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.|
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.