LEECH LAKE OJIBWA RESERVATION, MINN. --Below the railroad bridge over Cass Lake, wild rice transforms sections of the lake into what looks like parcels of prairie dotted with water lilies. In about a month, the grain will be ready to harvest, but this stand won't make a good crop. "That's a Superfund site right there," says Jeff Harper, 39, a reservation water resource specialist, pointing toward a white clapboard house. A wood-processing operation left PCB s and dioxins on 125 acres just west of the lake.
The daily struggle that the Leech Lake Band faces to protect its land and food supply, even within reservation boundaries, is daunting. Once, the Ojibwa tribe hunted deer, fished, and cultivated gardens. But years of persecution changed the tribe's way of life. It was only in 1972 that the Leech Lake Ojibwa broke free of state restrictions on when they could hunt for game and gather rice. But much food culture had already been lost.
Gathering wild rice, though, remains. The Ojibwa consider wild rice both food and medicine. It's part of their creation story. "Our people came here from the East because they were told to live where the food grows on the water," says Leslie Harper, Jeff's sister.
The ricing moon. During manoominike-giizis, or the ricing moon, which begins in late August, wild rice is harvested in the same way that it has been for centuries. Two ricers go out in a canoe. The "poler" pushes the boat through dense stands. The "knocker" sits in front, pulling the grass heads with a short tapered stick and "knocking" the grains into the boat.
The tough, black grain that most Americans know as wild rice is not wild at all. It has been engineered to grow in man-made paddies and be harvested by machines. In the past, Ojibwa depended on the wild rice harvest to pay for school supplies and clothes in the fall. But paddy rice has dampened the price of real wild rice. Add to this a drop in wild rice habitat due to agricultural waste flow and the demand for vacation lake houses on clear waters, and it's a lot harder for them to make a living.
From the academic world comes another incursion. The University of Minnesota is conducting genetic research on wild rice--a move that the Ojibwa fear will be used to alter the grain, leaving their rice vulnerable to infection from windborne pollination. They also worry that their spiritual food could become a corporation's private property. This is not paranoia: Between 1995 and 2000, 500 patents on rice were issued.
But such concerns evaporate at Sucker Lake where the Harper family rices each year. Here, water traffic is confined to a pair of loons and dozens of dragonflies swooping among the pink rice flowers. "We don't grow the rice," says Leslie Harper. "It's more like the rice grows us."
Passing three coffeehouses within a city block may seem like a modern phenomenon, but in the 18th century, one couldn't stroll along most city streets without encountering the scent of a roasted bean. An upscale answer to the tavern, the coffeehouse served as a cozy spot for men to discuss politics or business over cake, chocolate drinks, and brewed Turkish roast. The concept started in what is now Istanbul in 1475 and slowly spread west over the next 200 years, becoming trendy in Vienna and London around the same time it jumped the Atlantic. But the half-caf mocha soy latte was still a long way off.
This story appears in the August 15, 2005 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.