Local Native Americans harvest heirloom corn crucial to their heritageKRAGNES, Minn. - The harvesters break off dried corn stalks at the base with a brisk snap. They twist off the ears and place them in recycled plastic grocery bags. A few of the pickers – anxious to see the corn beneath – peel back the crackly husks to reveal kernels ranging from burnt umber to eggplant to a pale, buttery hue.
KRAGNES, Minn. - The harvesters break off dried corn stalks at the base with a brisk snap.
They twist off the ears and place them in recycled plastic grocery bags. A few of the pickers – anxious to see the corn beneath – peel back the crackly husks to reveal kernels ranging from burnt umber to eggplant to a pale, buttery hue.
Some of the cobs are studded with fat, off-white kernels, lined up like rows of large, crooked teeth.
“This corn is very, very nutritious,” Noreen Thomas tells the group of a dozen or so Native American adults and children. “It’s like a vitamin tablet.”
The corn in question is an heirloom variety called White Flint Hominy. Also known as “Seneca Hominy” or “Ha-Go-Wa,” this 1,000-year-old corn was crucial to the Native American diet for centuries.
Now, through the work of tribal seed-savers and partners like Thomas, this nutrition-packed, culturally important food is enjoying a renaissance.
Thomas worked with Native American activist and environmentalist Winona LaDuke, who lives on the White Earth Reservation, to provide land for the project on her family’s organic farm north of Moorhead.
LaDuke provided heirloom seed through the White Earth Land Recovery Project, which promotes traditional native foods, saves traditional heirloom seeds and shares those seeds with the larger community.
Their ultimate goal was to share the mature corn with the Fargo-based Native American Center Project, which provides referrals, support and educational and cultural programs to the local Native American population.
Thomas and workers helped sow the seed in July. The corn was planted in a high tunnel to extend the hominy’s warm, humid growing season. The tunnel, along with the practice of “hooding” female and male portions, helped to prevent pollen drift from genetically modified corn, which would contaminate the ancient seed bank.
The hominy grew healthy and tall – some stalks brushing the 12-foot-high ceiling of the high tunnel. The indigenous women who bred the corn so long ago knew exactly what they were doing; deer were less likely to pilfer ears from tall stalks, Thomas says.
By last Wednesday, the crop was ready. Prairie Rose Seminole, head of the Native American Center Project, brought a handful
of friends and colleagues to the farm to harvest the corn.
Amid the smell of fresh hay and the rustle of dried stalks, the group worked quickly. Their children helped, too, although they were occasionally distracted by the piles of pumpkins outside the tunnel and by “Sammy,” a friendly pet steer grazing nearby.
Within 10 minutes, the 250 plants inside the high tunnel had been stripped of corn and stacked in piles.
“Look at the Natives go,” Seminole said, laughing softly.
The oldest of the sisters
Corn, beans and squash are often called the “three sisters,” as they formed the backbone of the Native American diet for hundreds of years.
The three foods provided a balanced diet, even at times when bison or other meats were scarce, Seminole says.
Corn was the oldest and most versatile of the crops. While most corn grown today is used to feed livestock or fortify industrial products, the unprocessed heirloom variety is a nearly ideal foundation food for humans, writes John Vivian in Mother Earth News Magazine.
Miraculous maize lacks only two essential amino acids – lysine and tryptophan – as well as riboflavin and niacin. (Conveniently, these missing nutrients are provided by beans, which were trained to climb up the stalks of corn in Native American companion gardens long ago.)
Over time, however, many native people have lost the knowledge of how to grow and prepare these age-old foods. The hominy is nothing like sweet corn; you could crack a molar trying to bite into it, Thomas says.
The Ojibwe helped break down the cast-iron-like kernels by cooking the corn with birch ash; Thomas’s research found that baking soda works almost as well.
But first, the corn had to be thoroughly dried. After all the corn was picked, Thomas led the group of harvesters over to a couple of picnic tables so they could use the husks to braid the ears together, much like their ancestors did. Relaying information she learned at an indigenous foods festival last spring, Thomas showed them how to make a French braid to weave the colorful cobs into a chain.
Once dried, the hominy will be featured in a “shared meal” scheduled for November. Everyone can bring their own hominy-studded stews, soups and casseroles. One woman talked about cooking a traditional, super-healthful Native American dish, hominy and tripe soup.
“They aren’t used to using fresh hominy. They use canned hominy,” Seminole said. “I’m excited about it though.”
But not all of the seeds will be used. Some will be saved for next year. “This is such a valuable relationship. Noreen has the ability to teach us how to grow these foods,” Seminole says. “I’m hoping to work with her on a larger project. We have a ton of seeds we could share with her to even further promote our native foods project.”
Heritage and health
Seminole says preserving these ancient foods is vital for several reasons.
One is biodiversity. She talks of the many varieties of native vegetables, such as wild radishes and prairie turnips, which her ancestors once ate for a healthful, balanced diet. But as our western diets have become more processed and less diverse, nutritional values have deteriorated.
“We don’t even know what we lost,” Seminole says, referring to several regional reservations whose “seed savers” have dwindled to one or two elderly women. “We don’t have the varieties or the knowledge anymore.”
Much of this knowledge died during the era of Indian boarding schools, which punished young people for practicing cultural traditions and eating ancient foods, Seminole said.
As a result, the Native American people lost “that spiritual understanding of who we are,” she said.
Accordingly, the Native American population began eating a refined, overprocessed diet, and is now rife with diabetes and heart disease.
Last week’s harvest is one step toward reintroducing Native American children to their agrarian roots. “We should know where our food comes from. When we’re buying cherry tomatoes from Chile, we’re telling our young people they don’t need to have a connection with their food anymore,” Seminole said.
Deb Dorman, a Fargo woman who helped with the harvest, agrees that projects like these can help preserve her culture.
“We definitely want to teach our children by learning ourselves,” Dorman said. “It just feels right.”
Readers can reach Forum reporter Tammy Swift at (701) 241-5525