My mother’s clan is Otter; my father’s clan is Black Duck. I grew up at Curve Lake Indian Reserve on the south shore of Chemong Lake, 20 km north east of Peterborough, Ontario. One of my earliest childhood memories was dancing and playing on wild rice seeds that Uncle Aubrey Coppaway had brought home by canoe from down the lake. In my teenage years, my uncles Noble and Wayne Cummings would get me to paddle them around local lakes to fish, hunt and trap, usually in or near wild rice beds. At that time wild rice beds were beginning to wane and as the wild rice – known as Manomin in Anishnnabe – dwindled, thousands of birds, duck, and geese were disappearing, too.

The Stage of Wild Rice

Manomin (wild rice) is an annual plant that grows in the Kawartha Lakes. The seeds ripen in September and fall in to the lake to ensure future crops. The seeds spend winter in the black muck of the lake bottom, and in June, the plant sends up shoots which lay like ribbons on the water’s surface. An aerial leaf stage produces blossoms, then seed pods ripen one by one over about a two week period, completing the cycle during the month of September. The seeds are gathered for food before they fall in the water. My elders have taught me the locations of rice beds past and present. They told me how to take care of wild rice. I have learned a lot about wild rice since I was young, and now consider wild rice my favourite food. I favour it because of its taste and texture, and also because I know its history, value and rhythms.

The Rice Bowl of North America

Rice Lake, just south of Peterborough, Ontario was once the rice bowl of North America. Because of historical adverse environmental and political factors, Native use and stewardship of this plant in our area has declined (though not disappeared). Concerns for our environment and Anishnnabe culture have motivated me to work to replenish the wild rice beds. Today I gather wild rice and teach others how to gather it traditionally in a canoe. This is the easy part. The process of preparing the seeds for food is the hard part.

Curing Wild Rice

Traditionally, the seeds are cured for 5-10 days in long rows or piles, which are turned daily. The next step is roasting the wild rice. This removes moisture, and loosens the chaff on the seeds. Then you dance on the wild rice to remove the chaff. Winnowing is the last step, separating the seeds from the chaff and dust. Once cured and roasted, wild rice will keep, retaining its wholesomeness, for years. The native people of Curve Lake, Scugog Island, Hiawatha and Alderville first Nations are working towards re-establishing, enhancing and protecting wild rice in the Kawartha Lakes for the good of all the people and the environment.

Written by James Whetung