Hand harvesting is hard work

Hand harvesting is hard work

Harvesting wild rice by hand requires a great deal of skill. Two people work together in a boat. One stands in the prow, slowly pushing the boat forward with a long pole. The other person, seated toward the back, uses ricing sticks to gently bend the rice plants over the boat and knock the grains onto the boat's floor.

Harvesters can gather up to 400 pounds of rice in a single boat. Nevertheless, this method of harvesting removes only around 15% of the kernels, leaving plenty of grain for wildlife to eat, and to reseed the lakebed for the next year.

A centuries-old activity for Ojibwe people, hand harvesting is a family affair. Families travel long distances to their rice beds.

Harvesting wild rice
Ojibwe man and woman harvesting wild rice, northern Minnesota, 1912-1929
Photograph, Kenneth M. Wright, American

Harvesting wild rice
Ojibwe man and woman harvesting wild rice, northern Minnesota, 1912-1929
Photograph, Kenneth M. Wright, American

Ojibwe with wild rice
Two Ojibwe men returning to shore with wild rice, northern Minnesota, 1912-1929
Photograph, Kenneth M. Wright, American

Traditional hand processing

As harvesters gather the wild rice, they take it to shore and spread it on sheets of birch bark to dry.

Drying wild rice
Drying wild rice, northern Minnesota, 1912-1929
Photograph, Kenneth M. Wright, American (1895-1964)

Workers on shore place the rice in large metal kettles for parching. This process heats the rice until the tough outer hulls burst open and the kernels become crisp. Women gently stir the hulls and kernels to prevent burning.

Parching wild rice
Ojibwe woman parching wild rice, northern Minnesota, 1912-1929
Photograph, Kenneth M. Wright, American (1895-1964)

Ojibwe woman parching wild rice, northern Minnesota, 1912-1929
Ojibwe woman parching wild rice, northern Minnesota, 1912-1929

After parching, the workers pour the rice into a hole in the ground, lined with buckskin and stabilized with wooden pegs. A person called the “trampler” or “dancer” stomps on the rice, separating the hulls from the kernels. The dancer wears spotlessly clean knee-high moccasins that have never touched the ground.

Dancing wild rice
Ojibwe man “dancing” wild rice, northern Minnesota, 1912-1929
Photograph, Kenneth M. Wright, American (1895-1964)

After dancing, other workers remove the hulls and chaff from the rice kernels, by using a shallow birch bark basket and gravity. They toss the rice into the air, and the wind blows the light hulls away from the heavy kernels. After repeating this “winnowing” process 30-40 times, the rice is clean and ready for use or storage.


Ojibwe woman winnowing wild rice, Northern Minnesota, 1912-1929
Photograph, Kenneth M. Wright, American (1895-1964)

Some people use modern methods to process wild rice

While many American Indian people continue to harvest and process by hand in a traditional manner, many ricing locations have commercial buildings where harvesters bring rice for processing. Rotating metal vats and machinery take the place of hand drying, parching and dancing the rice. A blast of air removes the hulls before the rice is bagged for home use or retail sale. Properly processed wild rice will keep for a year or more as long as it remains dry.