NETT LAKE — David Morrison Jr. taught a group of young kids how to board a canoe at Nett Lake. Stepping off the dock, Morrison balanced an oar: In a series of motions, he instructed the six youth how to paddle and venture into the tall grasses, where wild rice can be poled and brushed with knockers into the aluminum bed of the canoe.
A member of the Bois Forte Band of Chippewa, Morrison recalled being in fifth grade when he learned how to canoe and harvest wild rice. More recently, as the head of the band’s Eliminating Health Disparities Initiative, he pursued a grant from the Minnesota Department of Health to pass down the traditions in hopes that some of the youngest members of the band could help in the harvest expected to begin in the upcoming months.
“The idea is to teach them about the process so they can help in the ricing season,” Morrison told the Mesabi Tribune earlier this week, as he stood near Girl’s Landing off the 1.7 square mile lake on the Bois Forte Reservation in northeast Minnesota. “Many of our 18 to 30 year olds don’t know how to be in a canoe. It’s something we're losing.”
For the Bois Forte Band, the gathering that took place here represented a family and community undertaking of deep-rooted cultural and spiritual significance. In a time when the band is trying to revitalize the Ojibwe language, Morrison and other members are seeking to reignite interest in a practice dating back centuries, long sustained by American Indian tribes in Minnesota.
The outdoor lesson marked the first event held here in the times of COVID-19 that in recent weeks has quickly spread across the region. But due to strict health guidelines, the band has managed to keep its members safe for the most part. Last month, health officials reported that one band member tested positive for the virus on the Vermilion sector of the reservation. They have since recovered.
Here in Nett Lake, the teachers and students had access to life jackets, face masks and hand sanitizer as they took part in the outdoor event.
Karen Drift, a 75-year-old tribal elder, sat in a chair near the dock when she described how “the main thing here is to put the tobacco in the water” as an offering to Mother Earth in order to harvest the wild rice and be safe while canoeing in the lake. She emphasized the importance of holding a ceremony, before being able to enjoy the nutritious rice that helps feed the hundreds of band members who live on the reservation.
Drift pointed out a scene playing out nearby where teachers and students paddled in the waters and swans rested between Swamp Island and Spirit Island.
She remembered being 10 years old when she had her first ricing experience. She had paddled a canoe, while her aunt harvested wild rice off Strong’s Landing in Nett Lake. “There were no open spots at all,” she said, explaining that the lake was once covered with thick wild rice resembling green grass on the water. “Now, there’s open spots.” Her grandfather would, she considered, paddle onto the lake before her several times a week to fill up the canoes with wild rice.
It has been seven years since her husband passed, marking the last time she boarded a canoe. Nowadays her five children and also her grandchildren participate in the seasonal harvest. Last year, they brought her 100 pounds of wild rice. She has 4 pounds remaining.
The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources bought roughly 15,000 pounds of wild rice from the band in 2019, Morrison said. He looks forward to the start of harvesting the “good, nutritious food” for his family and neighbors in September or October, when the long stalks turn from mily to ripe.
Drift noted another scene: Morrison teaching the kids and the presence of Bois Forte councilman David Morrison, Sr. and Peter Boney; a representative from the Bureau of Indian Affairs for safety precaution; and non-tribal members from the state DNR and the Treaty 1854 Authority.
“I’m glad that they’re taking on the responsibility of keeping the culture going,” she said.
Drift looked on as her great-granddaughter experienced her first-ever time in a canoe on the lake.
“It was like a trampoline,” said Ellie Sherman, 9, who stood by her seated elder and shared a bright smile while exchanging stories with a friend. Her great-grandmother had told her many of her own times canoeing and harvesting wild rice on the same lake. “I’m happy to be here, too.”
Ellie’s father, Josh Sherman is the Bois Forte Band’s conversation officer for the state DNR.
He cannot join in ricing since he is not a band member. But he is a descendant who grew up on the Vermilion sector of the reservation and whose wife and children are all band members. He expressed joy when helping Morrison teach the kids how to canoe on the quiet lake, where no motor boats are allowed.
“We’re trying to show the kids how to keep their traditions alive on the Bois Forte with ricing and doing it in the right way as far as our culture and traditions,” he said.
As the lesson came to a close, he smiled while talking with his daughter about her day by the lake. “I get to see the traditions stay alive because of the young people. In a time of the iPhone and iPads, it’s important to get them outside and teach them about the traditions and about exercising.”