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
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
nothing beats wild duck roasted with wild rice stuffing.
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Update: June 2012