For the second time in 143 years, Pawnee people are returning to the land of their ancestors where today their native corn has come back to life in a new way.
Pawnee corn has been growing and is now again thriving in the Nebraska after 15 years of work by both past and present Nebraskans.
Ronnie O’Brien, an instructor at Central Community College-Hastings, and Pawnee member Deb Echo-Hawk started their relationship in 2003 with the Pawnee Seed Preservation Project.
Prior to the start of that project, the Pawnees’ sacred corn, which was once used for everything from daily nutrition to religious ceremonies, had dwindled to a few precious seeds in jars stored in Oklahoma.
Through years of study and hard work on the part of O’Brien, Echo-Hawk and a dozen farmers across central Nebraska, the seed and the corn has returned.
That corn, the cultural significance and the importance of sustaining the land for future generations will all be highlighted at a special event in conjunction with Earth Day on the CCC-Hastings campus April 28.
“The more we learned about the corn, the more interested we got,” said CCC student Cecie Packard.
The Native American Sustainability Zero Waste Event is being organized and put on by students in the recently created event planning program at CCC started by O’Brien.
The six students in the class had heard regularly from O’Brien about the corn project and even had the chance to help deliver corn to the Pawnee Nation in Oklahoma in fall 2017.
“We realized how important corn was to them and said this is something we wanted to do,” Packard said. “We learned so much from the Pawnee.”
Part of that connection comes from the fact that south central Nebraska is the heart of Pawnee country, the area where the Pawnee lived until they were exiled in the 1870s.
“They were here before we were, and in my opinion it’s wrong that they had to go in the first place,” said student Renee Coe. “They have more right to grow their corn here in Nebraska than we have. It’s something that is really important to them to have in their home.”
Once group members returned home and started talking about the event, they found the conversations always returned to the corn.
“It’s always been all about the corn and how important that key word that keeps popping up is sustainability and how does this play into it,” Echo-Hawk said.
She said the Pawnee representatives are curious what other tribes and the other speakers have to say on the issue of sustainability as the Pawnee are again returning to those roots.
“We’re moving toward that,” she said. “How can we feed ourselves so we can say, ‘This is sustaining us again?’ Maybe someday it will come true.”
For the Pawnee, corn is the culture in agriculture. Some of the corn that has been grown in recent years has even been used to provide food to those elders who are sick or even approaching death as nourishment for body and spirit.
So for the Pawnee to trust modern-day Caucasian Nebraskans to help grow and restore their corn supplies has been a big and serious task.
Now for the second time in 143 years — the first time was to a pow wow in Kearney in 2009 — the Pawnee are returning to their homeland.
“This event honors that relationship between Nebraska and Oklahoma and to bring back corn and the fact that we’ve been successful,” O’Brien said. “Fourteen years ago, we didn’t know if we were going to be successful, but it has been successful and the corn is now back to the point of where they can actually use some of it.”
It was with that in mind that the event planning students came together with students in the environmental and sustainability program to put on this special Earth Day event.
The event, which will be attended by many native Nebraskans including Pawnee, Omaha and Cherokee peoples, will feature a Pawnee Drum event, a Pawnee-prepared meal, various speakers and workshops.
One of Echo-Hawk’s relatives, who is a chef in Seattle, will be preparing a special meal that will be served on all dishware and with silverware that are all washable and reusable.
There will be bins for recycling and composting any waste at the end of the meal, as well.
“People are encouraged to bring their own water bottles, and we have reusable bags we’ll give out for any promotional material so they can use for the grocery store or whatever,” said CCC’s environmental and sustainability director, Ben Newton.
O’Brien said the zero-waste aspect of the event certainly fits with the theme of the event.
“The natives are very big on that, too,” she said. “That’s how their life was, zero waste, and they try very hard to have those initiatives today within the tribes.”
Speakers will include Echo-Hawk talking about the Pawnee Seed Preservation Project; Taylor Keen, a member of the Omaha and Cherokee tribes; and keynote speaker Hunter Lovins, president and founder of Natural Capitalism Solutions.
“She’s been a champion of sustainable development for over 35 years, and she works on national policy at the federal level,” Newton said.
Newton said he saw Lovins speak early in his career and she turned him onto the importance of sustainability.
“And she’s going to talk about regenerative agriculture, which flows with the theme of the Native American and first farmers more about regenerating the land through grazing and agriculture,” he added.
The event also will feature workshops on worm composting, beekeeping and the wind turbine on campus along with a visit from raptors through the Raptor Recovery Program through Outdoor Educators from Colorado.
Student Neleigh Flessner said she hopes that this event will help to continue the Pawnee seed project into the future.
“We’re hoping to make a change,” she aid. “We’re helping them bring back their corn. We’re helping make impacts to bring it back.”
O’Brien said 15 years ago she and Echo-Hawk had no idea if the project would even work and if they could even bring the corn back to Nebraska and the Pawnee.
Now, she said, she still wonders how many people appreciate what has and continues to be done.
“We know how important the corn project is to us and how important the corn is to the tribe and sometimes you think you’re the only ones who think that,” she said. “These students are a great example of how other people care about this project and other people care that the corn is coming back for tribes.”
O’Brien said the history of the Pawnee in Nebraska and what was done to them is an embarrassment. She hopes this can help change that going forward.
“We are sitting at a point right now of where we can all make a difference,” she said. “We can all make these tribes feel like what happened to them can be changed, it can be made better somehow.”
O’Brien said its about creating a new appreciation for the Pawnee, their history here, their agricultural heritage and the corn.
“Corn is more than a staple food,” she said. “Corn is sacred.”