Each summer in Toronto, the highways and main arteries of the city clog as car after car joins the exodus of city dwellers escaping the concrete heat of the city, trading it in for the lazier, cooler, cottage life in the rocky, wooded, lake-studded terrain of the Muskokas or the Kawarthas, or one of many areas of Ontario known as ‘cottage country’.
Many of these summer homes are treasured family spaces, bastions of summertime fun and leisure, and important ‘getaways’ from the stresses of life in the city. They are often passed down through families, ensuring each next generation is bequeathed the pleasures of a second home known as ‘the cottage’. It’s a big deal here.
But, what is now colloquially called ‘cottage country’ has long held other names as the homelands of the Anishinaabe nations, the Indigenous peoples who have lived here for thousands of years and continue to do so. It is ‘aki’, or ‘the land’ in a poor translation of what is a complex, multifaceted understanding of land as physical, spiritual, and the literal sustenance of the people on it. Cottage life and the treasured traditions born of it are but a blip in the long history of aki and the Anishinaabe.
And it is here, from an area in Anishinaabeaki, currently known as the Kawarthas, in ‘cottage country,’ that James Whetung tends, harvests, and sells his manoomin, much to the consternation of the cottagers on Pigeon Lake.
“Our relationship to manoomin is over 15,000 years old; it goes all the way back to our migration story and how we as Anishinaabeg came to be on these lands upon which we raised our families for generations. Manoomin was central to how we came to be here. And for thousands of years, the Anishinaabeg have honoured that relationship.”
Whetung, who is from Curve Lake First Nation, is carrying on a long, important relationship with the manoomin, a tradition central to the sustenance and continuation of the Anishinaabe peoples. He harvests the manoomin and is one of the few commercial retailers of manoomin in Ontario; I am using Whetung’s manoomin harvested on Pigeon Lake for this recipe.
Whetung has a bit of reputation, having been in the news a fair bit over the past couple of summers for his manoomin harvesting. The cottagers on Pigeon Lake have uprooted many of the manoomin beds, claiming that they interfere with their motor boating, and Whetung has reseeded them and continued his farming of the manoomin. This back-and-forth has led to a tense situation that has involved the government stepping in to mediate the dispute, and to media outlets dubbing this ‘Canada’s Wild Rice Wars‘. The ‘wars’ have spawned much commentary, and even a recent theatre production by the Anishinaabe writer, Drew Hayden Taylor, who is also from Curve Lake First Nation.
One of the main complaints from the cottagers, in an attempt to paint their position as some sort of middle ground, is that they don’t necessarily oppose Whetung’s harvesting of the manoomin, but draw the line because he is reseeding the manoomin in the lake, causing their shorelines to once again flourish with manoomin grasses. They are alright with him harvesting what grows ‘wild’ and untouched but his interventions in reseeding are simply too much.
But as Brittany Luby writes, the manoomin was never wild in the sense that the early (and subsequent) settlers understood it. Manoomin is planted, tended, and harvested in a complex ecosystem of care. When the first missionaries named it ‘wild rice’ they understood it as occurring naturally, outside the realm of human care; they did not understand the complex practices involved in the Anishinaabe’s care of manoomin, they did not understand the hard work and careful planning that went into harvesting manoomin, and they did not understand the ways in which the Anishinaabe respectfully entered into a reciprocal, treaty based relationship with manoomin. It was nurtured, cared for, and tended. Even the harvesting of manoomin itself is a process of reseeding it for the next season, a circular relationship that ensures there is enough manoomin to sustain the Anishinaabe for future years.
In sum: while the settlers on Pigeon Lake might use Whetung’s planting of manoomin as a point of contention, the Anishinaabe have always planted manoomin. That is part of the process, a part erased by settlers through understanding manoomin as ‘wild rice’ rather than a nurtured crop.
This matters, broadly for all Anishinaabe peoples, as well as for Whetung. As Luby writes in her essay, “The language of “wild” rice also erases Indigenous petitions to the Crown for compensation for lost crops.” Without recognition of the labor of planting and tending, and the intentionality behind it, the loss of the manoomin becomes incidental and even unnoticed beneath the churn of settler ‘progress’, which has including flooding the traditional manoomin gardens of Anishinaabe.
