Long Thought Extinct, Heartland Native Corn Reemerges – Omaha, Nebraska

Omaha, Nebraska 2021-11-25 07:00:00 –

Electa Hare-RedCorn pulled the shell back from his ear, saw more than corn, and studied multicolored grains.

For Pony women, this corn represents history and heritage, food and family, culture and community. This is associated with the annual spring blessing in Pawnee, Oklahoma, hoping that the seeds will be returned to Nebraska and planted in the soil.

Last Wednesday, various corns that disappeared from the Great Plains 20 years ago were lined up on the floor of the Hastings community college gymnasium. Harvested ears of blue, red, yellow, white and multicolored varieties were neatly placed on a grid intended to duplicate the central Nebraska garden where they grew. Hare-Red Corn walked up and down the line to examine the harvest.

The fact that these ancient varieties survived-the pony corn was entirely present in 2021-is a story of tribal patience, state-of-the-art horticulture, and good old cooperation. This is a story about this newly grown crop that connects the Pawnees and their ancestors and links all Nebraska to a history that began long before the pioneers came to the Great Plains.

“Corn defined us,” said Debu Echo Hawk, a seed pony keeper who has played a central role in the resurrection of pony corn. “It was part of our daily lives, not only eating, but also caring for us. Would we be better when it wasn’t in our lives? No.

“Growing it again is a way to look back on who we really are and bring corn back to the center of our lives.”

The Pawnees may have been in the basins of the Platte, Loup, and Republican rivers in Nebraska as early as the 13th century. They hunted bison, made pottery, made flint tools and weapons, and served as US military scouts.

In the early 1800s, more than 10,000 Pawnees from four different bands lived and hunted in Nebraska and northern Kansas. By 1872, only 2,447 people remained, declining due to famine, grasshopper epidemics, and attacks from other tribes.

It was about to get worse.

After increased pressure from the US government, many Pawnees were moved to Oklahoma from 1873. There, the disease struck the tribe. The remaining half of the Pawnees died in 10 years.

The corn they planted also had a hard time. The climate of Oklahoma was unfamiliar. The soil is too red, too alkaline and too dry.

For over a century, the Pawnees have lost ties to their ancestral crops. All around them, across the Great Plains, an endless row of field corn grew in monotonous yellow. Livestock corn, and later biofuels.

The pony corn was different. The ears were small and uneven. Color pops: electric blue, fire truck red, ghost white kernel. It was intended to be eaten in soups, polenta-like dishes, and rituals. It was intended to nourish themselves, their children and their friends.

“We are corn people,” Echo Hawk said, remembering when the Pawnee crops almost disappeared. “We are buffalo people. But Dan, where is our corn?”

The resurrection of Ponycorn began with a call to Echo Hawk in November 2003. On the other side, there was a request from Ronda “Ronnie” O’Brien, then director of cultural education at the Archway Museum near Kearney. Did she get the seeds to grow a real pony garden on the museum grounds?

Echo-Hawk replied that there were very few, if any. It contained only 75 eagle corn (white grains with purple spots resembling wings).

She outsourced most of those eagle corn fruits to O’Brien. She wanted some to germinate in their native Nebraska soil. In the first year, the seeds were planted too early and froze on the ground. Second year, limited success: some sprouted and produced some ears. Enough grains to keep planting.

By 2010, Nebraska producers believed they had recovered all recoverable pony corn. A few years later, a groundbreaking event took place. The rare grain of corn growing on existing plants was actually the awakening of a long-lost variety.

“Then, we realized that recessive traits might be special and showed one kernel at a time,” O’Brien said.

Corn varieties grown on Archway and other Central Nebraska farms have exploded.

Today, Echo Hawk’s Pony Seed Bank List contains yellow flour and flint. Blue flour, flint, sweet and mottled. Red flour, flint, spots; eagle corn, eagle flower, eagle sweet. White flour, white sweets, mother corn. Red and white stripes. White eyes. Includes: Skidy Miniature Popcorn, Red, Yellow, Blue.

