Corn is quietly consumed by the masses, but Native Americans meticulously grow and cherish the corn that they harvest.
Corn is a staple in the American diet. In fact, we consume just over one billion tons of it per year. But lost in this gargantuan industry are the true roots of corn, back before the formation of the United States or even before settlers travelled across the Atlantic Ocean. Back to when native tribes cultivated a crop handed down from the gods.
The origin story of corn isn’t consistent among Native American tribes—many were separate and rarely crossed paths—but the idea of a spiritual character introducing the crop is present among multiple tribes.
“According to our belief, mythologically, corn was given to us by our creator,” says Jonathan Buffalo, the historic preservation director for the Meskwaki tribe in Iowa.
The exchange Buffalo was referring to occurred when the tribe was still hunting mastodons, elephant-like beasts that have now been extinct for thousands of years. The story is that two tribe members were hunting in the forest for food. They ran into a beautiful woman, her right and left arms extended. They offered her venison because they thought she was hungry. She returned the favor by telling them to come back to that same spot in one year for a gift. When they returned, they found three seeds on the ground: corn where the woman’s right hand had been, beans where her left hand had been, and tobacco in the middle where she was standing.
The corn, along with the crops beside it, was vital to the tribe. The number of mammals was shrinking. There was less food to go around. The corn, quite literally, saved the Meskwaki tribe, and the woman who gave it to them is now referred to as the “corn mother.”
The Meskwaki aren’t the only tribe who claim the story of the corn mother. Evidence of the corn mother has been traced to the 10th century, with stone carvings of her picture found with corn near St. Louis, Missouri. Typically, these carvings were drawn with serpents or snakes, an image that Taylor Keen, the founder of the non-profit Sacred Seed, says was representative of the protection of the corn.
“Snakes are great for gardens because they eat a lot of things that eat your corn, and their waste is good for the soil as well,” Keen says.
A Special Kind of Corn
This corn that the Meskwaki tribe was gifted wasn’t the typical corn we buy today. Theirs is called Tama Flint, which Buffalo describes as a flour corn. While a typical cob of corn is yellow—the sweet corn or yield corn we’re used to—Tama Flint is almost every color but yellow. White, blue, red, and dark blue line the outside of the Tama Flint cob. It’s a species derived from northern flint corn, which was grown around the northeast and Great Lakes area.
“It’s been dated that we had Tama Flint for at least 3,000 years or more. So, every time archaeologists find Tama Flint, that means we’ve been there,” Buffalo says.
The main difference between yellow corn and Tama Flint, besides the various colored kernels, is its density.
“It’s not a dense corn. It’s a flour corn,” Buffalo says.
The Meskwaki start by rolling five seeds with “garden bits”, as Buffalo puts it, into a ball and planting it in a pile of other corn seeds. This specific method, which they call historical farming, is crucial because, as Buffalo describes it, corn is a community plant.
“It needs to touch its neighbor,” Buffalo says. “So it touches its neighbor, that way it fertilizes itself and everything. It’s a very friendly plant.”
Following the harvest, they take the cobs and boil them, removing the kernels after they lift the cobs from the water. With the kernels they make soup, or they grind the corn left on the stalk to create cornmeal.
Of course, that’s not the only way to grow traditional corn. Keen, who is part of the Cherokee tribe, grows numerous varieties of traditional corn. His goal through Sacred Seed is to protect and preserve the genetic diversity of original seeds. He has experimented with many different varieties, starting with traditional Cherokee white flour corn, which looks more elongated than traditional yellow corn. He has also experimented with sweet corns, which are more colorful, and then flint corn which is the same species as the Tama Flint corn.
The seeds are planted in his backyard around mid-May, and he makes sure to have only women of child-bearing age plant the seeds.
“Inherently, we have notions of sacred and notions of sacred femininity, and it just seemed really earthy to do that,” Keen says.
He has also tried to grow Red Corn, a type that is so sacred to the Cherokee that they aren’t even allowed to touch the corn.
“It’s fitting that we are the keepers of the corn if even we can’t touch the corn,” Keen says.
Corn is Everything
Corn is everything to the Native Americans.
“Corn is, in some ways, our life, our food, and everything,” Buffalo says.
And Keen agrees. “It’s everything to us,” he says.
Indeed, the tribe has lasted for thousands of years, and they expect to continue for thousands more. However, concern for climate change and the possibility that growing their crops will become more difficult in the years to come looms over the tribe. But faith in the land and in who they are as a people is what keeps the Meskwaki confident that they will be OK.
“We can give up everything else, you know, if we have to in the future. If our environment is still healthy enough to produce, we’ll be OK as a people. Because as a people, we have been here a long time, and we’ve seen the world change, and we saw the [massive mammals] disappear. At some time in our history, we ate the last mammoth,” Buffalo says.
It all comes back to the survival of the tribe, and the original story of a woman gifting them with the three seeds, including their sacred corn. Tama Flint corn seeds have continued to thrive, and this leaves Buffalo with confidence.
“Corn is one of our main staples, along with squash and beans, and as a people, whatever happens in the future, [if] we’re not all dead by climate change in the future, we feel that as long as we can grow those three crops, we will survive everything,” Buffalo says.“As long as we can feed and clothe ourselves, we’ll be OK.”