Long thought extinct, a native corn re-emerges in the heartland
HASTINGS – Electa Hare-RedCorn pulled back the husk from the ear and studied the multi-colored kernels, seeing much more than corn.
For the Pawnee woman, this corn represents history and heritage, food and family, culture and community. It connects to the blessings recited each spring in Pawnee, Okla., prayers for the seeds about to be returned to Nebraska to be planted in their native soil.
On a recent Wednesday, varieties of corn that two decades ago had disappeared from the Great Plains were laid out across a community college gym floor in Hastings. The harvested ears of blue, red, yellow, white and multi-colored varieties were neatly arranged in grids meant to replicate the central Nebraska gardens in which they had grown.
Hare-RedCorn walked up and down the rows, inspecting the harvest.
The fact that these age-old varieties survived — the fact that Pawnee corn exists at all in 2021 — is a story of tribal perseverance, cutting-edge horticulture and good, old-fashioned cooperation. It’s a story about this newly grown crop connecting the Pawnee to their ancestors, and connecting every Nebraskan to a history that began long before pioneers came to the Great Plains.
“Corn defined us,” said Deb Echo-Hawk, the Pawnee Keeper of the Seeds, who has played a central role in the resurgence of Pawnee corn.“It was something that was part of our daily lives, not just eating it, but taking care of it. When it wasn't in our lives, were we better off? No.
“Growing it again is a way to circle back to who we really are and make corn central to our lives again.”
The Pawnee may have been in Nebraska's Platte, Loup and Republican river basins as early as the 13th century. They hunted bison, made pottery, crafted flint tools and weapons and served as scouts for the U.S. military.
In the early 1800s, more than 10,000 Pawnee in four distinct bands lived and hunted across Nebraska and northern Kansas. By 1872, only 2,447 remained — decimated by famine, grasshopper infestation and attacks from other tribes.
It was about to get much worse.
Following increasing U.S. government pressure, many Pawnee were moved to Oklahoma starting in 1873. There, disease ripped through the tribe. Half the remaining Pawnee died in a decade.
The corn they planted struggled, too. The Oklahoma climate was unfamiliar. The soil too red, too alkaline, too dry.
For more than a century, generations of Pawnee lost the connection to their ancestral crop. All around them, across the Great Plains, row after row of endless field corn grew in monotone yellow. Corn destined for livestock, and later biofuels.
Pawnee corn was different. The ears were smaller, not uniform. Color burst forth: Kernels of electric blue, fire-engine red, ghost white. It was meant to be eaten:, in soups, in dishes like polenta and in ceremonies. It was meant to nourish themselves, their children and their friends.
“We're the people of the corn,” said Echo-Hawk, remembering a time when the Pawnee crop had all but disappeared. “We're the people of the buffalo. But, dang, where is our corn?”
The resurgence of Pawnee corn began with a November 2003 phone call to Echo-Hawk. On the other end of the line, Rhonda “Ronnie” O’Brien, then cultural education director of The Archway Museum near Kearney, had a request. Could she get seeds to grow an authentic Pawnee garden on the museum grounds?
Echo-Hawk replied that there were few, if any. That included only 75 kernels of eagle corn — white kernels with purple splotches resembling wings — available.
She entrusted most of those eagle corn kernels to O'Brien. She hoped some would germinate in their native Nebraska soil. The first year, the seeds were planted too early and froze in the ground. The second year, limited success: Some germinated and produced a few ears. Enough kernels to keep planting.
By 2010, Nebraska growers thought they’d recovered all the Pawnee corn that could be recovered. Then, a few years later, a breakthrough: The unusual kernels of corn growing on existing plants was actually a reawakening of long-lost varieties.
“Then we recognized the recessive traits might be special and had been showing up one kernel at a time,” O’Brien said.
The corn varieties grown at The Archway and other central Nebraska farms exploded.
