Nebraska project works to grow Pawnee corn
By SHAY BURK
Aug. 12, 2017
HASTINGS, Neb. (AP) — When the Pawnee Nation was forced from its homeland in Nebraska to a reservation in Oklahoma in the 1870s, they lost a lot more than their home and their lives.
"There were 12,000 and once they got to Oklahoma, the count was 684," said Pawnee woman Deb Echo-Hawk. "Then whole families and keepers perished and there was nobody there to know what to do with those bundles."
The bundles Echo-Hawk speaks of were the sacred bundles of important items to the Pawnee that included precious kernels of Pawnee corn.
"It's sacred. It's religious," she said of the corn. "It's part of everything we do."
Pawnee corn was never traded, never shared and never put into seed banks where seed from thousands of plants are stored.
So much of the seed was lost. The seed that made it to Oklahoma failed to thrive in the soil there, which has a much different composition than that of rich Nebraska soil.
It got to the point that the seed supply dwindled so greatly that the precious few seeds left were stored away and no longer planted or used in ceremonies.
"We really have lost a lot," Echo-Hawk said.
The corn is important in rituals, ceremonies and the everyday diet and health of the Pawnee. So without those seeds, there are no plants for the women to tend to in the garden and no food for ceremonies or meals.
Knowing all of this, Echo-Hawk put out a plea to her Pawnee culture committee to try to find kernels of those pure corn varieties after moving to Pawnee, Oklahoma, from Colorado in 1997.
Since that time, the tribe's seed supply has gone from a few handfuls to thousands of seeds and plots of corn growing in Nebraska as part of the Pawnee Seed Preservation Project.
And one of those plots sits nestled between two brick buildings at Central Community College-Hastings.
Pawnee corn first made its way back to Nebraska in 2003 via Ronnie O'Brien, who at the time was serving as director of education and operations at Great Platte River Road Archway in Kearney, the Hastings Tribune reported . Today, she is a hospitality management and culinary arts instructor at CCC-Hastings.
O'Brien had been approached many times by Pawnee visitors and others saying the Archway's interpretive story was missing something.
"'You act like history started in 1841 with the trails and there were people here for thousands of years and you're not telling the story,'" O'Brien said she was told. "I took that seriously and personally because my husband's great-great-grandfather was friends with a Pawnee chief in this area and learned a lot from him."
With that in mind, O'Brien decided to start a Native American program at the Archway. She called the Pawnee Nation three times before she jokes that they realized she wasn't going to give up connected her with Echo-Hawk, who was in charge of educational programs at the time.
The partnership and eventual friendship led to the creation of "The Heart of the Pawnee Nation" program for fourth-graders visiting the Archway.
However, the truly, long-lasting part of their friendship came through the Pawnee Seed Preservation Project.
Echo-Hawk started the project in the 1980s as a way to preserve not only corn but all of the plants that the Pawnee had once planted, nurtured and harvested on the plains of Nebraska.
As the relationship between Echo-Hawk and O'Brien grew, O'Brien wanted to add a garden of Pawnee vegetables and other plants at the Archway.
"I've been a gardener my whole life," O'Brien said. "I decided I wanted to have crops, also especially corn, since I knew they ate it 365 days a year."
It was around this same time that Echo-Hawk was trying to find way to expand and grow the seed population of the seeds she had gathered.
Echo-Hawk saw this as an opportunity to put some of those precious seeds to use and see if they could grow again in Nebraska.
She took this idea to the Pawnee Culture committee who had a lengthy discussion about the idea of sharing these few precious seeds with a non-Pawnee tribe member.
"There were some that said, 'No way. It's got to stay with us,'" Echo-Hawk said. "Ultimately, the conclusion was, 'If we don't trust someone, we might lose it all.'"
The tribe then entrusted O'Brien with one of their most prized varieties, Eagle corn, named for dark spots on its white kernels that look like an eagle in flight. This variety is believed to date back to the 1200s when the Pawnee traveled toward Nebraska from Central America.
In 2003, Eagle corn was on the brink of extinction as only a handful of 50 kernels were being stored in a mason jar in Pawnee, Oklahoma.
The first year O'Brien planted 25 of the Eagle corn seeds in her own garden protected from prying eyes and animals only to have the seeds rot in the abnormally cool spring.
The next summer, O'Brien planted the last 25 seeds and enlisted the help of a horticulturalist. The seeds took hold and thrived in their native soil and climate. In the end about 2,500 seeds were produced for the tribe.
Since those early days, the Pawnee Seed Preservation Project has grown from O'Brien's small garden to include 17 gardeners and one farmer growing several varieties of Pawnee corn on plots from Omaha to Mason City and Genoa to Bloomington.
"Some of them have been with us for over 10 years," Echo-Hawk said of the gardeners. "They've become family."
And those gardeners haven't had an easy row to hoe either facing the same challenges O'Brien did with those 50 Eagle seeds in 2003.
"We're not giving them bucket loads of seeds to work with," Echo-Hawk said. "We didn't have bucket loads. We started some varieties with seed that fit in the palm of my hand. That was it."
The project has been such a success to date that in 2010 the Pawnee did something they hadn't done in more than a century: serve soup made from the Eagle corn grown in Nebraska at a ceremony in Oklahoma.
In an effort to educate the tribe and truly protect the seed, Echo-Hawk was able to secure grants to pay interns to live in Nebraska during the summer to monitor and record data on the crops.
This year marks the first since 2013 that interns have been brought to Nebraska. The interns — Kahheetah Barnoskie, Mee-Kai Clark and Electa Redcorn — are all staying at CCC-Hastings and caring for the garden there while documenting the other 16 gardens.
