Forest Preserve District of Cook County, Illinois
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Wild Rice
Nature Bulletin No. 214-A   January 22, 1966
Forest Preserve District of Cook County
Seymour Simon, President
Roland F. Eisenbeis, Supt. of Conservation

Menomin, which means "good berry", is an Algonquin Indian name for Wild Rice, the most productive and valuable wild grain crop we have. Wild rice and acorns were two crops harvested in autumn by the Indians in great quantities to be prepared and stored for food that enabled them to survive the winter.

When the Algonquins were driven westward by the Iroquois, they found vast fields of wild rice growing in the shallow water along the shores of lakes, marshes and rivers in Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, southern Canada and the upper Mississippi valley. It was formerly plentiful in parts of Cook County and still grows in the Chain O'Lakes region of Lake county, Illinois, and in places along the Illinois River valley. Bloody battles were fought for the possession of rice territory, the Dakotas being forced out of the Minnesota lake region by the Chippewas on that account.

One tribe took the name Menominee -- Wild rice men -- and today they live in a large reservation in northeastern Wisconsin, about 40 miles west of the city of Menominee, in Menominee County of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, on Green Bay at the mouth of the Menominee River which flows between the two states.

Wild rice is a coarse aquatic grass with short roots that are easily pulled up. It lives only one year but bears such quantities of seed that, in spite of what the Indians gathered and what was eaten by huge flocks of wild geese, ducks, and blackbirds, it was plentiful. It is a stately graceful plant with a few long, rather broad, pointed leaves on a stalk that grows to be from 4 to 12 feet tall and from 1/2 inch to 2 inches in diameter. At the top is a long flower cluster with spreading lower branches from which dangle many pollen-bearing flowers, and erect broom-like upper branches with the seed-bearing flowers. The slender awl-shaped seed, or rice grain, is almost black, about 3/4 inch long, in a husk with a long bristle at the tip. These grains fall very quickly after they ripen in midsummer and early autumn, especially on a windy day.

Our September was the Indians' Rice Moon, when they pitched their lodges on the shores of the good rice lakes, sent out scouts to watch for the ripening, and prepared for the harvest. On the night before the appointed day, the chief made a sacrifice, prayers and offerings to the Great Spirit, the Underground Powers and the Thunderers, after which there was a feast. Following the harvest there was a festival of thanksgiving.

The grain was gathered in canoes. Each was paddled or pushed through the soft mud by a squaw in the stern while another pulled the grain-heads over and beat the rice into the canoe. On shore, the grain was spread on mats and trampled by the women to break off the long sharp beards, and then fried in the sun or parched in pots over slow fires, to crack open the hulls. Then the men took over. The rice was placed in a shallow pit lined with skins or staves, and a man wearing new moccasins, singing the rice song and holding to a stake driven in the ground, danced wildly on the rice to thresh it. The kernels and hulls were then winnowed by tossing them up and down in birch bark trays so that the wind would carry away the chaff. After washing, the rice was stored in bark boxes, or bags of skin.

Cultivated rice, from which much of its fat, protein and fiber has been lost by scouring and polishing, sells for 25¢ per pound in the stores. Wild rice, because it is so difficult to harvest, sells for $ 6.00 per pound wholesale.

BUT, nothing beats wild duck roasted with wild rice stuffing.

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