Saving the Pawnee Mother Corn


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By Deb Echo-Hawk and Ronnie O’Brien

At maturity, on each cream-colored kernel of Eagle Corn are the dark purple wings of flying eagles. (NEBRASKAland Magazine/ Nebraska Game and Parks Commission) We live in the Cornhusker State, but do we know just how deep the history of corn is in Nebraska? We see a lot of cornfields and we know our economy is greatly impacted by it, but how much do we really know about the first corn that grew here? Did the pioneers bring it with them?

It may surprise a lot of people that corn was a well-developed crop in Nebraska long before any pioneers came here to settle.

Let’s go back hundreds of years ago, back to a time when rivers and streams wound their way across the tall prairie. The only roads were winding paths used to follow the buffalo. Some of Nebraska’s first inhabitants lived in large, rural communities in circular lodges made from the earth—reminiscent of the legend of the beaver house—earthlodges. Others lived in circular tipis, following the buffalo wherever they went, having no stationary homes. Beyond the settlements of those who lived in earthlodges were fields of beans, squash, pumpkins and watermelon, but mostly fields of corn.

For the Pawnee Nation, which called a good portion of Nebraska and Kansas home for over 600 years, women grew the crops. They planted large cornfields, being sure to keep each variety apart from the others to avoid cross-pollination. They planted the seed in round hills, with the hills a man’s footstep apart from each other in no particular direction. Hundreds of acres were planted to feed the tribe, which was once larger than 10,000 people but dwindled from diseases to 3,000 by 1870.

Like buffalo, corn was a staple food of the Pawnee. And like the buffalo, it was sacred. An ear of corn and a buffalo skull were known to adorn the sacred altar in each earthlodge. Corn was an important part of every Pawnee ceremony and every feast, and was eaten at almost every meal during the year. It was never, ever traded because it was so sacred.

Like other farming tribes, the Pawnee grew their own varieties of nonhybrid corn that they developed over hundreds of years. Each variety was pure in color. In other words, it was nothing like the Indian corn that we think of today, with multicolored kernels. They grew Red Corn, White Corn, Blue Corn and Eagle Corn, to name a few. The women would walk up to eight miles in one direction with their buffalo shoulder hoes in order to work all of their corn a second time before leaving in June on the summer buffalo hunt. Then the corn was on its own, with the tribe returning in September for the harvest. Massive amounts of corn were stored in underground caches to be used for the coming year.

In the mid-1870s the United States government forced the Pawnee to move to Oklahoma, and they took what corn they could carry in each family’s sacred bundle on the long walk. The Pawnee were not allowed to hunt buffalo before leaving. Many of them died on the way to Indian Country in Oklahoma, leaving less than 1,000 in the tribe, and their corn failed to grow year after year in the new land.

Four generations later the seeds were few and on the verge of extinction.

In the 1980s a Pawnee family living in Colorado, Echo-Hawk’s, returned to the traditional practice of farming by hilling corn, as it was done by their ancestors. This practice was the one that was carried over in 1997, when the seeds were then returned to Oklahoma.

Numerous projects of the Pawnee community are aimed at the revival of tribal culture and the education of Pawnee youth. Since 1997, the Pawnee community has recognized the importance of finding the Pawnee seeds.

In the spring of 1998 a call from the Culture Committee for traditional seeds went out to the tribal members. Those who wanted to start their gardens were encouraged to bring their seeds to the reserve for elder Lula Nora Tilden Pratt to offer a blessing over. Nora was born in 1909 in Pawnee, Okla., and her Indian name, Che-Sha-Nou-Ka-Nout, means “Are you a princess.” Nora was called upon for her cultural insight. At this time the Pawnee had identified three varieties of corn: Blue, Yellow and Eagle Corn. Nora’s prayer, the blessing over the seeds, marked the beginning of the Seed Preservation Project. Elder members have participated in cultivating Pawnee traditional seeds for the Seed Preservation Project, and youth have been part of that effort on a small scale. Eventually, the nine traditional varieties of Pawnee corn were found, but not all would germinate, and some varieties consisted of only a handful of seed.

