Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Living in Indian Country: Wild Ricing

When we returned from the reservation in August, I resigned from BetterLife. I wanted to be free to go with Wilson at the end of the month for ricing season. Without a job, I spent my days doing nothing but be with him. One afternoon we hopped on a bus to go see Bruce. We hadn't seen him at all that summer. Arriving at his apartment house, we saw a panel of buzzers for the different apartments, the names of the occupants above each buzzer. We looked up Bruce's apartment number, but his name wasn't on it. No one answered the buzzer. Wilson and I went home confused. That evening Wilson called Bruce's son.

"Sorry," his son said, "Dad was killed last month. He was all tanked up on his mo-ped, and took a turn into a car. He was killed instantly"
The next day, Wilson and I drove out to the veteran cemetery near the airport and found his grave, a simple white cross in a long row of white crosses. Maybe if we’d stayed in touch, he wouldn’t have started drinking again. We felt guilty for not having visited him earlier. As we stood at his grave, we knew he would always remain a very special and important person in our hearts.

The wild ricing season was the end of August and early September. Elders would go to the edge of the lake and inspect the crop, deciding the proper time to begin the harvest. The harvest had rules. No one can begin ricing until the season officially opens and canoes have to be within certain specifications. The point is to try to preserve the fields for another year.

Wilson loved to pole for his dad. Standing at the end of the canoe with a 15 to 20 foot hand-hewn pole, he pushed the canoe through the rice stalks. Walter, sitting in the middle of the canoe, was the 'knocker'. In each hand he held hand-hewn sticks about 32 inches long. The knocker would take one stick and reach out to the rushes, pulling them toward him over the canoe while with the other hand knocking the rice off of the rush and into the boat. Both knocking and poling are hard-learned skills; people who are good at it are in demand.
Not wanting to stay on the tract by myself, I went along every day and waited on the bank of the lake. I took a good book and sometimes took walks through the woods. Walter called me "Wilson's shadow."

One morning just after arriving at the lake, I saw Wilson throw a Coke can into the brush. I went to get it. Looking over the tall weeds, I saw all kinds of pop and beer cans strewn about.

"Wilson! How come everyone is throwing their trash here! You're Indians, you’re supposed to respect the environment!"
"Don't worry about it," he said, obviously irritated with me. "The Boy Scouts will pick it up."

They usually riced until dark or until their boat was so full that they could take no more in. When they got back to the house I rubbed Walter's back and listened to him talk about when he was a young man playing the amateur baseball circuit or when he was in the service and stationed in Germany. ("Sprechen due deutch?" he'd ask, "nein", I'd answer.)

Walter offered to teach me to dance. Everyone thought he was joking. But up he stood and over he came. I wasn't a very good student, but I had a good time.

Step by step, Wilson and his dad showed me the process of harvesting and preparing wild rice in the traditional way. Few did it that way anymore. If they kept their rice, most people brought it to a place for bulk processing. But many didn’t even hang on to it. A lot of the younger people would sell their rice directly off the lake to brokers waiting on the shore and at certain stores. Some ricers would get their bags wet, causing it to weigh more and get a better price. Others would put rocks in the middle of their bags. Some saved their money until the end of the season, but many took their cash immediately and spent the night drinking. But Walter and Wilson saved their rice. They preferred to keep it, process it the old way, and use it through the following year.

When Walter felt he had enough rice to get started, he went go to the backyard and placed a load of cedar wood in a small pit. After lighting the fire, he put a metal sheet over it. The sheet was bent up around the sides in order to keep the rice from falling off as he took a pole and pushed the rice back and forth on the sheet. This prevented the rice from burning while it was being parched.

Next came the 'jigging'. The parched rice was placed in a concrete pot that was put into a hole in the ground. Wanda then stepped into the hole onto the grain. Her hands on the ground to steady herself, she quickly moved her feet up and down to grind the hulls off of the rice. This could take about two hours. When Wanda got tired, someone else took over. I was glad they never asked me. It didn't look easy.

When the rice looked ready, Walter took it out of the hole to fan it. He put the rice a few scoops at a time into a wide, fairly flat, birchbark bowl, then, while standing with his back to the wind, bounced the bowl to shake the hulls out of the rice. Finally, the rice was brought to the kitchen table, where we all went through it, cleaning out any left over hulls. This was the final product, ready to store for meals all winter.

"Would you like to try some Indian popcorn?" Walter asked me.
Taking some of the rice, he popped it on the stove just like corn. Imagine making popcorn with rice!

Parching the old way was also the best way to finish the rice. When preparing it for a meal, rice parched the old way didn't have to be boiled. All I had to do was pour the hot water from the boiled potatoes (a staple at each meal) over the rice, cover it, and let it set for about 15 minutes and it was ready for the table.
In Wilson's mind, real wild rice is the only rice worth eating. But for me, it was bland and tasteless. I had to doctor it up with butter and salt at first in order to get used to it. I learned a lot about cooking that month, though. It had never occurred to me that baked beans or macaroni and cheese could be made from scratch. Annie also tried to show me how to cut up a fish. This was not something I wanted to learn, so I weaseled out of it as quick as possible.

In my simpleness, I had always thought I knew how to cook. Well, I knew how to make hot-dogs anyway. It was a blessing for them all that I didn't cook much while I was there.

This whole time and season was something that, in the years later, remained very dear to Wilson's heart.

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