Their documentation is to both learn about the corn and how it grows along with working to ensure that it is truly the pure Pawnee corn the tribe so desperately needs.
In the early years of the project, interns would do projects at the Archway. This year, however, the interns are learning about the tribe's history in Nebraska while monitoring and documenting the crop growth and production.
"It's sacred and it's resilient and it's survived a lot," Clark said of the Pawnee corn. "I think there's something really healing to gardening and taking care of our Earth and our crops."
Clark is currently enrolled in Pawnee Nation College in Pawnee, Oklahoma. Her interest is in holistic studies and bringing holistic healing.
"It's about bringing things to heal our people from historic trauma, things today and things for our future generations," she said.
Clark said her experience has been eye-opening in many ways.
"A lot of times I'm speechless about what I've seen and what people have done for our nation and these gardens," she said. "A lot of times I'm left in awe and complete gratitude. It's been a lot of work and a lot of travel but it's all been worth it."
Barnoskie had never been to Nebraska and didn't know much about her people's connection to corn before taking part in the seed preservation project.
"When I came here and saw the sites, I heard stories it really got to me," she said. "I could really feel the connection."
For Echo-Hawk there are so many reasons why bringing the corn back to the Pawnee is important.
The first is the sacred importance of the corn. The corn is used in ceremonies and meetings. It is consumed year-round when available and is believed to have healing properties as well.
"It's so highly nutritious," Echo-Hawk said of the blue corn mush. "That's one thing we love to give our elders, especially if they're in the hospital. They always say it makes them feel better."
While the tribe is starting with a little corn for ceremonies, Echo-Hawk wants to see the use expanded as the fields continue to thrive.
"Once we secure the seeds, our next goal is for sustainability," she said. "We want to feed our people. We want to have it for all the ceremonies and feasts instead of having it once in a while."
This program and the creation of the intern program has also brought back the desire for women to learn to garden as women were historically the gardeners in the tribe.
"Traditionally, women planted and took care of all the crops so they have that back for the women," Echo-Hawk said.
She said this gives the women some empowerment back in a tribe that is almost 99.9 percent male dominated.
Echo-Hawk said she has begun to see small gardens being planted outside family homes and community kitchens. The tribe has plans to create more garden plots and raised planter boxes.
"They're looking at acres. It's just unreal," she said. "We're not quite there yet and it's all baby steps."
The tribe is looking to the one farmer who is taking part in the seed preservation project, as well. He planted three acres of blue flour corn this year.
"I told people to get ready," Echo-Hawk said. "That three acres is a lot more than we're used to."
This is the first year the project has included a farmer and Echo-Hawk wants to learn from his work. In fact, the tribe is now working on an agriculture/ranching project plan.
For now, all of the seed brought in each year is being kept in jars, bottles and other containers in her home. Soon, she said, they will need a bigger space as the program continues to thrive.
"I'm constantly buying containers," she said. "We've been in the seed bank stage for 14 years, but we're breaking out of that stage. We have so many seeds that we need to think of bigger gardens."
The culinary arts department kitchen at CCC-Hastings recently became a processing station for several ears of Eagle corn as they were blanched, roasted and processed.
The ears were harvested both in Pawnee, Oklahoma and Omaha at the request of some tribe leaders who hope to use it for a fall festival.
"We're going to do the first few steps to get it ready for corn soup," Echo-Hawk said. "There's a blanching/roasting process and then taking it one by one off the cob."
For O'Brien, the Pawnee Seed Preservation Project may have begun simply for the seeds but it has morphed into a way for the Pawnee to rediscover their culture and for bridges to be built.
When O'Brien and Echo-Hawk began communicating in 2003, social media was in its infancy so their communication was still through emails and phone calls.
"We made a decision and we had to trust that," Echo-Hawk said. "Ronnie was it and we've never had any waiver or doubt since then."
Gardening was also part of what distinguished the Pawnee Nation so when their gardening culture was dying and their precious seeds were almost extinct, trusting O'Brien was a true leap of faith.
"I feel like what Ronnie and I are doing is painting a bigger picture," Echo-Hawk said. "We always say, 'We never know where the seeds are going to lead us.' One of the things that is real definite is rekindling a friendship."
Through this project, numerous Pawnee have come to Nebraska, a place most of their family has not visited since they were exiled in the 1870s. This year's interns bring the total to 26 in 14 years.
"I've never been to Nebraska. It really means something cause we're from here," said Patsy Cooper, who visited Nebraska with Echo-Hawk earlier this week.
Cooper's grandmother was taken by a white couple and brought to Nebraska where she attended school in Genoa. Knowing that she was so close to Genoa made Cooper feel closer to her family as well.
"This just touches my heart," she said.
Intern Mee-Kai Clark has a Pawnee lineage along with Omaha, Otoe and Ponca making her a true Nebraska descendant on many levels.
As a child she would visit Macy, the home of the Omaha Tribe, to see her father's family. And every time she's come to Nebraska, Clark said she has felt a special connection.
"It feels like home to me," she said of Nebraska. "I always tell people, 'Nebraska is our motherland so I feel a really good connection even if I'm just passing through. It's always a good experience."
For Echo-Hawk, every trip to Nebraska is truly a coming home.
"Every time I come up here, we're hearing other old stories," she said. "It's amazing how many families homesteaded and just stayed there for generations. They tell the stories of when the Pawnee were there. They hand down the stories and even items."
In one visit, Echo-Hawk saw moccasins that were given from Pawnee to a white family that they kept in a cedar chest.
"I've never run across a negative story that was a handed down story or a fearful one or a frightening one," she said. "It's always been a story about friendship. That's what this all is. It's renewing our friendship in Nebraska."
Information from: Hastings Tribune, http://www.hastingstribune.com