Imagine if you had to move from your family’s centuries-old homeland to a place with climate and natural resources that don’t fit your livelihood of farming and hunting.
Approximately 2,000 Pawnee faced those difficulties 145 years ago when they were moved from the Loup, Platte and Republican river basins in Nebraska and north-central Kansas to Indian Territory in Oklahoma.
An Oklahoma Historical Society history describes the Nebraska life of the Pawnee as having “alternating patterns of cultivation and High Plains bison hunting.”
Spring economic and ritual activities focused on horticulture. “Women prepared and planted gardens of corn, beans and squash; men engaged in religious rituals associated with gardening,” the history says.
In summer and winter, they traveled west to hunt bison. In August, they returned to their earth lodge homes for harvest.
Major factors for the Pawnee move, identified in the history, were U.S. population expansion west, transcontinental railroad construction, constant Sioux attacks, and 1833, 1857 and 1874 treaties relinquishing their Nebraska lands to the government.
Soils and weather were different in Oklahoma and individual farms became more common. When Pawnee priests died without successors, knowledge was lost about religious ceremonies and the sacred bundles — collections of symbolic and ritual objects wrapped in a buffalo hide casing.
By the 1930s, when efforts began to restore a tribal government and Pawnee traditions, most corn seed varieties had been lost.
Or so it seemed until 2003.
That’s when Deb Echo-Hawk, keeper-of-the-seeds for the Pawnee Seed Preservation Project, and Ronnie O’Brien of Shelton, who then was The Archway’s cultural education director, connected as “seed sisters.”
Since then, small steps by gardeners in both states have turned into giant leaps of progress to rebuild seed stocks of remaining corn varieties and restore some long thought to be extinct.
More than a commodity or decoration, corn is at the core of existence for the Pawnee.
Echo-Hawk said there are 3,256 tribal members now, with one-third living in Oklahoma and the rest residing around the world.
“Our origin stories say ... our first man and woman descended from the sky world. The woman had the seeds of life within her and the man discarded his bison robe and a whole herd sprung forth,” Echo-Hawk said, adding that the woman was wrapped in corn husks.
She sees the corn project as also reflecting the good relationships between the Pawnee people and early Nebraska settlers, some of whom mourned when the Pawnee began the long journey to Oklahoma. “Our friendship was severed ... until the Pawnee seeds brought us together to maintain homeland ties through friendship once more!” Echo-Hawk said.
The project has been a painful reminder of hardship and loss for some Pawnee. A Nasharo (Chiefs Council) elder chief told her he thought corn and the corn ways should be a thing of the past.
“He believed that we lost so much on that walk,” Echo-Hawk said, including sacred bundles and their meaning. “Sometimes, they simply were placed high in a treetop for Atius (God) to take back. Others had given theirs to museums to take care of because the family had perished and the knowledge was lost.”
Eventually, the elder chief said he was sorry for giving her a hard time.
Echo-Hawk said he told her, “You kept the corn going and bringing it back. You didn’t give up and now we have a bountiful start to feed our people again.”
“And then,” she said, “he wept and told me ‘thank you.’”
I’ve written stories about Echo-Hawk and O’Brien since 2007, a few years after the bumpy start to save sacred eagle corn, with its purple splotches resembling eagle wings on white kernels.
Their work clearly is about much more than growing corn so Pawnee people may eat foods made from the same crops once grown by their Nebraska ancestors.