In praise of harvest: Indian Summer Festival

Farmers’ markets and backyard gardens are plump with fresh produce during this time of year, so many of us enjoy easy and direct connections with the land. We eat what we reap, until frost arrives, but how many feel grateful instead of simply full?

For Native Americans, harvests are about gratitude, sustenance and preserving a way of life. Consider truly wild rice, which has a place at special occasions, funerals to celebrations. Even the harvest, done by hand, is a sacred act that involves giving up as well as gathering.

Some rice is tapped off of reeds, falling into the wetlands, to help the rice bed reseed itself. Additional rice is deliberately left for wildlife. So the attitude is one of sustainability and awareness of how one food affects the well-being of many species, now and among future generations.

Brian and Lisa Wiggins of Trego will sell wild rice and explain the Ojibwe way of life at the annual Indian Summer Festival on Milwaukee’s lakefront. The Sept. 11-13 event celebrates the diversity and commonalities of Native American culture in Wisconsin.

“It is a part of what we want to bring back” to younger generations, Brian says, regarding wild rice rituals. He feels the same about other aspects of Native American culture, such as language and traditions, and the Milwaukee festival widens his classroom to include everyone.

Demonstrations of traditional skills – weaving to beadwork – will be ongoing. So is dancing in native dress and the teaching of tribal lore through storytelling. “Festive and sacred” is how festival organizers aptly describe the experience, which includes replicas of authentic tribal villages and dozens of vendors, selling handcrafted jewelry to herbal health remedies.

Cultural areas are considered sacred, so no alcohol is served within designated parts of the festival grounds. Particularly dramatic are the Sunday prayer service and the intertribal, multigenerational powwows.

Food vendors have names like Frybread Express, Spring Creek Bison, Turkey Tee Pee and Whitefeather. Look for wild rice in soups, casseroles and sold uncooked by the pound. Hull corn soup, buffalo jerky, venison brats and walleye filet sandwiches are other choices that are atypical for a festival setting.

Omnipresent frybread – puffy and sometimes slightly sweet – works as a dessert (with cinnamon-sugar), holds a meal (like a sandwich) and suffices as a dip for sauces (like a tortilla). It is best when eaten freshly fried.

The addition of beans, meat and cheese – served open-face – turns the bread into Indian tacos.

Frybread has Navajo roots, although many other tribes have adopted it as their own. It is a symbol of survival and captivity, invented when Native Americans were forced onto reservations in the 1800s.

The makings for frybread – powdered milk, baking powder, lard, flour, salt and sugar – were among the few foods within reach of the hungry. So tribes used these meager government rations and found a way to put them to good use.

Indian Summer Festival, at the Henry A. Maier Festival Park, 200 N. Harbor Dr., Milwaukee, occurs during the first weekend of September. For more: www.indiansummer.org, 414-604-1000.

Educational programs for elementary and junior high classes are offered 9 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Sept. 11; click on “ed day” online for details. Hours for the public are 4 p.m. to midnight Sept. 11, noon to midnight Sept. 12 and 9:30 a.m. to 8 p.m. Sept. 13.

Admission is $12 per adult, less for ages over 60 and under 12 years.

It’s one thing to witness Native American rituals and another to participate. The Oneida Nation, near Green Bay, would appreciate help Sept. 26 to Oct. 2 as 5 acres of corn are hand-harvested on the tribe’s 83-acre organic farm at 139 Riverdale Dr., Oneida.

The annual Harvest and Husking Bee is about straightforward work more than symbolic rituals, says Ted Skenandore, the Oneida’s agriculture supervisor. The event involves both children and adults.

“Heritage is a part of it, but hand harvesting is the best way for the corn to dry down because of its moisture content,” he says. The husks are hand-braided, then added to long strings of many cobs and hung from barn rafters, so the corn doesn’t mold.

“Some classes make this a field trip,” says Jeff Metoxen, field program manager. Corn harvest helpers will receive lunch, and door prizes will be raffled. For more: Leave a message at 920-869-2718.

The crop is white flint heirloom corn, brought by Oneida families when they moved to Wisconsin from New York in 1821. “We do our own seed saving before the harvest begins,” Ted says. “This corn goes back to our creation story, which means before the beginning of time.”

The harvest used to involve more pageantry, he says, but it wasn’t practical because “our corn would still be in the field after the party was over.”

The corn is eaten raw, dehydrated, ground into flour, processed into soup, baked into bread, blended into a fresh berry mush (like an oatmeal). More than one dozen corn products and other organic products are sold at the small Tsyunhehkwa retail store in Ridgeview Plaza, 3759 W. Mason St., Oneida.

Also for sale are free-range eggs, grass-fed beef and poultry, other canned veggies and herbal health remedies (sold at bulk prices). Hours are 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. on weekdays, 8 a.m. to noon on Saturdays (through Sept. 19). For more: 920-497-5821, www.oneidanation.org.