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Thursday, September 30, 2010

Real Wild Rice is Very Nice

The River Alliance is pleased to have Tina Van Zile, a member of the Sokaogon band of Lake Superior Chippewa, as a member of our board of directors. Not only because we have common cause in healthy waters with the Sokaogon Chippewa and other Indian communities, but also because of what that connection can mean for our organization to learn about native ways.

Tina Van Zile (right) and Marcia Kraus (center) learn from Tina’s father, Charlie Polar, how seamlessly he moves from traditional to modern materials to sift and winnow wild rice.

Like wild ricing, for example. (Please know that the “wild rice” you buy in the industrial food system is not really the wild rice that is the heart Wisconsin’s Great Lakes Indian tribes – the Chippewa, the Menominee and the Potawatomi.)

You’ll know real wild rice by its price (around $12 per pound) and where you can buy it. (Look for it at convenience stores on reservations, but there are other outlets.) Getting native wild rice to the dinner table is a painstaking process, deeply rooted in tradition. Most of us have seen the traditional harvesting of the rice, where people slowly poling canoes in shallow lakes and rivers use one stick to bend the rice into the boat and another to knock the kernels from the stalks.

Tina gave us an insight to the culture and lore of native wild rice recently at the Sokaogon reservation near Mole Lake, Wisconsin. She explained that the source of much of the tribe’s wild rice is the aptly named Rice Lake, whose rice production has increased substantially because the tribe is managing it carefully.

Tina Van Zile shows Brad Werntz and other River Alliance board members Rice Lake, a source of pride of the Sokaogon Chippewa community for the prolific and full-grained wild rice the lake produces.

But perhaps harvesting it is the easy part. The hard part –getting it ready to cook and eat – may be why the wild rice tradition is fading for her own and other Chippewa communities. Tina took us to her parents’ place near Crandon, where her brothers Roy and Norm, sister Marie and father Charlie Polar were getting the rice from its raw stage to something you can cook. Dad Charlies was clearly in charge of the cleaning process – winnowing the chaff, heating the rice in a metal tub over an open fire, and then a final step of swishing the rice around with this fabulous Goldbergian contraption of belts, PVC pipe and a vacuum cleaner to separate grains from husks.

Tina observed that very few families are willing to do the work to keep the tradition alive. “My dad is one of the last elders to keep this going, and I don’t know what will happen to it if he can’t do it anymore.”

Tina’s tip for cooking real wild rice – soak it overnight before you cook it for 20 minutes or so. If you don’t soak it, you won’t like what you get.

Denny Caneff

Thursday, September 16, 2010

The Niger: Flowing Vitality

There are a handful of great, grand rivers in the world – the Yangtze, the Amazon, the Mississippi, the Congo, the Yukon, the Danube.

Their flowing waters tell the stories of the continents through which they flow and the human transactions – peaceful, violent, mercantile, poetic – those rivers have stimulated and enabled.

I would put the Niger River, in that pantheon of great, grand rivers. Most African rivers confounded the colonial explorers who used those rivers to first understand, then exploit, the continent, but the Niger, Africa’s third longest, confounded even more. Its origins are in the rain forest highlands of Guinea, not far from the coast of West Africa, to which you’d expect it to flow.

But it actually flows northeast and away from the ocean, heading right for the foot of the Sahara Desert, in modern-day Mali, before angling southeasterly on its voyage through Niger and Nigeria before it expires at the Gulf of Guinea.

I have always imagined traveling a good length of the Niger. But it’s not very practical, unless you have a constitution of steel. I settled for a one-day pilgrimage to the river during a 10-day visit to the country of Mali in August of 2010. (My daughter was doing a research project in Mali’s capital, Bamako, a sprawling Third World city sharply defined by the Niger.)

That one day – strolling its banks, plying its brown tide in a poled pirogue (hand-made wooden canoe) and enjoying beer and pizza at a riverside cafĂ© at sunset – was just enough time to take in and savor the mystique of this great river.

The many functions that the river serves for Malians will surprise, and may disturb, Westerners with an appetite for pristine rivers. People are doing their laundry just downstream from the guys digging sand out of the river to build cement blocks. And just upstream from that are people bathing in the river, next to a young herdsman cooling the heels of his cattle in the river.

But it’s the vitality of the Niger for the people living along its banks that makes it great. The Niger is lifeblood for this very dry part of the world. For hundreds of years it has been a connecting thread of culture and language and music for several empires in that part of Africa. Cell phones and buses have replaced its transport and communications functions, but modern Malians know how it defines their country.

They are river people, proud of the natural heritage the Niger River has given them.

Denny Caneff