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A Return to Heirloom Corn Unpacks Powerful Cultural Histories

Seneca white corn grown at the Cultural Conservancy. | Still from "Tending Nature" episode “Cultivating Native Foodways with the Cultural Conservancy."

Seeds, while seemingly tiny, have a huge story to tell. They serve as sources of life, examples of biodiversity and indicators of climate change. For many Indigenous communities, seeds are also immense systems of cultural knowledge. As Sara Moncada, Chief Program Officer of the Cultural Conservancy, describes, “Seeds tell stories of our history and our landscape and our ecosystem.”

The "Tending Nature" episode “<a data-cke-saved-href="https://www.kcet.org/shows/tending-nature/episodes/cultivating-native-foodways-with-the-cultural-conservancy" href="https://www.kcet.org/shows/tending-nature/episodes/cultivating-native-foodways-with-the-cultural-conservancy">Cultivating Native Foodways with the Cultural Conservancy</a>” emphasizes the importance of preserving and protecting native seeds.
Native Foodways with the Cultural Conservancy

Cultivating Native Foodways with the Cultural Conservancy,” an episode of “Tending Nature,” emphasizes the importance of preserving and protecting native seeds, and demonstrates how seeds help build a relationship between people and land. The episode highlights the Cultural Conservancy’s efforts to return to heirloom seeds over the hybridized seeds that have persisted since the 20th century due to industrialized agriculture. 

The colonization, commodification and commercialization of agriculture has removed some of those relationships between people and the land. Genetic modification, monoculture and pesticides have severely altered the American diet, resulting in what the Cultural Conservancy’s CEO Melissa Nelson calls “the industrialization of our sacred relatives.” In today’s modern world, the majority of Californians have become increasingly disconnected from seeds, which are the original sources of what nourishes our bodies. From grocery shopping at big box chains to having takeout dropped off at our doorsteps via delivery apps, we often don’t take pause to think about where our food originates from. 

One of the Cultural Conservancy’s many current projects is maintaining a living Native heirloom seed library, a public space where people can receive seeds and where seeds are actively grown out and used. The organization prefers the name “seed library” over “seed bank,” as it reflects a more reciprocal and dynamic relationship with seeds that are intended to be shared and cultivated rather than simply stored. Each year the Cultural Conservancy also grows a traditional “Three Sisters” plot of corn, beans, and squash, which is one of the most well known Indigenous growing techniques. 

The three sisters garden at the Cultural Conservancy. | Still from "Tending Nature" episode “Cultivating Native Foodways with the Cultural Conservancy."
The three sisters garden at the Cultural Conservancy. | Still from "Tending Nature" episode “Cultivating Native Foodways with the Cultural Conservancy.”

When thinking of one of those sisters in particular — corn — it is hard not to envision anything other than the typical yellow cobs of sweet corn stacked up in rows at the grocery store. However, corn has a much deeper history. Today, the majority of corn is produced for animal feed, as well as high fructose corn syrup, corn oil, industrial products and even plastics. Corn became commercially hybridized, or pollinated intentionally by human intervention, by the 1930s, and today 92% of corn is genetically modified. Hybrid seeds are a cross between two varieties and are not the same as their parent plant, or heirloom ancestor. The corn many of us consume today is a huge departure from the Indigenous heirloom varieties that have been cultivated for thousands of years. 

Corn, or maize, is a fundamental part of many Indigenous origin stories. From an archaeological perspective, the domestication of maize began about 9,000 years ago in Southern Mexico and was introduced to the Southwestern U.S. about 4,000 years ago. For some Indigenous communities, it is the source of life itself. In the Mayan creation story, spiritual deities created the Earth, plants and animals, and then unsuccessfully tried to create humans out of mud and wood. Eventually, the deities created humans out of white and yellow corn. 

For the Hopi Tribe in northern Arizona, life revolves around the annual planting of corn. In the tribe’s origin story, a spirit guardian named Màasaw gave the Hopi people a planting stick, corn kernels, a gourd of water, and an ear of blue corn, teaching them the practice of dry farming. Today, the tribe continues this traditional method, relying solely on natural rainfall (which can be difficult in a predominantly dry climate), cultivating the land predominantly by hand, and adhering to regular planting cycles. Blue corn has a particular cultural significance to the Hopi, and is used to make cornmeal and piki bread, a paper-thin bread that is used to celebrate special occasions.

