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Anishinaabe wild rice harvester shares heritage

Simon Zornes documents his wild rice harvests for his children and to teach others the Ojibwe tradition. In this photo, he is gathering wild rice on the Mississippi. "You can follow a channel for a mile or so and then it just dead ends and you go back the way you came," he said. (Photo by Simon Zornes)1 / 2
An accomplished artist, Zornes discusses the signficance of 13 scales on a turtle carved from stone and the lunar cycle with an audience member following the HCLL program. (Shannon Geisen/Enterprise)2 / 2

A lifetime wild rice harvester, Simon Zornes revealed the intricacies of traditional Ojibwe gathering methods.

He spoke Tuesday with an attentive Headwaters Center for Lifelong Learning audience.

"In my family, nobody asks you if you can rice. They ask how well can you rice. They just assume that you know," Zornes said.

He is from White Earth, where one of the richest wild rice beds in the U.S. grow — some 47 lakes and more than 500 other bodies of water.

Zornes' family traditionally harvests and toasts manoomin, or "the good grain," in the Anishinaabeg way. He learned the craft at the feet of his grandfather and uncle when he was 8 or 9 years old.

In the fall, he guides a canoe through a wild rice bed, using a forked push pole that doesn't damage root systems. A second person uses two cedar sticks, called knockers, to gather the grain.

Harvesters must learn to recognize the shoreline of Lower Wild Rice Lake, located off Highway 200 in the White Earth Reservation, or risk getting lost.

"You'll be in there and all you'll be able to see is a little bit of the horizon," Zornes said. "Most people don't bring a compass. It's not uncommon to hear people yell, 'Help! Help!' It's 3.5 miles long and a mile wide and people get lost out there — not on occasion, but every day."

Cries for assistance may also mean their canoe sank.

On a good day, a pair of experienced ricers can fill their canoe with as much as 400 pounds of wild rice. One hundred to 200 pounds is more common.

"Hundreds of thousands of pounds come off that lake," Zornes said. "It has a boom or bust cycle."

Rice worms had "a good year" at the Crow Wing Chain State Wildlife Management Area this year, another site of wild rice harvesting. Most of that harvest crawled away then stayed put, Zornes joked.

By state law, the season runs August 15 to Sept. 30, from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. daily. The harvest of "green" (unripe) wild rice is illegal.

"I make it a point to be there at sunrise. It's a unique opportunity in that I can put 500 pounds of wild rice in my boat in one day on Lower Wild Rice Lake," Zornes said.

He aims for three days of harvesting. His family consumes the majority of it.

"I sell a little bit. It's more important to us to have wild rice to eat than sell," he said. "It's just a health and lifestyle thing. We need that wild rice for us."

A "pretty good percentage" of grains overshoot the canoe, reseeding for future harvests.

Wild rice requires three hours of parching, one hour of threshing and another hour of handling to separate chaff.

"It can be a same-day product. It makes for a very long day," he said.

Wild rice has a distinctive color and flavor, depending on the lake or river where it was gathered. Minnesota hosts an astonishing 110 species of wild rice. Generally, the smaller the grain, the stronger the flavor, Zornes said.

He enjoys experimenting with recipes, selecting particular types of wood to smoke the grain — much like a chef grilling a fine piece of meat.

"That's one of the refinements of wild rice," he explained. "I try to have three or four colors of wild rice, depending on how I process it."

He doesn't use herbicides or pesticides.

"I've got firewood and I've got wet wild rice," he said.

Zornes photographs and films his efforts.

"I think it's important for my children and to teach people how to do this. There's plenty of places I'll go ricing and there'll not be another boat there. We're losing the interest of people. There's no one else to go fetch this rice and rice requires the assistance of people."

The forked push pole churns the bottom of the lake, dredging up necessary nutrients and creating robust wild rice beds, he explained.

"The rice lakes that do best have the most harvesters."

Harvesting wild rice is open to Minnesota residents and nonresidents. Nonresidents must purchase a one-day license and residents may purchase either a season or one-day license through the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. All harvesters are required to be licensed unless they are residents under 18 years of age and accompanied by a licensed harvester.

State restrictions regulate the size of the boat, push poles, flails and more.

"Everybody used to process rice," Zornes said, each family having its secret techniques and recipes. "But a lot of that has gone and it's gone the way of bigger and bigger rice mills."

The average age of ricers is "pretty old," he continued.

Wild Rice Festival

On Saturday (today), The Nemeth Art Center will host another "Take a Walk on the Wild Side" Wild Rice Festival in downtown Park Rapids.

This year's celebration will be held outdoors on Third Street, just east of Highway 71 next to Depot Park. Admission is free and the event will run from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m.

Organizers say the festival is an opportunity for attendees to connect directly with vendors of authentic wild rice and discover the unique strains of wild rice found in the rivers and lakes throughout the region.

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