for people like me, who are very concerned about the future of wild rice, to spread information,” he said. “I think in that regard it’s pretty cool.” 

Jacob Friede may be reached at [email protected] or [email protected]

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