Hopi woman grinding corn, Arizona (1909). | Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress
Hopi woman grinding corn, Arizona (1909). | Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Hopi corn is planted in the spring and harvested in the fall, accompanied by a ceremonial calendar of dances, feasts and cultural traditions that have persisted for centuries. Corn has a cultural and spiritual presence at all stages of life, from birth to death. Susan Sekaquaptewa, a Hopi tribal member with the University of Arizona’s Cooperative Extension Program, relays in American Indian Magazine that “enormous amounts of traditional ecological knowledge are associated with dry farming... the environment dictates the technique, and you only learn from that experience.” Tribal members today living at Hopitsuskwa, the 12 Hopi villages atop the three mesas that make up their ancestral homeland, balance these traditional practices with their modern lives, and those who live off the reservation often return home for ceremonies and harvests. 

Today, the nonprofit organization Natwani Coalition preserves Hopi farming traditions, strengthens the local Hopi food system and develops innovative sustainable strategies to promote wellness in the Hopi community. Their projects include a Hopi heirloom seed initiative, and they also run a community grants program to promote traditional agriculture. The organization’s strategy is to “launch mutually reinforcing projects that over time will collectively restore our local food system.” 

The revitalization and preservation of heirloom corn and seeds is happening in other areas outside of the Southwest as well. On the East Coast, the Iroquois White Corn Project is helping restore an heirloom crop that dates back over 1,400 years. Up until the 17th century, this food source served as a staple crop for the Haudenosaunee of western New York, commonly known as the Iroquois people. The Haudenosaunee Confederacy is the name for the six nations (Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, Seneca, and Tuscarora) who make up a confederacy meaning “people of the longhouse.”

Beginning in 1697, historical circumstances had a devastating impact on traditional Iroquois white corn. During a fur-trade dispute, the French burned the Seneca village of Ganondagan to the ground, along with over a million bushels of white corn. During the Revolutionary War, George Washington ordered all of the Iroquois food sources destroyed, and white corn began to slowly disappear from traditional diets over the following centuries. 

In the early 2000s, John Mohawk, a Seneca archivist and historian, founded the Iroquois White Corn Project with Yvonne Dionne Buffalo (Samson-Cree) to help restore the farming, consumption and distribution of Iroquois white corn to the community. In 2011, the project returned home to Ganondagan, which is now a nonprofit, historic site and cultural center. 

The longhouse at Ganondagan, the Seneca village in present-day Ontario County, New York, that the French burned to the ground during a fur-trade dispute in 1687. Today, is a historic site and cultural center. | Paige Bardolph
The longhouse at Ganondagan, the Seneca village in present-day Ontario County, New York, that the French burned to the ground during a fur-trade dispute in 1687. Today, is a historic site and cultural center. | Paige Bardolph

Unlike commercial yellow corn, which is much sweeter, Iroquois white corn is earthier and nuttier, and more like hominy. As a food that is gluten free, low in sugar, and not genetically modified, this corn is a healthy alternative to the processed foods that have permeated modern diets. Iroquois white corn is also too small to be picked by machine, so it must be husked, hulled, and ground by hand — another return to traditional ecological knowledge that helps foster healthy communities.

“Seeds tell stories of our history and our landscape and our ecosystem.”

We are seeing a resurgence in these types of seed projects across the country, and even across the world. For Indigenous people who are far from their ancestral homelands, organizations like the Cultural Conservancy provide access to native seeds to allow communities to connect with their culture and heritage. As Maya Harjo, the organization’s foodways director, eloquently states, “The Cultural Conservancy does the really important work of reconnecting our community members who are in diaspora with their seeds who are equally in diaspora.”

Another project connecting diasporic communities with seeds is led by Rowen White, an Indigenous seedkeeper and activist from the Mohawk community of Akwesasne (whose ancestral homelands are in New York). White is the founder of Sierra Seeds, a regional organic seed cooperative based in Nevada City, California, that is focused on local seed production and education. Sierra Seeds is devoted to restoring ancestral seeds and uplifting farmers, gardeners and food justice activists to feel empowered to make changes in their communities. White also leads programs through the organization’s nonprofit sister program, the Indigenous Seedkeepers Network. 

Efforts of the individuals involved in the Cultural Conservancy, Natwani Coalition, Iroquois White Corn Project, Sierra Seeds, and many, many more are not only connecting Indigenous communities back to traditional ecological knowledge, but also encouraging healthy diets and sustainable farming practices for all. A return to native or heirloom seeds is a return to the original source of what we eat. It is time for us to start listening to the stories that seeds tell. 

Top image: Seneca white corn grown at the Cultural Conservancy. | Still from "Tending Nature" episode “Cultivating Native Foodways with the Cultural Conservancy.”

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