This year, pony corn was cultivated in 20 gardens by 14 different Central Nebraska farmers.

“Corn wasn’t a problem at all,” O’Brien said. We are the ones who come up with ways to grow it. “

In a normal year, the October public event in Oklahoma allows the Pawnees to first pull back their shells to see the corn inside.

This year, thanks to COVID-19, Hare-RedCorn, her 11-year-old daughter Pehan and Pawnee seed intern Lacey Adson pull a trailer to drive from Oklahoma and bring corn to a central community college by growers. I was scared. They also picked up other crops related to the tribal heritage: watermelon, squash, and horse-like spotted beans grown in Fort Kearny State Historical Park.

They were joined by Kahheetah Barnoskie, a graduate student in agriculture at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, who oversees data collection for the Pawnee Seed Conservation Society.

She and Hare-Red Corn are two of about 3,200 tribal members, emphasizing that the pony corn is a pumpkin patch as an autumn decoration rather than the “Indian corn” sold at farmers markets. bottom. Instead, Barnoskie says it’s a “native corn” — a variety that has been cultivated in one particular place for centuries.

For a long time, corn has played a role in both food and life.

“Pony corn brings us back to our relationship with plants as food and medicine. It plays a role in almost every diet and function,” Hare-Red Corn said.

The annual work to grow better pony corn can be a daunting task. Details of each ear harvested in Nebraska are recorded. A handwritten note listing the garden rows, hills, and number of ears for each corn stalk is attached to the rubber banded ears. Growing conditions and other data on the weight, length, number of rows, and grain per row of each panicle define the best growing conditions for each variety.

Only some of the best ears from each are set aside as seeds. Desirable properties are checked by O’Brien, who refers to the 1917 book “Corn among the Indians of Upper Missouri.”

As Pawnee and Nebraska seed savers and growers learn about these older varieties, they also learn about the importance of corn itself.

Barnoskie and Hare-Red Corn are the next generation leaders in Pawnee species conservation activities, and women are working to lead this activity, just as the Pawnee female ancestors cultivated corn in Nebraska. ..

Barnoski, 34, grew up traveling around the country with little knowledge of gardening and plant life until he began working on species conservation in 2016.

Now she wants to use her agricultural knowledge to continue the recovery of pony seeds and help other tribes recover corn and other crops.

Hare-Red Corn, 39, grew up with a Pawnee mother and a Janktonsu father, and now lives in her husband’s Osage country about an hour from the Pawnee. She knew that corn was used for ceremonies, suppers, and dances. She didn’t understand the meaning behind it until she got older.

“Corn is the center of our culture and the center of our creation,” she said.

She said in one word her people’s feelings for corn: awe.

She currently holds a PhD in Public Policy from the University of Arkansas with a focus on agriculture and community development. Her goal as an Opportunity Manager for Pawnee Nation is to educate others about culture. She is studying buying land for a demonstration of sustainable agriculture.

“I think we need to admit that it’s awakening for us too,” she said.

Nebraskas who grow pony corn understand the value of their work.

“The harvest is always when each ear is like a different gift,” said Jerry Carlson of Genoa.

“I like doing it for the Pawnees,” added Bill Bolt of Central City. “It’s for them.”

Next year, the group plans to plant two types of prepony (Mesoamerican) corn born in Central America. They have already seen these grains appear in growing pony corn. A three-color flint called Confite and an orange flint with a red dot in the middle.

They grow this corn, continue harvesting in Nebraska, transfer the harvested corn to Oklahoma and return with new seeds next spring. A new corn tradition that honors old corn.

“The Pawnees are the people they are proud of now that they are corn people again,” Echo Hawk said.

This article was originally published by Flatwater Free Press, an independent non-profit news room focused on research and feature articles in Nebraska. For more information, please visit

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