HASTINGS — The corn grows in a secluded corner at Central Community College-Hastings, its existence a miracle born of persistence and collaboration.
To understand that miracle, one has to go back in time to the 1870s when the U.S. Army forced the Pawnee tribe from its home in Nebraska to Oklahoma. The Pawnee carried their corn seeds with them, but their new home was less hospitable than their old one for growing corn. Over the years, the tribe’s supply of seeds dwindled until those remaining were so precious they were stored away and no longer planted or used in ceremonies.
Move ahead to 2003 and meet Ronnie O’Brien, now a hospitality management and culinary arts instructor at CCC-Hastings but then the educational director of the Great Platte River Road Archway in Kearney.
“A lot of teachers would ask if we had Native American programs,” said O’Brien, who set out to create such a program. Because of the Pawnee tribe’s oral tradition, however, she couldn’t find anything written by a Pawnee about the tribe’s 700 years of history. So she called the Pawnee Nation of Oklahoma and spoke to Deb Echo-Hawk, their conversation marking the start of a long partnership and friendship.
Echo-Hawk is now in charge of all food programs for the Pawnee Nation, but back then she was the education and training director. Together, she and O’Brien created “The Heart of the Pawnee Nation,” an educational program geared toward fourth-graders.
As a lifelong gardener who “grew up in cornfields,” O’Brien knew she wanted to include a garden as part of the program.
“The Pawnee were tremendous farmers who had their own varieties of seeds, which are completely different from today’s corn,” she said. “Because the seeds are sacred to the Pawnee, they never traded or gave them away. By 2003, the only seeds that remained were the ones the Pawnee had.”
Her interest in having a garden dovetailed with a seed project Echo-Hawk had been working on since the mid-1980s: The Pawnee Seed Preservation Project.
“When I moved to Oklahoma in 1997, I began asking families for the seeds of our ancestors,” Echo-Hawk said, but because the clay in Oklahoma was no more conducive to growing corn than it had been when the Pawnee were first exiled there, the seeds were slow to come in.
O’Brien’s interest in the seeds couldn’t have come at a better time. The Pawnee Nation had never trusted its seeds to a non-tribal member before, however, so it took some assurances from O’Brien for the Pawnee Cultural Committee to grant her both the permission and the seeds she needed to start the garden.
It was also a decision born of necessity. One of the tribe’s most prized varieties, Eagle Corn, was on the brink of extinction. Stored in a mason jar were the last 50 kernels, their whiteness marked only by the purple spot that would come to resemble an eagle’s spread wings as the corn grew.
O’Brien’s first attempt to grow Eagle Corn in 2004 was a failure, but both she and the Pawnee were undaunted and the last 25 seeds were planted the next year. This time, the corn took heartily to its native soil and climate and produced about 2,500 seeds for the tribe.
The project’s growing success made it possible in 2010 for the Pawnee to do 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.
Now in its 14th growing season, the Pawnee Seed Preservation Project has 17 approved gardeners in Nebraska, located in an area stretching roughly from Omaha to Mason City and from Genoa to Bloomington.
“Some of them have been with us for over 10 years,” Echo-Hawk said. “They’ve become family.”
Nebraska also has served as host to 22 Pawnee interns over the years. Some worked on archaeology projects and others helped build the earth lodge at the Archway. O’Brien had two interns who worked on the gardens in 2012 and 2013, but none since then until now. Thanks to funding from a philanthropist and a retired United Nations employee, three interns — Kahheetah Barnoskie, Mee-Kai Clark and Electa Redcorn — are staying at CCC-Hastings this summer to care for the garden on campus and document the other 16 gardens in Nebraska.
“I’m investing in something greater than myself,” said Redcorn, a social worker who is slated to become the Pawnee Nation’s next Keeper of the Seed when Echo-Hawk retires from the position. “My ancestral people grew corn here. Being a part of this is both a blessing and an obligation.”
An avid gardener herself – “If I’m having difficulties, I go work in the garden and I grow calm and peaceful and my problems float away” – Redcorn takes joy in seeing more people in her hometown of Pawnee, Okla., making the commitment to growing indigenous corn in their gardens.
She said the seed preservation project has inspired the Pawnee to get excited about their history and heritage.
“Young people are taking an interest in this project, but also in linguistics and in dancing and participating in ceremonies,” Redcorn said.
In the meantime, she’s thankful for the partnerships that have increased the Pawnee Nation’s corn supply.
“It’s been wonderful to work with Ronnie, and it’s amazing to see how an infinitesimal amount of corn has grown to a healthy amount,” Redcorn said. “We’re introducing the Pawnee to a sustainable and healthier lifestyle and preserving our cultural and historical past. It’s all social work, but on a bigger, grander scale.”
The entire seed project is on a big, grand scale. The gardeners may do the work of growing the corn, but it’s the Pawnee who care for the seeds when they’re returned to Oklahoma. It’s an ongoing labor of love that involves removing the kernels from the cobs, making sure they’re free of insects, sorting and storing them, and then checking them on a regular basis.
Most of them are stored in every room of Echo-Hawk’s home.
“I’m constantly buying containers,” she said with a laugh. “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.”
Echo-Hawk credits the Pawnee elders for starting the seed project and the Pawnee Cultural Committee and the Nasharo Council of Chiefs for supporting it over the years. She’s excited that the Pawnee Business Council now wants to make the project part of its economic development efforts.
The quest to find new opportunities and accept new challenges in multiplying the Pawnee’s native corn will continue. In the end, Echo-Hawk said, it’s all about relationships.
“When we started this project, we gave it a theme of ‘Maintaining Homeland Ties,’” she said. “Those ties have taken us in many directions, but it’s all about friendships and people coming together to accomplish something good.”