of the indigenous corn varieties growing in Taylor Keen's
backyard. Cherokee White is a kind of sweet corn with white,
purple, and yellower kernels that is ground for flour. Green
Oaxacan is processed to make hominy and corn meal. Grant Gerlock/Harvest
Long before European settlers plowed the Plains, corn was an
important part of the diet of Native American tribes like the Omaha,
Ponca and Cherokee. Today, members of some tribes are hoping to
revive their food and farming traditions by planting the kinds of
indigenous crops their ancestors once grew.
Taylor Keen is hoping to lead that comeback in Nebraska. On
a warm, bright September afternoon, Keen is singing to the corn.
Walking through a maze of corn rows and a carpet of pumpkin vines
behind his home in Omaha, Nebraska, he wears a cowboy hat, Wranglers,
and a traditional bead necklace.
Taylor Keen's backyard in Omaha, Nebraska,
is teeming with corn, sunflowers, squash, pumpkins and other
indigenous crops he is growing to harvest the seeds. (Grant
Gerlock/Harvest Public Media)
"Well, this is what was formerly known as my backyard and is
now home to the 'four sisters,'" Keen says. "We have corn, bean,
squash and the sunflower."
He calls them the four sisters because of how they work together.
The beans fertilize the corn as they climb the stalks. Sunflowers
hold them up against the wind. Squash keep the raccoons at bay.
There are also tomatoes, okra, gourds, sage and sweet grass.
Keen, a business instructor at Creighton University, was never
a corn grower, but his ancestors were. Keen is a member of both
the Omaha Tribe in Nebraska, and the Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma.
To him, it's ironic that some early developers of commercial seed
Oscar Will in North Dakota built their businesses off of genetics
acquired from Plains Indian tribes.
"Corn, especially here in Nebraska, is synonymous with apple
pie," Keen says. "But 'Indian corn' is only ornamental and is sold
only around Thanksgiving time. And most people don't even think
it's edible. But where does corn come from? It comes from us!"
Keen wants to reclaim those farming roots with a project called
Sacred Seed. With help from students and some urban farmers in Omaha,
he's raising indigenous crops on about a dozen plots around the
city. The goal is to preserve these native vegetable varieties and
revive the traditions around growing and eating them.
Keen is a member of the Omaha Tribe and the Cherokee Nation.
He's trying to revitalize the corn growing traditions of his
ancestors. (Grant Gerlock/Harvest Public Media)
The corn in Keen's back yard is ripe and ready to pick, but
it's not the typical yellow corn raised in the Midwest. Keen raises
varieties that were once common on the Great Plains. He grows indigenous
popcorn and flint corn that can be ground into cornmeal. There's
also sweet corn called Cherokee White that can be eaten fresh, but
he uses it to make flour.
Keen pulls down an ear of Cherokee White and turns it in his
hand to show off the colorful kernels.
"While it's predominantly white, we see these wonderful pastel
purples, and dark blues, and goldens, and even a pink or two in
there," Keen says.
Most people have never tried preparing this kind of corn because
it takes some extra effort. For instance, flint corn must be soaked
in an alkaline solution to dissolve the hard outer layer called
the pericarp. That process, nixtamalization,
is how corn hominy is made, which can then be ground into masa for
Dan Watts, a chef at the high-end Spencer's steakhouse in Omaha,
says once you know what to do, the old corn fits in a modern kitchen.
"I totally think that these items belong on menus," Watts says.
"You can make a great cornbread with it. You can grind it down into
polenta, grits, tortillas, and the nutrient load is massive."
Watts says indigenous ingredients also fit in with the trendy
local food scene. Some varieties are sold by heirloom seed dealers
like Seed Savers in Iowa
or Baker Creek in Missouri.
Sacred Seed also taps into the growing food sovereignty movement
in Indian Country, a movement where food traditions mix with identity
"This is a movement to really reclaim agriculture at a local
scale," says Robin Kimmerer, an ecologist and writer, and a member
of the Potawatomi Nation. "It's political because it resists industrial
agriculture. It says there's another way."
Keen sorts through the varieties of corn and other crops he
has harvested from his backyard farm. Grant Gerlock/Harvest
Planting indigenous seeds instead of high-tech hybrids can reintroduce
vegetables that have mostly been lost. Kimmerer says projects like
started by the Ojibwe in Minnesota, or the Cherokee
seed exchange value tradition more than technology.
"People are really taking control of their own food supplies
by growing their traditional varieties by learning again to collect
and gather from the wild," Kimmerer says.
Taylor Keen is inspired by his tribe's history. He says in the
19th Century the Omaha were prolific corn growers and traders. The
tribe was able to almost entirely provide for itself at a time when
others relied on provisions supplied by federal agents.
"In my mind I envisioned a future where everyone in my tribe
can be corn planters again," Keen says. "That somehow we could sustain
ourselves, be economically self-reliant again, with these crops."
Realistically, indigenous corn is not going to overtake the
industry that feeds ethanol plants and cattle feedlots, but perhaps
it can provide a few jobs for tribal members. Keen believes it's
worth looking to the past if it can help his people move forward.
Sacred Seed is a project based in Omaha, Nebraska, aimed at
bringing back the corn-growing traditions that were once central
to the diet and culture of many Plains Indian tribes. It is an example
of how some tribes are returning to indigenous crops, to preserve
rare vegetables and revive food traditions that have been lost.