For Whetung, this is a real part of his nation’s history. The Trent-Severn Waterway is a 386 kilometer set of canals and locks connecting Lake Ontario to Lake Huron, originally completed in 1915 for the purpose of commercial shipping, it is now used primarily for settler pleasure boating. Hailed as an example of ‘human ingenuity’ and a playground for boat lovers, its creation flooded large areas of Anishinaabeaki, irreparably changing conditions for manoomin growth around Whetung’s territory and destroying many manoomin beds. As Whetung himself details, this destruction continued through the increase in cottagers, pollution, and boating.
How should Indigenous nations be compensated for the loss of their crops, especially when many of these rights to harvest are protected under agreed upon treaty rights? How are these rights erased, in part, by calling manoomin ‘wild rice’? How does this colonial erasure of manoomin, both literally through flooding and figuratively through the naming, affect how we understand Whetung’s claim to grow, tend, and harvest manoomin on Pigeon Lake? This is all connected to the larger project of settler colonialism and the erasure of Indigenous rights to the land.
When we say that language matters, this is a prime example. To reject the naming of ‘wild rice’ and to embrace ‘manoomin’ is, as Luby writes, to “acknowledge a people with purpose and intention”, a people with a long history of planting, tending, and harvesting crops in this place.
When the settlers arrived and were looking for legal justifications to steal the land from the Indigenous residents, one of the justifications was that the Indigenous peoples were not ‘maximizing’ the use of the land through planting, tending, and harvesting crops (instead, as settler logic went, Indigenous peoples were classified as ‘hunter/gatherers’). Because they were not properly stewarding the land and making it productive by farming it, the land was legally available to someone who would tame it, farm it, and make an honest living from it, as was the settler’s ‘god given right.’ Understanding this history makes it easier to understand why the logic of ‘wild rice’ was used.
For those who know this as cottage country, they place their decades of family leisure against the millennia of Indigenous livelihood. For them, the land is ‘wilderness’, devoid of inhabitation and unable to sustain long-term habituation. For the Anishinaabe, the land is everything and it has sustained them physically, spiritually, and relationally into the present day. As my friend Susan Blight has explained, this conflict is about far more than Whetung: “There’s a philosophical difference about recreational enjoyment of the lake and the lake as a spiritual being, as sustenance, as nationhood and governance.”
Recognizing what has commonly been called ‘wild rice’ as manoomin is a small step towards recognizing the much larger context of settler colonialism and choosing to place Indigenous life over settler leisure. Hopefully it is also a step towards not only recognizing settler colonialism but also a step towards working to end it, a step towards a world where the Anishinaabe, aki, and manoomin once again flourish and thrive.
Manoomin pudding with orange blossom water, roses and pistachios
This recipe is a riff off a classic Middle Eastern rice pudding (ruz bil halib, or 'rice in milk'), replacing the soft white rice with a slightly chewier, nuttier version by using Anishinaabe manoomin. The nuttiness, as well as the extra flavor added by using maple syrup (another Anishinaabe classic) instead of sugar, compliments the thick, creaminess of the pudding, as well as the classic Middle Eastern flavors of orange blossom water, roses, and pistachios, for a balanced flavor that blends Indigenous North American flavors with the Middle East. Enjoy warm or place it in the fridge and enjoy it chilled.
- 1/2 cup manoomin
- 1 cup whole milk
- 1/2 cup table cream (18% mf)
- 2 tablespoons cornstarch
- 1/3 cup maple syrup
- 2 cardamom pods, crushed
- 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 1/2 teaspoon orange blossom water
- handful of pistachios, finely chopped
- edible rose petals
Place the manoomin in a medium pot with 3 cups of water. Bring to a boil, and then reduce to a simmer and cook the manoomin until it is tender and the grains have split and burst open. The length of this will vary depending on the manoomin, but approximately 20-45 minutes. Ensure it is tender and soft, otherwise your pudding will have more 'chewiness' (or even crunch!) and be less cohesive.
In a medium pot, add the milk, cream, cornstarch, maple syrup, cardamom, and vanilla and whisk to combine.
Add the cooked manoomin, and bring to a gentle boil.
Cook for approximately 10-15 minutes, stirring frequently, until the pudding has fully thickened. Stir in the orange blossom water and remove from the heat.
Discard the cardamom pods and divide the pudding into the desired serving sizes. If serving chilled, place in the fridge to cool and set for approximately 4 hours. When ready to serve (warm or chilled), top with chopped pistachios and rose petals.
This recipe is easily doubled.