Jenn Ackerman and Tim Gruber Document the Ojibwe People’s Wild Rice Harvest for Saveur Magazine
If it weren’t for the rice, Ojibwe culture wouldn’t be here today. And if we lose it, we won’t exist as a people for long. We’ll be done too.
That quote comes from Logan Cloud, a member of the Ojibwe (pronounced oh-JIB-way) community of northern Minnesota. The Ojibwe have forged an enternal connection with their most beloved resource: wild rice. Their harvesting method is a practice that's been passed down for generations; Logan himself has been harvesting wild rice since the age of nine. Jenn Ackerman and Tim Gruber, a wife and husband team based in Minneapolis, chronicled the centuries-old tradition for Saveur magazine.
[Tim]: We’ve been working with Thomas Payne, the photo editor, for somewhere between 5-10 years. His only requirement was he wanted a drone shot as the possible opener. But beyond that it was, 'I trust you, go do your thing.' As a photographer, that’s like music to your ears.
[Jenn]: I would assume we had a lot of creative freedom because we knew Tom. I think you work way harder [when that happens]. It started as a weekend shoot, but we ended up being up there for 4-5 days because we just cared so much about the story.
And what a story it is, sublimely told by gifted wordsmith Amy Thielen, who’s local to the area. Thielen’s rhetoric is as sharp as the rice stalks the Ojibwe harvest, the process and celebration of which Jenn and Tim lovingly captured as a weekend shoot morphed into a longer stay. This region’s economy is subsistence-based, meaning the rice sustains the Ojibwe food-wise and fiscally — the fabric of their identity might as well be made out of rice paper.
[J]: It was the rice that initially brought the Ojibwe to the area. They moved around to a place where the water was and where they could harvest rice, which allowed the native community to find a home.
Jenn and Tim spent the most of the shoot photographing the various steps of the rice harvesting process. Even before they hit the water, the pair learned firsthand how important it is to pass down the tricks of the trade, like properly suiting up ahead of time.
[J]: They tape their wrists and socks because the rice is so sharp that if it gets under your socks it really, really hurts. Plus, they're sitting on top of the rice while in the boat. If you hit it with your hand, you can cut yourself up.
One of the most eye-opening experiences in a shoot full of them was watching the harvesters cull the rice. Although the rice must be harvested by hand, it's a two person job: one person stands and navigates, and the other, "the knocker," literally knocks the rice into the canoe.
[J]: When they harvest, they’re trying to get as much rice into the boat as possible. So, when they’re coming back, they try to travel as light as possible because they’re carrying 100-150 pounds of rice. Any other kind of weight is really going to hold them back. [Rice harvesting] is something you have to learn. It’s something passed down. You couldn’t just get in a boat and figure out how to do it.
As Jenn alluded to, this part of the project required her and Tim to find a workaround. They couldn’t simply sit in the vessel used for gathering as they’d be perched where the rice goes, so they enlisted a conservation officer to canoe them parallel to the harvesters.
[J]: That’s where we had to be sensitive as photographers. You want to get the best shot possible, but you don’t want to interrupt people trying to make a living, trying to harvest as much rice as they can for the next year. There’s a very short window for the community to harvest because of the weather, so they try to get as much rice as possible.
Once the rice is safely in the canoe, the harvesters bring it home to be produced, which can be done two different ways: by parching it in a factory setting for the purpose of selling it or by dancing on it — “jigging,” colloquially — for personal consumption.
[J]: One [method] was done in a gentleman’s shed; he did everything in a more streamlined fashion. It’s not produced in bulk, but it’s made for people a little quicker. He’s able to make it in a way where people can sell it, whereas you can’t make that much rice by doing the jig. That’s for your own usage. If you were to harvest the rice just for your own family, that’s how you’d do it. But if you wanted to make a living selling rice, then you’d bring it to the parcher.
[J]: It was good to see both approaches to know that, as a community, they’re able to make money off of it by bringing it to the parcher, but they’re also trying to introduce the traditional way to the new generations because it’s getting a little lost. The community members are trying to teach the young people how to harvest the rice.
Don’t fret, we’re getting to the taste-test part of the story. And yeah, the rice did not disappoint on that front. In fact, it legitimately changed Jenn and Tim’s rice-purchasing habits.
[J]: It was so good. I think what we learned is that there’s a huge difference between hand-harvested rice and mass-produced wild rice. It’s so evident in how it tastes. It’s nuttier, but there are so many different flavor profiles in this hand-harvested wild rice, whereas wild rice you’d get from a store just tastes like brown rice.
[T]: Before this assignment, we’d buy mass-produced rice. Now, we go out of our way to find stuff that was harvested in northern Minnesota. We’ve never tasted rice better than that. And I don’t think we ever will.
With any notable harvest comes the celebration of the work. The fact that Jenn and Tim were with the Ojibwe every step of the way gave the duo a more comprehensive appreciation for the natives’ livelihood and lifestyle. Sure, just being there for the party would’ve made for a fun time — and given the photographers a chance to create some eye-catching imagery — but the project wouldn’t have been nearly as powerful.
[J]: I think being with everybody during the harvest allowed us to understand why the celebrations of the harvest were important. If we would’ve just gone to the pow wow as its own experience, it would’ve been visually exciting and interesting, but being on the water, harvesting, and then celebrating the ability to harvest was really special to us.
[T]: It's one of those experiences where you kind of feed off of everyone's energy. So, your smile is a little bigger and everything looks a little brighter because everyone is so happy and joyous. As a photographer, that influences you.
Plus, it was easy for Jenn and Tim to feel as though they were part of the celebration because the Ojibwe were so welcoming. They seemed grateful that a well-known publication would be sharing their story — Saveur markets itself as a magazine that focuses on “enduring culinary traditions” — and were incredibly engaging as a result.
[J]: We were nervous to go into the community at first, but they were amazing. People were so excited for us to share the story of how they harvest and were super giving.
[J]: I think that’s a really good reminder that, as photographers, we have the opportunity to tell people’s stories — and that’s really powerful. We get nervous about taking time out of people’s lives and then, every once in a while, we’re reminded that what we do is important. That’s really humbling to us.
[J]: I also think there’s a difference between someone just doing a personal project and [actually working with a magazine]. When you go out and you’re talking to somebody and you’re saying, ‘Amy’s writing this story,’ people are encouraged because they know the story is going to be published.
If anything, the Ojibwe people had a lot of pent-up excitement about the release of the story, considering they had to wait a full year for the article to go live. Jenn and Tim did the work in the fall of 2018; Saveur ran the piece in August 2019.
[T]: Everyone was like ‘oh, we have to wait a whole year before we see the story or before we see the photos.’ There was a general level of excitement because, beyond the local media, there hasn’t been much coverage of the harvest. So I think they’re excited to have their story shared.
[T]: If you approach a story with an open heart and an open mind and hope your subject can educate you or take you along on this journey with them, you learn a lot about them and their culture. In the process, ideally, you capture some nice images to help tell the story.
Check out more of Jenn and Tim's work at ackermangruber.com.
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