Wild rice grows as tall reeds 8 to 12 foot in flowing water 3 to 8 foot deep in what is now Wisconsin, Minnesota and marshes north of the great lakes. There are thousands of different varieties, each growing in its own particular niche of depth, temperature, mud and water quality. Wild rice is very sensitive to the environmental conditions of it's niche. Modern attempts to artificially transplant wild rice have all but failed due to it's very tight growth restrictions.
Rice is harvested traditionally by two people in a canoe. One person would pole the canoe through the reed beds while the other did the actual harvesting. The harvesting is done by bending the reeds down over the canoe and hitting them with a sharp blow from a wooden rod. The blow will cause most of the ripe grain to be released, but leaves the reed and green grain undamaged. Using this fashion of release, the grain remains intact. Much of the grain falls into the canoe, but some is intentionally allowed to return to the water as the seed to replenish the reed bed.
When the rice is initially brought back to the camp, it is full of water that needs to be removed immediately to keep the rice fresh and prevent rot. This was accomplished by digging a shallow pit and starting a hot fire. A drying rack, constructed of green branches and grass was placed over the fire pit, and the rice was spread over it until most of the moisture had been quickly evaporated off.
The rice was then placed in a container, put over another fire, and stirred constantly to allow it to heat slowly, sap the remaining moisture and loosen the husks.
The rice was then tossed from bark trays into the air to separate the chaff from the rice, leaving only the heavier grains. The hardest and most resilient of the chaff is separated from the rice by placing it in a pit lined with skins. Someone would then walk or dance on the rice lightly, to crack that chaff off without breaking the grains. The rice and remaining chaff were then separated and both used as food products.
Wild rice was a valuable seasonal food source to the prehistoric Indians of the Minnesota region, as well as in much of the northern Midwest However, rice species can be found as far south as Texas. Because of it's strength within it's niche, very little energy was required to maintain the beds of rice which created an abundant food supply. The artifacts of ricing have been discovered in many archeological sites across Minnesota, including the remains of ricing pits, the drying fire pits and obvious annual occupations over many seasons starting as early as the Late Woodland culture at about 800 AD. It is believed by some that the adaptation of wild rice as a major food source caused a population explosion in this region.
As late as historical contact, native Minnesotans were engaging in ricing as a survival activity. Even to this day, ricing is done in much the same manner by Indians of northern Minnesota and Wisconsin. However, damming of waterways and pollution have caused the destruction of many of the fragile beds, as well as commercial wild rice harvesting, which tends to destroy the existing reeds and leave little for replenishment.
If all this talk about eating wild rice has made you hungry, check out this Wild Rice Pilaf!