The song started slowly, ramping up as the canoes glided along the water, oars slicing through the calm surface of the Wolastoq (Saint John River) in New Brunswick. Along the Wolastoq, is a diverse mix of wetlands including freshwater marshes, swamps, and bogs, making it one of the most important areas for wildlife in the province, and a priority area for DUC.
With every stroke, Cecelia Brooks sang the Wolastoqiyik and Pasamaquoddy word for “rice,” enunciating each of the six syllables so the rhythm carried the canoes forward along the water.
The chant was a way for Brooks to mark a return to the wild rice harvest, and to cement the tradition in song. “It just kind of flowed right off our tongues, and it was natural. So we’re hoping this coming year, when we go back out to harvest again, that we can add some things. In our culture, oftentimes, the words describe action. So I’m thinking, we can add ‘we’re reaching out for the rice’ and ‘we’re bending the rice into the canoe.’”
New beginnings for the rice harvest tradition
Rice ripens in late summer, and often in stages. Traditionally, Wolastoqiyik harvesters might return to the same spot, passing over the same patch of stalks a dozen times, as the individual grains mature. Harvesters will bend the stalks gently over the canoe and tap along the stem to loosen the grains, which fall and collect in the boat. In her partnership with DUC, Brooks, the Water Grandmother at the Canadian Rivers Institute, wanted to pass on these harvesting methods.
“It’s the only plant where you actually harvest and plant at the same time. So, as we’re knocking the rice into the canoe, it goes everywhere. And that’s okay. It’s not a loss. It just plants rice for next year,” Brooks says.
October 2020 marked the first annual wild rice harvest. Samantha Brewster, a DUC education specialist, worked with Brooks, of Wabanaki Tree Spirit Tours & Events, to lead a group of participants. Brooks, her son Anthony Bardwell, and friend Lisa Perley-Dutcher, demonstrated how their ancestors would collect rice, a practice that for decades limited by land restriction. Now, they are reestablishing the tradition, and adding to it with the development of a ceremonial song and sharing this with the community.
It felt almost like nostalgia. Here we were doing something of the past. It’s something old and almost forgotten about. And here we were bringing it back to life.
Harvest stems from Indigenous-led education programs
Brewster has worked with Brooks for a few years now delivering Indigenous-led education programs, such as a youth summer camp, which has led to the development of the wild rice harvest.
She says the collaboration and partnership has helped and helps to make a bigger impact by incorporating the guiding principle of Etuaptmumk (or two-eyed seeing).
“When you are an organization that is actively working on the landscape, you have a responsibility to speak with Indigenous peoples,” Brewster says. “I really rely on Cecelia to help us deliver that content, and make sure that she is very closely involved…It is part of the community’s culture, and what they do, how they live. And we are very thankful that they’re allowing us to share that with them.”
Connecting with the land and with nature
Brewster is already planning the upcoming rice harvest this year, along the Wolastoq, These wetland marshes attract many species including ducks, grebes, and red-winged blackbirds. The thick brush of rice stalks provide ideal habitat for waterfowl, and the rice that is left on the reeds or falls in the water during the harvest, is a valuable food source during migration for many of these species. Nothing is wasted, and for Brooks, the lesson, and time on the water, was a chance to reflect on her own role in nature.
“It felt almost like nostalgia. Here we were doing something of the past. It’s something old and almost forgotten about. And here we were bringing it back to life,” Brooks explains. “When we connect with the land by harvesting from the land, it makes us appreciate the land a whole lot more.”
VIDEO: Harvesting wild rice on the Wolastoq
Join us to experience this learning journey of wild rice harvesting in a wetland along the Wolastoq.Wild Rice Harvest 2020