FOLLOWING MANOOMIN: the political economy of wild rice

Pebaamibines greeting us through tall stands of manoomin on a lake in the Nigigoonsiminikaaning First Nation area in 2019


This research aims to document the changing political economy of wild rice over 100 years. I am following the trails of manoomin, the Ojibwe word for wild rice, through historical archives and rich, sometimes hard conversations because of my own deep family ties to wild rice. My intention with this work is to contribute to efforts to protect manoomin and indigenous food sovereignty movements in the Great Lakes Region. I would like this research to be as collaborative as possible, responding to the needs of manoomin itself and of the people taking care of it.

The premise of my work is this: in order to undo the knots left by colonization, it is important to understand how they got tied. As a descendent of white settlers, I do not intend to take the pen to record or rewrite Ojibwe history—there are many native scholars and historians doing just that.  Rather, I am exploring the processes of colonization and capitalism that contributed to the commodification of wild rice in the mid 1900s.

A lake full of manoomin at harvest season, the Manoominike Giizis (the ricing moon), on Nett lake in 2021.


I want to know how hand-harvested, naturally growing wild wild rice became a product on the shelves of supermarkets around the country by the 1960s.  While I will have to rely on historical sources for some of this story, these are the specific questions that I am asking:

  • What characterises the market flows of wild rice in 1930, 1960, 1990 and 2020? Who was in power to control access to the wild rice, as well as the market, during each of these periods?
  • How did the network of buyers and parchers that formed between the 1930s and the 1970s, in the heyday of hand-picked wild rice, alter the wild rice political economy?
  • What does this imply for current efforts to protect manoomin and indigenous food sovereignty policy, practice and movement? 
  • What is the role of women throughout?

The research methods I use value multiple ways of knowing and I recognise that I am an engaged part of what I am researching.


Preserving Minnesota’s wild rice: The importance of Indigenous knowledge. Minnesota History Magazine, Fall 2022.

Harvesting is Indigenous food sovereignty. A collaboration between AgroecologyNow and the Indigenous Environmental Network, Fall 2022.


Wild rice, or manoomin, is a sacred food for the Anishinaabe people of North America. It grows wild in the lakes and rivers of the Great Lakes region in the US and Canada and is harvested by hand. Today it is eaten by Anishinaabe people, but also sold as a gourmet food in health food stores across the global north, as is its domesticated cousin, cultivated paddy wild rice, sold for a fraction of the price. Many people don’t know the difference between one food and the other.     

Wild rice was commodified slowly over the first half of the 20th century. As far back as the 1600s, traders and trappers bought wild rice from the Ojibwe and other tribes for their own consumption and survival, under agreed upon trading terms, as one tribe might trade with another. However, in the mid 1800s, attacks on native ways of life and displacement from their land became fierce, forcing native people into almost 2 centuries of violence, loss and trauma that included the destruction of their foodways.      

Today, manoomin is central to indigneous food sovereignty and environmental protection movements because of the importance of this being for Anishinaabe spiritual, cultural and physical wellbeing. Manoomin is threatened because of climate change, water contamination, water levels, and invasive species. For more information see this entry in the MNOpedia that I wrote in 2019:

People lining up to get their freshly harvested wild rice weighed to sell it, East Lake 1959.


My grandfather, Sherman Holbert, was instrumental in turning wild rice into a gourmet food on the national and international market. Before he passed away he spent the last years of his life writing a manuscript telling his story about this journey. The story is a priceless piece of history of a time and a place hitherto undocumented. A few years ago, my aunt proposed to me that I finish his book. However, having spent the better part of the last 10 years working in food sovereignty and agroecology movements, working to undo processes of globalization of food and food culture, to relocalize traditional foodways, and reclaim foods appropriated through colonial violence, this proposal struck me as somewhat incongruent, sticky and complicated for me, but also as an opportunity to weave my story into his.

Sherman (standing on the far right) with other buyers in East Lake 1959


Sherman spent his childhood on a piece of land on the shores of Mille Lacs Lake, surrounded by the Ojibwe Band of Mille Lacs Reservation land. Son of a traveling mother and father, he lived alone with his grandparents and played and grew up with Ojibwe kids. Fluent in the Ojibwe language, as well as the daily lives of native families, his family made maple syrup, harvested wild rice and formed part of the community. After World War II, he came back to Minnesota with his newly wed wife from Iowa, and wanted to settle on the land of his childhood. At a time when many of his friends and family from the reservation were struggling to make a living, he wanted to create a market for the wild rice so that he, as well as his Ojibwe neighbors and friends, would be able to earn some money from the treasures of their land and lakes.  He started a maple syrup business, and later began to buy and sell wild rice.

An astute businessman with a sharp mind, Sherman had a perspective that few at the time had. Having left home early, he spent a number of his younger years working as a traveling salesman.  One of his jobs led him to work for a company selling their product from coast to coast, and he learned the ins and outs of what was the beginning of franchises, national-scale supermarket and distribution chains, and marketing. With this experience under his belt, in search of a larger market for wild rice, he contacted Uncle Ben’s Rice company and, through a number of contacts and meetings, convinced them to try to sell wild rice.  Unconvinced that the American public would go for it, Sherman proposed what was at that moment a novel idea– a rice mix. They liked the idea and launched the  Long Grain and Wild Rice mix in 1961. The entry of Uncle Ben’s as a buyer in Minnesota changed the nature of sales of wild rice considerably, ultimately leading to the domestication of the grain and the growth of paddy rice. The book that Sherman was writing in the last years of his life tells the story of the obstacles that he ran into and the solutions that he found to overcome them.     

My grandfather bought this grain cleaning and sorting machine and brought it to the King family parching plant in the 1950s to be adapted to wild rice. It is currently being used by Pete Isham in Nett Lake (photo taken in 2021)
Me parching rice in an iron kettle over a fire in 2019


My name is Jessica Milgroom. I am a mother, a daughter, a sister, a community member and a friend. Gardening, growing my own food gives me life, balance and meaning. As a researcher in the AgroecologyNow! group, I aim to ask the kinds of questions that serve the people, creatures, land and water in my community. I currently have three areas of work, displacement of people from their land, commodification of indigenous foods, and territorialized food systems. Learning from feminist and decolonial methodologies I am constantly digging deeper into personal enquiry in my research: positionality, reflexivity, epistemology.  I love teaching and designing hands-on learning pathways, because I am an experiential learner.  I facilitate group processes and I have an emergent identity as a creative writer– I feel it deep beneath the surface, but it has not yet manifested itself. 

Please contact me at jessica.milgroom (at)

My ethical protocol for this work is based on the First Nations Ethics Guide on Research and Aboriginal Traditional Knowledge by the Assembly of First Nations, and inspired by the document ‘Walk Softly and Listen Carefully’ developed in collaboration with the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) Policy Research Center.

Don Wedll winnowing, separating the grain of the wild rice from the chaff using a birchbark basket and the wind, 2019

This project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under the Marie Sklodowska-Curie grant agreement No 844637