Around the end of September and beginning of October, I had the amazing experience of helping James Whetung of the Curve Lake First Nation harvest wild rice in what he calls “the wild rice basket of the world”.
Wild rice (manoomin in Anishnaabemowin) is a grain indigenous to the Central Ontario area, as well as in other areas across Canada. It was a staple food amongst Anishnaabe and other First Nation groups prior to colonization. Over the course of urban and cottage developments on lakes and waterways, the wild rice growths quickly diminished. Now, harvesters like James must resow the seeds of a plant that used to be common.
Historically, wild rice was harvested by two people in a canoe with wooden sticks. One person would steer the canoe through the rice, while the other would bend the tops of the plants over the middle with one stick and with the other stick would gently tap the plant–releasing the seeds into the boat.
While some still use this method, James has transformed some of the old techniques into a new more industrious practice. Now he goes out on a motor boat with a mesh attachment at the front which catches the seeds.
Usually James is helped by his daughter Daemin, but since she’s gone back to school she can’t come and help everyday. For the past couple years they were a force of nature taking on the wild rice colonies and planting new ones in the Kawarthas.
James, at least, has been doing it for over a decade. He convinces Daemin to join him in her adolescence.”How many dads wouldn’t want to teach their kids some kind of valuable knowledge?”
Daemin only got into it passionately four years ago, after getting through a painful drug withdrawal. “Rice has been around me all my life, but I never developed a passion for it until I was older and I was looking for purpose in life,” she said.
She was first introduced as a teenager when her dad got a grant to employ her in his business. “When I came here, not against my will but not with a lot of passion, my eyes were beginning to open. It gave me something to think about later on when I was in those rough places.”
Once she was through the worst of it, the physical labour of rice picking was a remarkable antidote. “Once I made it through the first part of the actual withdrawal, it became rice season and my dad needed help and I was starting to feel better physically. I started going out to help him. Being out with the rice and being physical helped me in my healing process.”
For James, wild rice harvesting is a business as well as a way of connecting with his culture and family. He runs Black Duck Wild Rice which exports his rice all over the globe. It’s something that he can also leave to Daemin as well as the knowledge.
It’s really tasty and contributes a lot more to a dish than your average white rice. The ways its roasted gives it a rich nutty flavour that makes it a strong presence on your pallet.
For me, in making this documentary for CBC Radio, it was a real privilege to stay on James’ land, help him with the harvest, the curing and the roasting of the rice. Like Daemin was saying, it’s a lot of hard work but it feels really good to use your body like that. Coupled with sleeping in a tent on the hard ground, my body felt pretty well used after my couple of days by Curve Lake. But at least now I’ll have very fond memories to look back on when I eat this tasty wild rice.