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Educators, band members put on inaugural Wild About Rice Festival

Matt Martineau (right) of the Fond du Lac Reservation, explains the use of wooden "knockers" used to harvest wild rice to Lydia Noble of Superior at the Wild About Rice Festival on Saturday. The event was held in the Lake Superior Estuarium on Barker's Island. At left is Phillip Savage, also of Fond du Lac. The birch bark canoe is from the outreach center and museum at Fond du Lac. Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com1 / 3
Ella Davis, 5, of Duluth, nibbles on a sample of wild rice mixed with maple syrup and blueberries at the Wild About Rice Festival on Saturday in Superior. Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com2 / 3
Trevor Whitaker of Superior lets wild rice — still in the hull — run through his fingers at the Wild About Rice Festival Saturday. "It's very soft and kind of waxy on the outside," said Whitaker. Manoomin is the native name for wild rice. Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com3 / 3

Holding a single grain of wild rice, Mark McConnell split it in half.

"When it looks like busted glass, it's ready," said the Fond du Lac Band member.

It's not a quick process achieving that aesthetic. Before the grains are even removed from their wheat-colored hulls, they have to be slow-baked in a kettle, getting stirred continuously for an hour. Then it has to be threshed so the grain loosens from its shell.

This traditional harvesting method has been around for hundreds of years, and is still practiced today. On a brisk late-September afternoon, that tradition and all the significance that surrounds wild rice was celebrated at the Wild About Rice Festival.

"Wild rice only grows around here, and I don't think a lot of people realize that," said Deanna Erickson, a Reserve Education Coordinator.

This was the first year of the festival, but wild rice has been growing in the region since before it was inhabited. Part of the reason the Northland was settled in the first place is because of wild rice.

"Wild rice is why people came here in the first place," Erickson said. "There was a prophecy about food that grows out of the water and that's going to be your homeland. Go to where the food grows out of the water and so people migrated from the East Coast to here a very long time ago."

That cultural significance was on full display during the festival. A puppet show that was written and performed by staff from the Fond du Lac Band Resource Management program to help show its importance to children. A traditional birch bark canoe used for collecting wild rice was exhibited in the Estuarium. There was even a demonstration from the the director of the Fond du Lac Cultural Center and Museum about how to turn wild rice into pasta.

"We can do everything with it," said Director Jeff Savage. "You can add it to bread and batter and make wild rice bread. You can make it into a cake."

Savage is a weathered wild rice processor, finishing his 54th consecutive year of collecting the grain. While very few years have yield such historic lows as in 2012 after the notable flood event, he said 2018 wasn't very productive, either.

"It's a natural crop, so it's got a cycle," Savage said. "Spring had a high water level that delayed germination, but then had a mini-drought. It probably kept the rice too hot so it couldn't germinate, so half of the seed heads were empty-hollow."

Despite the Northland's erratic weather patterns, the region's conditions make it the only place that wild rice can grow. Unlike its white rice cousins, wild rice needs the cold temperatures brought by Northland winters to crack the waxy covering on the seed. It also likes to grow in wetlands, which are abundant in the region.

With an ability to absorb nutrients out of wetlands, it purifies the water table in those ecosystems. It's root system prevents erosion of lake beds and slows down water during flooding events. And the ecological benefits don't stop there.

"It ripens at the point of migration, so birds love it," Erickson said, "because as birds are flying across the country, they're like 'oh look, a delicious source of protein and carbohydrates all over this lake.'"

Mark McConnell sells some of his harvest at farmers' markets for $12 a pound. When people dispute the price, arguing they could get much more food for much less money, he and his wife Mary point to those nutritional benefits, among other things.

"As a food source, wild rice is extraordinarily important," said Mary McConnell. "It always has been to the tribal people that are here and if the non-tribal people were smart, as far as nutrition and health goes, they would come here."

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