someone is holding wild rice in their hands
Credit: Ellamarie Quimby

The Revitalization of Michigan’s Sacred Grain

published May 27, 2021
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Camren Stott, Anishinaabe Odawa, recalls a floodgate of emotions the first time he had a bite of manoomin, or wild rice. He was a teenager attending a community ceremony, and still remembers the earthy, almost lake-like smells engulfing the room. It was the first Indigenous food he had ever tasted.

For Stott, it was fulfilling to finally experience his ancestral food, and he could immediately sense the generational love and resilience the plant embodies. “There is nothing else like it to me. It feels like home,” he says. 

That feeling is what led Stott to dive deeper into traditional Indigenous foods and explore cooking with manoomin. In 2019, a few years after his first bite, he interned at the Intertribal Food Summit, a four-day event in Lower Michigan held by the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi Indians that gathers tribes to celebrate Indigenous foods and traditions. It was there that Stott gained vital knowledge from other Indigenous chefs, farmers, and harvesters on how to cook and prepare traditional ingredients.

Credit: Ellamarie Quimby
Camren Stott at Thirteen Moons Kitchen.

He took that knowledge and moved forward on his dream of opening an Anishinaabe business, Thirteen Moons Kitchen, in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Although he cooks with many ingredients, manoomin was the one that inspired him to pursue his passion for food. He loves to experiment with it and says it has helped bring him closer to his culture and community over the years. “It’s one of my favorite ingredients to work with,” he explains, adding that, because of the grain’s history, he wants to showcase its resilience the best way he knows how.

One of his favorite ways to cook with manoomin at home and in his professional kitchen is sweet rice, to which he incorporates freshly harvested berries and maple syrup, calling the dish “simple, traditional, and really inviting.” Stott has also gotten creative with the grain, coming up with his own take on street tacos that combines wild rice flour with tapioca and potato starches to form the shells. He says doing this gives manoomin a contemporary twist that still honors the ingredient in the vital role it plays in the flavor and construction of his dishes.

Manoomin (zizania palustris) grows from the muddy bottoms of shallow lakes and is one of few grains native to North America. It’s mostly found in the Great Lakes region and Midwestern states and is related to, but not quite the same as, rice. It’s a long, slender aquatic grass, with purple tips and fruiting grains. The Ojibwe translation of manoomin is “good berry” — a literal reflection of its cultural importance.

But because of colonization, the Great Lakes region has lost almost 90 percent of traditional manoomin beds. Water pollution from urbanization and contamination sites, along with invasive species like Asian carp, alter lake ecosystems and can cause rice populations to crash. Because manoomin grows best in shallow, slow-moving waters, it is sensitive to fluctuations of water level and temperature.

“It’s a direct pathway to my ancestors, history, and heritage.”

It’s a cultural and culinary staple of Anishinaabek communities, which is why Stott and his partner believe it is so important to make it easily accessible to Indigneous peoples in Grand Rapids. Stott said that each time he cooks with manoomin, it goes beyond just working with an ingredient — it’s about recognizing his community and the ongoing efforts Michigan tribes are taking to revitalize a plant that was almost destroyed due to colonization. Settlers have not only drained lakes and rivers for urban development, but there has also been over-harvesting of wild rice by non-Indigenous groups.

“It has a spiritual meaning for us,” says Tina Frankenberger, Anishinaabe Odawa, a traditional manoomin harvester. She explains that it’s a part of the Anishinaabek migration story, which was taught to her by elders and has been passed down orally through generations.

Thousands of years ago, the Anishinaabek settled into the Great Lakes region from the eastern coast of what is now the United States, after one of the seven prophecies foretold that they needed to travel west until they came upon “food that grows on water” — that food being manoomin.

“Our ancestors had a very close relationship with it. It’s a part of who we are, why we’re here, and of our understanding in taking care of the earth,” says Frankenberger. 

Credit: Ellamarie Quimby

Manoomin is a huge part of Anishinaabek identity and for Frankenberger that means having a close, respectful relationship with manoomin by being a good steward to the plants and honoring the significance it has for them. “It’s a direct pathway to my ancestors, history, and heritage,” she says.

Dwayne Jarman started harvesting manoomin about six years ago when he met Frankenberger at the Huron Band of Potawatomi Indian’s annual rice camp. Through the camp, tribal families are able to learn rice tool-making skills and traditional harvesting techniques. Jarman has attended the camp annually since he first joined and believes ricing is an important part of who he is today.

“It’s not just an activity, being out on the rice beds and harvesting: It’s about connecting with the teachings, ancestors, and the spirit of manoomin,” Jarman says, adding that ricing has connected him more deeply with his heritage and opened up his worldview. 

Processing wild rice is a community job that requires all hands on deck. It involves time-consuming steps, which include going out in canoes and “knocking” the plants with paddles, followed by parching (or drying) of the grains, then a slow heating of the rice to open it up. Each step is just as important as the next and must be done properly to ensure that no rice is wasted. Anishinaabek manoomin harvesters like Frakenberger and Jarman acknowledge that it’s important to honor the value of the work and understand that manoomin is not just a commodity.

“It’s not just an activity, being out on the rice beds and harvesting, it’s about connecting with the teachings, ancestors, and the spirit of manoomin.”

“I have responsibilities to pass on,” Jarman says of teaching his son and daughter the traditions of manoomin. His children play an important role when they harvest as a family. Together, they replant wild rice in the fields and help patch and winnow the rice. “My son probably knows more about rice than I do, and I am very proud and happy about that,” he adds. At 11, his son has already pushed their canoe through the manoomin fields and helps Jarman test out the thrashing machine that’s used to process his community’s wild rice.

For the Anishinaabek, memories and traditions are passed onto the next generation through manoomin. It’s an integral part of cultural identity for the harvesters, chefs, and tribal communities working to revitalize the sacred grain that brought them to the Great Lakes. It’s more than a vital food source for them because of what it embodies — and that is the past, present, and future.

“This is a really good overall food for our people, and the significance in bringing that back to the community would be amazing,” Stott says. He hopes that his food will help bring Anishinaabek closer to their heritage, like that first taste of manoomin helped bring him where he is today.

As they work toward their goal of opening a full cafe and garden in Grand Rapids, Camren has partnered with a local organization to provide meals for the elderly. Follow Thirteen Moons Kitchen on Instagram to learn more.