Cobs of Eagle Corn. (NEBRASKAland Magazine/ Nebraska Game and Parks Commission) By 2003 the corn varieties had been collected, sorted and kept under the watchful eye of the Pawnee Culture Committee and Deb Echo-Hawk, Keeper of the Seeds. In that same year the Great Platte River Road Archway in Kearney decided to begin a new school program about the Pawnee, being in the heart of the traditional Pawnee homeland. Ronnie O’Brien, director of cultural education at the archway, contacted the Pawnee Nation, looking for help with the new program that would focus on their way of life on the Plains, including growing a Pawnee corn garden. She was referred to Deb Echo-Hawk. To the Pawnee this brought up the question of trusting someone other than a tribal member with the seeds. The Pawnee Nation Cultural Committee deliberated this question and granted their blessing to trust gardeners rather than taking the risk of losing more seeds.

The two ladies began a long-distance communication and arranged for the seeds to return home—to Nebraska to grow again in the soil where they once thrived … to begin a relationship between the Pawnee and the archway, with the Pawnee entrusting what few seeds they had from two varieties to a few select archway growers.

One of the first varieties of Pawnee corn to be planted by the Nebraska growers was Eagle Corn, which was so rare that Deb Echo-Hawk would keep the last remaining 25 kernels in 2005 in case the other 25 sent to Nebraska would not grow, as the first attempt in Nebraska had failed in 2004. Since then, the project has reaped many benefits.

In November 2010 the gardeners from Nebraska were invited to Pawnee, Okla., for a ceremony called the Young Dog Dance. During the ceremony, Eagle

Corn soup, made from Eagle Corn grown at the archway’s garden, was served for the first time in 125 years. Pawnee Spotted-Like-a-Horse beans were also served for the first time in living memory.

A new and happy chapter in history has begun for the Pawnee, one where their sacred corn has been returned to its homeland of Nebraska to be grown and then returned to the people. Now in its eighth growing season in 2011, the archway has advanced the Pawnee Seed Preservation Project of Nebraska to include more than 10 varieties of corn, plus beans, squash, pumpkins, sunflowers and watermelons.

Perhaps the best news of all is that the Pawnee in Oklahoma, despite the drought and heat of 2011, have successfully grown three varieties of their own corn in the town of Pawnee, where they live today.

They never gave up hope, and they found a way to revive their corn varieties after many decades of struggle. The Pawnee Seed Preservation Project is the result of the families in Oklahoma who never gave up the cause of returning their sacred corn to their tribe.

It is amazing to see where the seeds have led us.

The seed project has led to other developments at the archway. In 2009 the archway helped 155 tribal members of the Pawnee Nation return to Kearney for a homecoming celebration and powwow, the first Dancers of the Plains event. In 2010 builders from the Pawnee tribe and their Arikara relatives from the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation of North Dakota built a large earthlodge next to the archway’s Pawnee corn garden.

And there is now a profound friendship between the Pawnee, the archway and the Nebraska growers.

The ongoing story of the Pawnee challenge to return their nonhybrid corn for the welfare of their people is promising. Our history, culture and traditions are important to all of us, and especially for the traditionalists of the Pawnee community. We all will pass our culture, history and traditions to our children—that is sustainability! We want our children to feel proud of who they are, and this legacy, we feel, is priceless. In the very heart of Pawnee traditions and the present-day Nebraskan traditions, there are stories of our corn … stories that need to be told.



Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on

What an interesting and inspirational piece and really brings home what can happen when folks get together in the spirit of cooperation. Thank you.

Submitted by Karen (not verified) on

I recently heard Ronnie O'Brian talk at a DAR meeting and this story brought tears to my eyes many times. It is beyond heart-warming to know that wounds created in the past can be healed and people should learn from stories like this that old bad habits do not have to live on. I have the greatest of respect for the Pawnee and their culture. Their scouts helped the Union Pacific build the railroad through Nebraska. It is beyond sad and disgraceful that we could not find a way to understand and accept the differences in our cultures and that we made them leave thir homeland here. Maybe the seeds can help us all to build bridges to one another in many ways.

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