The Ponca and Pawnee Nations’ Drive to Preserve Ancestral Corn

Indian Country – by Tish Leizens

When historians look back to this decade and the collective efforts of two tribes to save corn seeds from extinction, they will piece together stories of passionate gardeners who made it their mission to preserve their heritage while advocating healthy eating habits.

Corn has always been part of the heritage of the tribes in Oklahoma—the Ponca Tribe and Pawnee Nation. Over the course of time, however, it was almost a forgotten seed until in recent years when talk of preservation has finally gained ground.  

“We raised it throughout 1877 until the U.S. Army forcibly removed our tribe from Nebraska,” said Amos Hinton, former agricultural director of the Ponca Tribe and now an agricultural consultant of Sovereign Foods Inc., a company he owns.

He said his researched traced corn back to the 1600s where the Poncas grew five strains of corn. Last year was a breakthrough. On May 21, 2013, he presented his tribe a packet of seeds. The day of the presentation has historical significance as it is on the same day in 1877 when his ancestors were forced out of their land.

Also forced out from their land were the Pawnees. The tribe had safeguarded 50 kernels of Eagle Corn since they were exiled to Oklahoma in 1870, reported “TrueWest, History of the American Frontier,” after an interview with Deb Echo-Hawk, the tribe’s Keeper of the Seed, in 2012.

The Pawnees have tried to grow the Eagle Corn for years but it wouldn’t grow.

“Oklahoma is not a corn country,” said non-Native gardener Ronnie O’Brien, formerly educational director of the Great Platte River Road Archway in Kearney, Nebraska. She initially reached out to Echo-Hawk in the fall of 2003 looking for seeds to start a school program garden.

Several more conversations with the tribe resulted in friendship and an agreement that O’Brien and her team of volunteer gardeners in Nebraska would grow corn and send the seeds back to the tribe.

“We grow the corn but they all belong to the tribe,” O’Brien said.

Planting grey corn in Kearney, Nebraska. (Amos Hinton)
Planting grey corn in Kearney, Nebraska. (Amos Hinton)

“I planted in 2004 and the 25 seeds rotted in the ground. In 2005 I planted 25 kernels of Eagle corn again, and 23 germinated.”

From the first crop of Eagle corn, 2,500 seeds were returned to the tribe, said O’Brien.

Among the Pawnee Nation’s corn varieties are yellow flour, white flour, blue flour, red flour, Eagle corn, red and white striped corn and Skidi popcorn. “The only variety we were not successful with is the blue speckled corn,” said O’Brien.

“In our oral history, our Creator gave us three gifts, one is red corn,” said Hinton. “The red corn symbolizes one of the gifts our Creator gave to us to sustain our lives.”

The Ponka red corn (the nineteenth century spelling of Ponka is still used today) was planted in a farm near Nehigh, Nebraska, just last May as a form of protest to the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline.

Aside from the Ponka red corn, the other strains are red speckle, grey and grey speckle. Hinton said he still does not have the yellow sweet corn.

The search for the Ponca heirloom seeds is one for the books. Hinton said he traveled to eastern Montana to ask the Sioux tribe for their ancestral seeds.

(The U.S. government in 1868 gave the entire Ponca Reservation in northeastern Nebraska to the Sioux.)

“I contacted them. I told them what I was doing and that something they have belongs to my people,” he said.

The 18-hour trip to Montana culminated in an exchange, with Hinton presenting a small package of heirloom tobacco leaf to the Sioux and the tribe handing him ten pounds of corn seed.

The corn seeds are as sacred today to the Native Americans as they were in the 1800s. The book, “Corn Among the Indians of the Upper Missouri,” copyrighted in 1917 and written by George F. Will and George F. Hyde gives a glimpse of early history.

“To sum up: it appears that we may safely judge that at one time the Pawnees, Arikaras, Omahas and Ponkas held the corn to be more sacred than the buffalo, and that it also appears clear that the corn cult among these tribes was much more highly developed in early times, before the Indian secured horses and European weapons, the rise of the buffalo cult in most cases being a later development.”

For Hinton the red corn seed will always be sacred. “We are growing a number of seeds but I cannot give the red corn to anybody,” he said. In the next two to three years, his hope is to be able to mill corn in large volume.

“The genetically modified corn, they say it is not bad for you but how do they know,” he said. “I would like for our tribe to be able to eat—with the exception of the Ponka red corn—the other strains of corn.


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