Wild Plants and Their Uses – Winnebozo’s manna
Wild rice (Zizania aqualica) was by far, the most important food of the new frontier. It proved to be the salvation of both, Native American and White, many times during the century of Minnesota’s fur trade. It took the place of potatoes or wheat and was more nutritious than either. Wild rice is rich in carbohydrates, and is also exceptional in protein. It has an abundance of minerals and is well fortified in B vitamins. Above all it is flavorful, having a light nutty flavor. Wild rice was truly the Winnebozo’s gift to the Anishinabe, and is natures gift to mankind.
The Anishinabe gathered this crop yearly as it was essential to their diet. During the fur trade they gathered additional amounts for bartering. Next to fur pelts it became the most desired item of the white trader.
Wild rice appears first as blades of grass floating flat on the surface of the water in shallow bays and river margins. Within two weeks a vertical stock emerges and grows from one to several feet high. Two or three long narrow blades grow out of the stock. About the first of August the plant flowers, with grass-like pollen structures growing below a long compact head. After fertilization the head enlarges, growing as it matures. By late August the area may resemble a wheat field of ripe grain. The kernels mature independently over a two week period, so that only a few of the many are loose on a particular day.
The Rice Harvest “Manoominikewin”
Every fall, encampments of the Ojibwe (English translation of Anishinabe) built up near the ricing beds in anticipation of the harvest and several weeks work.
Harvesting is best accomplished by two people: One to push the canoe forward, the other to relieve the head of its ripe “loose” grain. Thus, one harvester bends several stocks over the canoe and dislodges the ripe kernels into the canoe with two carved sticks called “bawaiganaakoon” knockers without damaging the plant. The partner, working in unison, poles the craft forward with a speed that generates maximum cargo. Two hundred pounds of rice gathered over a six hour period is considered a good harvest.
This green rice (unprocessed) must be subjected to a series of steps before it is suitable food. It must be dried, dehusked, and winnowed of its debis. Once done, the expected yield is for 40% to 50% of the raw rice.
After the Ojibwe brought the rice to shore, it was laid out to dry on sheets of birch bark,then parched in a container over an open fire. The outer hull was removed by walking on the grain in a wood-lined “bootagan” pit. In the final stage the rice was winnowed in shallow birch bark trays called “nooshkaachinaagan”. The rice was tossed up in air, the wind blowing away the broken bits of hull and chaff, leaving the kernels in the tray.
First harvest, for many Anishinabe families was the biggest social event of the year. A celebration took place and thanks given to the “Manitok” for the harvest. Drums were beat, there was singing and dancing, and it was a great time to renew friendships or initiate romances. It was a “rendezvous” in every sense of the word.
Since northern Minnesota’s fur country has long winters, adequate provisions had to be acquired and stored before the rivers froze over. To carry in food would mean that less trade items were available for furs; thus a local grain called “folle avoine” was substituted for the familiar wheat or rye of the English. A pint of prepared “wild rice” per person per day was the normal ration and this was adequate when supplemented with other foods. It was purchased by the ton at many of the North West Company’s fur posts. Next to furs”Mahnoomen”, was the Ojibwe’s principle exchange item. The balance of exchange varied each year with the abundance or scarcity of trade items. Wild rice was especially volatile since its yield varied greatly each harvest depending on weather and lake levels.
The Maple Tree “Sugar Tree”
The Maple tree is found in areas of richer, non acid soils in upland locations. It may be in mixed company or as a member of a homogenous grove. Although reaching only a moderate height, it has a sturdy, thick trunk. These are either gray or black and furrowed by irregular channels. Limbing occurs high and usually juts out at right angles. The leaf is wide with five sharp lobes but with little serration, bright green above, paler below. The Sugar Maple has two joined seeds with nearly parallel wings that spin to earth in fall and leaves that turn from green to shades of yellow, gold, orange and red.
The Maple produces large quantities of sweet sap in late winter and early spring “sweetwater” and it is in the plants sap, that we shall concentrate our interest. Collecting this sap and boiling away the water has been an important activity since pre-historic times.
Maple Syrup and Sugar
Each year in late March or early April, when freezing nights alternate with warm days, liquid pressures build up in vertical tubes and the sap drips out. The Anishinabeg cut through the bark with a deep “V” incision and pounded a solid peg at the angle. Under it, at the base of the tree, they placed a birch container to collect the dripping sap. A drop of sap per second seems inconsequential, but at days end it accumulates to a gallon. Forty to sixty gallons of sap make one gallon of syrup. To reduce the sap to syrup requires a lot of boiling, and with constant stirring and additional boiling the syrup will change to the same volume of sugar. In this state it weighs less, will not spill or mold, and can be kept for a long time.
Maple sugar was a favorite food of both the Anishinabeg and voyageur. It was used for topping for rice, berries and pemmican, and a flavoring for many other foods. It took the place of salt in the Native American diet before salt became available and was a source of quick energy for canoeing. It was also an important bargaining item of the Ojibwe.
On a long awaited for, early spring day, in the 18th Century or now, with a kettle of syrup on the boil and family and friends about the stir, a drizzle of syrup must meet with the coolness of clean snow. A small sampling of a snow maple taffy is at hand, and a smile.