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(Many Paths)
An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America
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Pawnee Women,
Filling A Historic Role, Take The Lead In
Preserving The Tribes Corn Varieties
by Leslie Reed - (Omaha, NE) World-Herald Staff Writer

KEARNEY, Neb. - In ancient days, Pawnee women grew the corn for their tribe.

In the 21st century, women have taken the lead in preserving Pawnee corn for the future.

After growing Pawnee corn while living in Colorado, Deb EchoHawk and her older cousin Alice EchoHawk organized a seed blessing ceremony after Deb moved to Oklahoma in 1997.

In the old days, tribal priests held a ceremony to bless the corn before the women went out to plant, Deb EchoHawk said.

Besides giving thanks and seeking spiritual guidance, it was a means of ensuring that each family had sufficient seeds. It also emphasized that these kernels were to go into the ground, not the stew pot.

EchoHawk began working with Ronnie O'Brien, a farmer's daughter who wanted to develop an educational program about Pawnee corn in her job as marketing and education director for the Great Platte River Road Archway Monument.

O'Brien organized 10 gardeners who now grow nine varieties of corn in 14 locations.

After failing to get a blue speckled corn to germinate, the tribe turned to plant scientist Tom Hoegemeyer, co-owner of Hoegemeyer Hybrids in Hooper, Neb., and an adjunct professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

After having no luck in reviving the corn, Hoegemeyer now is doing some DNA sleuthing in hopes of finding a nearly identical variety.

At this stage it's more important to save the remaining blue speckled corn for cultural purposes than to destroy more kernels in a vain attempt to get them to germinate, he said.

"Once seed is dead, then resurrection is very difficult," he said.

Hoegemeyer said Native Americans women must be given much credit for transforming corn from a wild grass known as teosinte into today's cereal grain.

"They caused more change and more improvement in cultivated corn than the rest of us working in the last 500 years have done," he said.

Earlier this month, O'Brien planted 92 hills, each containing five kernels of white flour corn, in a plot near the Kearney Arch.

She said she expects the white flour corn to reach its full height of 5 feet before a June 20 exhibition powwow to celebrate the Pawnees' renewed presence in Nebraska. The height of other varieties ranges from 2 feet to 11 feet.

At times, it's been downright scary to be responsible for the corn, O'Brien said.

The first year of the project, the eagle corn rotted in the ground during a cool wet spring. The next year, the Pawnee sent 25 eagle corn kernels, warning that it was the last that could be spared.

"This was our last chance to show our kids what eagle corn looked like," O'Brien said.

Working with a biologist, she was able to get 23 of the seeds to germinate and eventually delivered 17 ears - 2,500 kernels - to the tribe.

Still, there's not enough corn that it can be eaten.

"We're still in the seed bank stage, where everything we grow we return back for seed," EchoHawk said. "But it's a nice feeling to know we're getting to the point, one of these days, our chief is going to say, 'Let's have some of this corn for a feast.'"

Read More: Pawnee Heritage: Tribe's Corn Grows In 'Original Homeland'

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