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Ancient Pawnee crops find new life in Nebraska soil

by Jan Thompson
Overton, Neb.

KEARNEY, Neb. ” Each spring, seed corn prized for its purity is planted in a woman’s garden. Five kernels go in each hill, with one in the middle and four surrounding it. She plants the hills sporadically, one long pace apart from each other, and fills the space between with melons and beans. Eventually their vines and leaves will twine into a thick patch that will preserve moisture in the ground, shade the plants, and make it tough going for animals trying to reach the young produce.

Getting these seeds to germinate and start growing is a heavy responsibility for the woman. Many people ” an entire tribe, in fact ” count on her to renew the sacred crops. In a way, it’s up to her to feed the Pawnee Nation.

It’s a responsibility that Ronnie O’Brien, educational director at the Great Platte River Road Archway Monument in Kearney, Neb., has taken on since 2004. That’s when she began raising Pawnee heritage crops, in an effort to revive the pure and ancient varieties of corn, beans, and watermelon that the Pawnee Nation raised when they lived in central Nebraska. It’s also a job O’Brien knows she’s inherited from the generations of Pawnee women who raised gardens big enough to feed their communities, and she’s taking her cues from them.

“We are learning exactly the way (the Pawnee) did. One year at a time. There is no manual, there is no book,” she said. Just the land, the weather, and the plants she tries to learn from as she watches them grow. One variety, called eagle corn for the distinctive black marks on each kernel that resemble spread wings, has been a particularly big challenge ” and perhaps the project’s biggest success. At one point, only 25 kernels of eagle corn were still known to exist. This fall, O’Brien shipped another five ears of kernels to Deb Echo-Hawk, who supplied that first seed corn and who runs the Pawnee Nation’s seed bank in Oklahoma.

“For me to tell you how much I have learned in (four) years of growing this corn, it’s unbelievable. And I’m really glad that I found them, and that (Echo-Hawk) trusted me with her seeds,” O’Brien said.

KEARNEY, Neb. ” Each spring, seed corn prized for its purity is planted in a woman’s garden. Five kernels go in each hill, with one in the middle and four surrounding it. She plants the hills sporadically, one long pace apart from each other, and fills the space between with melons and beans. Eventually their vines and leaves will twine into a thick patch that will preserve moisture in the ground, shade the plants, and make it tough going for animals trying to reach the young produce.

Getting these seeds to germinate and start growing is a heavy responsibility for the woman. Many people ” an entire tribe, in fact ” count on her to renew the sacred crops. In a way, it’s up to her to feed the Pawnee Nation.

It’s a responsibility that Ronnie O’Brien, educational director at the Great Platte River Road Archway Monument in Kearney, Neb., has taken on since 2004. That’s when she began raising Pawnee heritage crops, in an effort to revive the pure and ancient varieties of corn, beans, and watermelon that the Pawnee Nation raised when they lived in central Nebraska. It’s also a job O’Brien knows she’s inherited from the generations of Pawnee women who raised gardens big enough to feed their communities, and she’s taking her cues from them.

“We are learning exactly the way (the Pawnee) did. One year at a time. There is no manual, there is no book,” she said. Just the land, the weather, and the plants she tries to learn from as she watches them grow. One variety, called eagle corn for the distinctive black marks on each kernel that resemble spread wings, has been a particularly big challenge ” and perhaps the project’s biggest success. At one point, only 25 kernels of eagle corn were still known to exist. This fall, O’Brien shipped another five ears of kernels to Deb Echo-Hawk, who supplied that first seed corn and who runs the Pawnee Nation’s seed bank in Oklahoma.

“For me to tell you how much I have learned in (four) years of growing this corn, it’s unbelievable. And I’m really glad that I found them, and that (Echo-Hawk) trusted me with her seeds,” O’Brien said.

KEARNEY, Neb. ” Each spring, seed corn prized for its purity is planted in a woman’s garden. Five kernels go in each hill, with one in the middle and four surrounding it. She plants the hills sporadically, one long pace apart from each other, and fills the space between with melons and beans. Eventually their vines and leaves will twine into a thick patch that will preserve moisture in the ground, shade the plants, and make it tough going for animals trying to reach the young produce.

Getting these seeds to germinate and start growing is a heavy responsibility for the woman. Many people ” an entire tribe, in fact ” count on her to renew the sacred crops. In a way, it’s up to her to feed the Pawnee Nation.

It’s a responsibility that Ronnie O’Brien, educational director at the Great Platte River Road Archway Monument in Kearney, Neb., has taken on since 2004. That’s when she began raising Pawnee heritage crops, in an effort to revive the pure and ancient varieties of corn, beans, and watermelon that the Pawnee Nation raised when they lived in central Nebraska. It’s also a job O’Brien knows she’s inherited from the generations of Pawnee women who raised gardens big enough to feed their communities, and she’s taking her cues from them.