Today Echo-Hawk's Pawnee seed bank list includes yellow flour and flint; blue flour, flint, sweet and speckled; red flour, flint and speckled; eagle corn, eagle flour and eagle sweet; white flour, white sweet and mother corn; red-and-white striped; white-eyed. It also includes: Skidi miniature popcorn, red, yellow and blue.
This year, Pawnee corn was grown in 20 gardens by 14 different central Nebraska farmers.
“The corn has not been the problem at all,” O’Brien said.” It's us figuring out how to grow it.”
In a normal year, an October reveal event in Oklahoma allows the Pawnee to be the first to pull back husks to see the corn inside.
This year, because of COVID-19, Hare-RedCorn, her 11-year-old daughter Pehan and Pawnee seed intern Lacey Adson drove from Oklahoma in a pickup pulling a trailer to get the corn brought to Central Community College by growers. They also picked up other crops tied to the tribe’s heritage: watermelon, squash and spotted-like-a-horse beans grown at Fort Kearny State Historical Park.
They were joined by Kahheetah Barnoskie, a University of Nebraska-Lincoln graduate agronomy student who oversees data collection for the Pawnee Seed Preservation Society.
She and Hare-RedCorn, two of roughly 3,200 enrolled tribal members, emphasized that Pawnee corn isn't the “Indian corn” sold at farmers markets and pumpkin patches as fall decorations. Instead, it’s a “landrace corn” Barnoskie says — a variety grown in one particular spot for centuries.
It’s corn that has long served as both food and a way of life.
“Pawnee corn takes us back to our relationship with plants as food and medicine. It plays a role in almost every meal and function,” Hare-RedCorn said.
The annual work to grow better Pawnee corn can be painstaking. Details about each ear harvested in Nebraska are recorded. Handwritten notes listing each cornstalk's garden row, hill and number of ears are attached to bundled ears with rubber bands. Other data about growing season conditions and each ear's weight, length, number of rows and kernels per row define best growing conditions for each variety.
Only a few best ears from each are set aside as seed. The desired characteristics are checked by O’Brien, who consults the 1917 book “Corn Among the Indians of the Upper Missouri.”
As the Pawnee and Nebraska seed savers and growers learn about these old varieties, they also learn about the significance of corn itself.
Barnoskie and Hare-RedCorn are next generation leaders of the Pawnee seed preservation effort, women working to lead the effort just as their Pawnee women ancestors grew corn in Nebraska.
Barnoskie, 34, grew up moving around the country, knowing nearly nothing about gardening or plant life until she started working on seed preservation in 2016.
Now, she hopes to use her agronomy knowledge to continue the Pawnee seed restoration, and to help other tribes restore their corn or other crops.
Hare-RedCorn, 39, grew up with a Pawnee mother and Yankton Sioux father, and now lives in her husband's Osage country about an hour from Pawnee. She knew that corn had a place in ceremonies, dinners, dances. She didn’t understand the meaning behind it until she was older.
“Corn is central to our culture, central to our creation,” she said.
One word describes her people's feeling about corn, she said: Reverence.
She’s now working on a doctoral degree in public policy from the University of Arkansas, focusing on agriculture and community development. As the Pawnee Nation's opportunities manager, her goal is to educate others about the culture. She’s researching buying land for sustainable agriculture demonstrations.
“I think we need to acknowledge that it has been a reawakening for us, too,” she said.
The Nebraskans growing the Pawnee corn understand the value of their work.
“Harvest is always when each ear is like a different gift,” said Jerry Carlson of Genoa.
“I like doing it for the Pawnee,” added Bill Bolte of Central City. “It's for them.”
Next year, the group intends to plant two pre-Pawnee, or Mesoamerica, types of corn that originated in Central America. They have already seen these kernels pop up on the Pawnee corn they are growing: A three-color flint called Confite, and another that’s orange with a red dot in the middle.
They will grow this corn, continue harvesting in Nebraska, moving the harvested corn to Oklahoma, and returning again the next spring with new seeds. A new corn tradition that honors one that’s age-old.
“The Pawnee people,” said Echo-Hawk, “are the ones boasting now that they are people of the corn again.”
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