his story follows Fred Ackley Jr. from the Sokaogon Chippewa Community of Mole Lake as he harvests and processes manoomin, or wild rice. The ancestors of his community migrated to Madeleine Island from eastern Canada long ago, then more recently to the Rice Lake area. Their 12 square mile reservation was established during the Treaty of 1854, and the tribe finally received federal recognition and their Mole Lake reservation in 1937. In this excerpt from an interview, Fred explains the importance of ricing:
My name is Fred Ackley. I’m from the Mole Lake Reservation in Wisconsin. The name of my tribe is the Sokaogon Chippewa Band. My Anishinaabe name is Makoonse, which means cub bear. I’m what they call a “ricer” from Mole Lake. Oh, since time memorial, the tribe had been…way back in the 1700s they migrated down in our area and Mole Lake and to get away from Madeline Island to look for more food for our people and more areas. There was a lot of rice on the lakes in our area, so the runners went back to Madeline Island, told the people up there…our band followed the trails down there to Mole Lake area, and that’s where we’ve been for the rice. Myself, the first time I was ricing in my life was in ‘58 with my Uncle Ray. I wasn’t strong enough to really pull around it, in the boat, but I tried anyways, and he taught me how to do stuff. He taught me how to do ricing with sticks, and I did that the first year and got 5 or 10 pounds learning how to do it, but to me that was a lot. I was young, but that’s how I learned growing up, listening to people talk about it in the household everyday and during winter, stories, and why we do things, the rice, you know. For quite awhile I was taught…handed down from my father and mother how to make it up, roast it, dance it, those things like that we had to do.
Our relationship to everything in nature, if you live in nature, you have a feeling for everything out there. The trees, the water, the marsh, lakes, those things all have what they call spirits, to me, all the things on the earth. To use everything you need, you have to look at it as a spiritual harvesting tool. You’re not only taking the plant or something on earth, you’re taking part of the spirit with it and those are important parts to remember when we’re harvesting, that’s how we have things come back to us all the time by respecting it, and respecting the spirits behind it, not so much is worshipping the spirit you know, but being side by side with the trees, or the plants, or the animals their spirits, and we’re all worshipping the great spirit. They give us all life here, so we respect the other plants, or the fish, or the deer, rice, in a spiritual way, because we believe also what you consume they’re giving their spirit too in our bodies to help us along, because there’s a real strong spiritual tie between everything on the land and the people here. When they (human beings) have a tendency of separating themselves from the earth, they think we’re separate, but we’re really part of the earth. You can just walk on it. You have that luxury. When our time comes to leave this earth, we go back, our spirits go on, and our body goes back to the earth. So you’re never apart from mother earth. That’s how I feel about it. Everything on earth, you’re equal to, and we’re all under the power of the spirit, the Great Spirit.
One thing about the resources I had to learn was, only take enough of what you need for your own need, your own use. If you take anymore, if you’re lucky and get more than what you need, you’re suppose to give that to other people. Share throughout the year. That way, you respect everything and always the thought of only take what you need. When you do that, then you’re respecting everything on earth. Your life is a lot better that way, I believe, by doing that.
There were songs that they sang for dancing [rice], giving thanks to the creator, pow wow, our dances. How could I translate it? They’re hymns. Say somebody is out there fanning their rice, waving it in the wind, cleaning it out. They sing their little song. You bring in the wind; you bring in the motions of everything, the heat, sun, all that, you sing about that. When you dance it, you’re asking the plant to give up its fruit, so you dance on it gentle. Good dancers, traditional Indian dancers, they don’t stomp their feet on the ground. They’re real light when they dance. Just like we dance rice, because we don’t want to break the kernels. You got to get the husk off without breaking the kernels, so you got to dance real light. You got to be related, thinking in your mind and your body and that’s when we sing that song. Those things, when you think about it, you’re asking that plant for help all the way through and that’s what those songs are. They’re hymns to the plant and to the great spirit to know that we’re giving thanks for everything, the nourishment and everything they’re doing for us and that’s why we’re asking that plant or the animal, whatever you take, to give up their life, and we respect that.
Me, I learned from my grandmother. I wish I would have learned and listened more when I was younger, but the basic things I know are there, they’re still there. I can still go out in the field, or out in the woods with my tobacco asking in the right way what I want to do with it, I’ll get my reward. If I don’t do that then I’m just…I’m lost as a human being. I’m what you call a spiritless person on earth just going day by day and I’m lost, and I’m weak health wise every generation, and before you know it, you’re eliminated, so if you don’t have this diet, you know…I think that’s what the people tried with this…to the fellow Indian people. “Oh, you can’t do this no more and you can’t hunt deer no more and you can’t hunt the buffalo no more. You can’t go get this no more or fish you can’t go netting you can’t go this and that.” They knew by taking that food from us that was killing us, and now we’ve got it back, where our people can go back out there.