As Thanksgiving nears, we may reminisce about the stories about the Pilgrims and Indians that we heard growing up. How it was the Indians who showed the Pilgrims how to plant corn, how to cook wild turkey, and in the fall how they all sat down together to eat their feast. Did you know corn came from the Native Americans
I heard about this movement called “Sacred Seed” on National Public Radio. Some members of the Omaha, Cherokee and Ponca tribes are trying to revitalize the growing of the crops their ancestors grew. Taylor Keen, a member of the Omaha Tribe from Nebraska and a member of the Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma, is hoping to lead this comeback in Nebraska.
He shares what was once his backyard is now home to the “four sisters.”
“We have corn, bean, squash and the sunflower,” Keen says.
He calls them the four sisters because of how they grow and work together. The bean’s roots fertilize the corn as it grows up the stalk. Sunflowers help hold them all up against the wind, and the squash grows around them all, keeping the raccoons out. The corn that he is talking about is the beautifully colored cobs, or Indian corn, that we typically only see around Thanksgiving. Many people don’t even know that it’s edible.
Keen’s corn is now ready to pick. He raises indigenous popcorn and flint corn that can be ground into cornmeal. He also grows Cherokee White, a colorful, sweet corn that can also be ground into flour.
“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.
He’s raising these indigenous crops with help from students and some urban farmers in Omaha. The goal is to preserve native vegetable varieties to revive the traditions around growing and eating them
Many people haven’t tried to grow these varieties because it takes a bit more prep work. For example, flint corn must be soaked in an alkaline solution to dissolve the hard outer layer called the pericarp. That process, nixtamalization, is how hominy is made. It can then be ground into masa for tortillas. These corn varieties also make flavorful cornbread, polenta and grits. Also, the nutrient load is off the charts.
Using heirlooms offers full rich flavors, colors and nutrients. Some of these varieties are sold by heirloom seed dealers like Seed Savers in Iowa, or Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds in Missouri. I was so enthralled when looking at the Baker’s Creek site, I ordered several of the corn varieties mentioned here (and more!) and beans, and squash, and sunflowers!
Planting these seeds also gives tribal members jobs, making them sustainable in more ways than one. Like me, you may like to use the winter to plan spring plantings. Maybe this spring you can try some heirloom varieties, planting the four sisters in your backyard and enjoying colorful, flavorful, and nutrient-rich vegetables this time next year!
• Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds: Rareseeds.com
• Seed Savers (National Office): Seedsavers.org
Lynn Youngblood is the executive director of the Blue River Watershed Association in Kansas City. Reach her at TheGreenSpace@sbcglobal.net.