Potawatomi began eating wild rice after settling around the Great Lakes between 800 and 1,300 years ago. It served as a staple of their diet and sustenance. They named it menomen — meaning “the good seed” in English — and understood it as a gift from the Creator. Wild rice harvesting and processing required everyone’s participation, and they built their society around it as a result.

“It takes a very long time to cook, so it isn’t one of those things that you just, on a whim, whip up at night,” said Director of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation Cultural Heritage Center Kelli Mosteller, Ph.D. “It’s not a food that you can consume without some intention to it. It takes some effort, and I like that.”

Wild rice’s ability to last throughout multiple seasons and heartiness make it a practical choice. Both daily and ceremonial recipes featuring it as a central ingredient became traditional, and Potawatomi use wild rice porridge as a first and last meal.

The CPN’s community garden Gtegemen (We Grow It) assistant Kaya DeerInWater upheld that tradition with his boys at around six months old. His older son spat out the wild rice, which matched his picky eating habits. However, his younger baby treated it differently.

“He always wants rice. He’ll come up to me and say, ‘Rice, rice,’ and he’s only 1 and a half,” DeerInWater said. “It’s interesting noticing the difference in their behaviors. It makes me happy that they were exposed to that.”

Origins and exhibitions

The first and second galleries inside the CHC tell the history of wild rice. The Seven Fires Prophecy tells the story of how Potawatomi eventually stopped in the Great Lakes region. One of the prophets told the Potawatomi to settle where they found “the food that grows on water.”

“We arrived in the Great Lakes and saw the menomen, or the wild rice, growing,” Mosteller said. “We knew that was the indicator that this was the place that we were meant to be.”

Mamogosnan’s Gifts: Origins of the Potawatomi People features a flat-bottomed canoe, knockers and push poles to help visitors visualize harvesting wild rice. The museum also built a large tube from floor to ceiling filled with enough grains to feed a family of four for a year, roughly 300 pounds. The CHC staff used the visual element to facilitate a palpable connection to the prophecies.

“When you see a large pillar that goes from the floor to the ceiling, and you physically see it, and you think, ‘How much of my year would I have to spend doing this just to feed my family?’” Mosteller said. “It helps people understand that this was not a quick trip to the grocery store.”

Growing and harvesting

“Nutritionally, it’s far superior in protein and magnesium and all those macronutrients, micronutrients — whatever you want to slice it, it is superior to other rice,” DeerInWater said. “It’s actually not even a rice. It’s an annual semi-aquatic grass.”

Harvested from Zizania palustris, menomen requires specific environmental conditions to flourish, and it thrives around the Great Lakes. It needs water to survive and blooms once a year.

“In the spring, it’s a little tiny plant that’s kind of floating under the water and sending down roots before it grabs onto the substrate,” he said. “It’s really sensitive during that time.”

The wild rice, surrounding fish and other creatures form a co-dependent relationship. Their complimentary life cycles allow them to use each other for protection and fertilization.

To harvest, at least two people get in a canoe and use push poles to take off from the lake or river shore. The calm movements leave life below the surface of the water uninterrupted. While one steers, the other uses wooden sticks called “knockers” to hit the stalks bent over the edge of the canoe. Some of it makes it in the boat, while some of it falls into the water and reseeds the area. This method accomplishes two goals at once.

“Going in and collecting it is almost like a ceremony in and of itself,” Mosteller said. “You go in with intention. You go in with a certain level of reverence — you take what you need and no more.

“The goal is for you to insert yourself, get what you need, and go back out without disturbing that ecosystem.”

Human effects and climate change

Companies based in Northern California produce most of the wild rice sold in grocery stores today. They harvest it in rice paddies with motorized equipment, which uproots the plants and creates the need to reseed the area deliberately.

“It was commercial, industrial harvesting of wild rice that didn’t take into consideration all of these things, all of these teachings that walking through the museum you’ve learned about thus far,” Mosteller said.

Climate change and real estate development around the Great Lakes diminished wild rice areas over time. Recreational boating and increased rainfall totals deepened coastlines, leaving little space for menomen. Boat motors also drove away the aquatic wildlife, uprooted the plants and destroyed habitats.

“Now, we have houses on lakefronts, and boats, and docks, and marinas, and irrigation canals, and all those obstacles to the natural flow of where you could find wild rice,” DeerInWater said.

Climate change exacerbates the fragmentation caused by development. The warming of the earth pushes wild rice’s ideal habitat farther north. While warmer water potentially opens up new areas, plant growth would be sporadic
at best.

“Do you want to gamble on the wild rice being able to make it to those lakes?” he said. “It used to be … in the backwater of every river bend. And it used to be everywhere, and now it’s only in a very few specific places.”

DeerInWater and Mosteller said a modern disconnect from food production perpetuates these problems. Mosteller pointed out the recent development of processed grocery store items and frozen meals — both using a vast amount of resources — leave people unable to place food in its whole form.

DeerInWater called the Native’s disconnect from land and change in agriculture post-European contact the “colonial commodity food system.” He encourages Native communities to re-establish ancestral practices. In the last several years, some Nishnabe and Great Lakes tribes took wild ricing into their own hands and started habitat restoration efforts through their environmental departments.

“I don’t think we can be so naive as to think we’re always going to have it if we don’t look at what we’re doing to the environment around us,” Mosteller said.

To find out more about Potawatomi agricultural practices and CPN’s community garden, visit potawatomiheritage.com. Visit potawatomi.org/events to find information about garden demonstrations, workshops and volunteer opportunities throughout the month.