“We are learning exactly the way (the Pawnee) did. One year at a time. There is no manual, there is no book,” she said. Just the land, the weather, and the plants she tries to learn from as she watches them grow. One variety, called eagle corn for the distinctive black marks on each kernel that resemble spread wings, has been a particularly big challenge ” and perhaps the project’s biggest success. At one point, only 25 kernels of eagle corn were still known to exist. This fall, O’Brien shipped another five ears of kernels to Deb Echo-Hawk, who supplied that first seed corn and who runs the Pawnee Nation’s seed bank in Oklahoma.

“For me to tell you how much I have learned in (four) years of growing this corn, it’s unbelievable. And I’m really glad that I found them, and that (Echo-Hawk) trusted me with her seeds,” O’Brien said.

KEARNEY, Neb. ” Each spring, seed corn prized for its purity is planted in a woman’s garden. Five kernels go in each hill, with one in the middle and four surrounding it. She plants the hills sporadically, one long pace apart from each other, and fills the space between with melons and beans. Eventually their vines and leaves will twine into a thick patch that will preserve moisture in the ground, shade the plants, and make it tough going for animals trying to reach the young produce.

Getting these seeds to germinate and start growing is a heavy responsibility for the woman. Many people ” an entire tribe, in fact ” count on her to renew the sacred crops. In a way, it’s up to her to feed the Pawnee Nation.

It’s a responsibility that Ronnie O’Brien, educational director at the Great Platte River Road Archway Monument in Kearney, Neb., has taken on since 2004. That’s when she began raising Pawnee heritage crops, in an effort to revive the pure and ancient varieties of corn, beans, and watermelon that the Pawnee Nation raised when they lived in central Nebraska. It’s also a job O’Brien knows she’s inherited from the generations of Pawnee women who raised gardens big enough to feed their communities, and she’s taking her cues from them.

“We are learning exactly the way (the Pawnee) did. One year at a time. There is no manual, there is no book,” she said. Just the land, the weather, and the plants she tries to learn from as she watches them grow. One variety, called eagle corn for the distinctive black marks on each kernel that resemble spread wings, has been a particularly big challenge ” and perhaps the project’s biggest success. At one point, only 25 kernels of eagle corn were still known to exist. This fall, O’Brien shipped another five ears of kernels to Deb Echo-Hawk, who supplied that first seed corn and who runs the Pawnee Nation’s seed bank in Oklahoma.

“For me to tell you how much I have learned in (four) years of growing this corn, it’s unbelievable. And I’m really glad that I found them, and that (Echo-Hawk) trusted me with her seeds,” O’Brien said.

KEARNEY, Neb. ” Each spring, seed corn prized for its purity is planted in a woman’s garden. Five kernels go in each hill, with one in the middle and four surrounding it. She plants the hills sporadically, one long pace apart from each other, and fills the space between with melons and beans. Eventually their vines and leaves will twine into a thick patch that will preserve moisture in the ground, shade the plants, and make it tough going for animals trying to reach the young produce.

Getting these seeds to germinate and start growing is a heavy responsibility for the woman. Many people ” an entire tribe, in fact ” count on her to renew the sacred crops. In a way, it’s up to her to feed the Pawnee Nation.

It’s a responsibility that Ronnie O’Brien, educational director at the Great Platte River Road Archway Monument in Kearney, Neb., has taken on since 2004. That’s when she began raising Pawnee heritage crops, in an effort to revive the pure and ancient varieties of corn, beans, and watermelon that the Pawnee Nation raised when they lived in central Nebraska. It’s also a job O’Brien knows she’s inherited from the generations of Pawnee women who raised gardens big enough to feed their communities, and she’s taking her cues from them.

“We are learning exactly the way (the Pawnee) did. One year at a time. There is no manual, there is no book,” she said. Just the land, the weather, and the plants she tries to learn from as she watches them grow. One variety, called eagle corn for the distinctive black marks on each kernel that resemble spread wings, has been a particularly big challenge ” and perhaps the project’s biggest success. At one point, only 25 kernels of eagle corn were still known to exist. This fall, O’Brien shipped another five ears of kernels to Deb Echo-Hawk, who supplied that first seed corn and who runs the Pawnee Nation’s seed bank in Oklahoma.

“For me to tell you how much I have learned in (four) years of growing this corn, it’s unbelievable. And I’m really glad that I found them, and that (Echo-Hawk) trusted me with her seeds,” O’Brien said.


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