FORT KEARNY, Neb. — The mission to save nearly extinct varieties of Pawnee corn is expanding into research.

After a dozen years of carefully counting ears and measuring success in handfuls of kernels added to the Pawnee Nation’s seed bank, Ronnie O’Brien and her small band of Nebraska gardeners now have the experience and some data to apply more agricultural science to their work.

“We don’t know what their tricks were,” O’Brien said of Pawnee gardeners who tended their crops long before the Pawnee people native to Nebraska were forced by the U.S. government to relocate to Oklahoma in the 1870s.

O’Brien’s relationship with Pawnee Keeper of the Seeds Deb Echo-Hawk started in 2003 when, as cultural education director at The Archway, O’Brien wanted to plant a native garden.

Efforts to grow corn in Oklahoma had not been successful, so Pawnee elders gave O’Brien some of their precious few remaining kernels to plant in Nebraska soil. Since then, Nebraska and Oklahoma gardeners have learned corn-growing techniques that work and now are trying to understand why some varieties produce diverse kernel colors and patterns.

“From what I see now, I have nothing that resembles the original seed,” O’Brien said about her red flour corn crop.

After gathering harvested Pawnee corn and other crops at Fort Kearney State Historical Park Oct. 17 and Thursday afternoon, O’Brien, Lyn Krabiel of Kearney and Pat and Steve Hoagland of Bloomington drove to Oklahoma on Friday to deliver the Nebraska-grown crops to Pawnee Nation seed-keepers.

The Hoaglands’ truck was filled with several types of corn, along with black and Pawnee Spotted-Like-A-Horse beans, Arikara watermelons, Mandan and Mormon squash, and Omaha pumpkins, including some the Hoaglands’ canned and dried.

Krabiel’s contribution was the first Wichita white flour corn grown in Nebraska for generations. The Wichita are related to the Pawnee.

“This is the only Wichita variety that remains,” O’Brien said.

Special gifts

O’Brien’s 2015 goal was to replicate in her rural Shelton garden a 2013 red flour corn surprise at The Archway.

Among the multicolored kernels on the 2013 ears were blue- and red-speckled ones. It was the first recovery sign for speckled corn that had failed to grow from a few of the Pawnees’ remaining pure speckled corn seeds.

O’Brien planted weaker red flour corn seeds last spring and, by design and happenstance, stressed some plants more than others during the growing season. Pawnee gardeners believe weaker seeds and stress encourage the speckled trait to emerge.

She harvested 175 ears of corn, dried them in their husks and labeled each husk with a letter and number corresponding to its cornstalk’s “hill” in her garden. Her detailed growing-season journal describes planting, pollination and germination dates; weather conditions; rainfall and water applications; damage by raccoons and other pests; and other influences.

Her cornhusks are “all over the place,” ranging from white to nearly all red and red-and-white patterns. “We are learning that the husks are starting to reveal new things,” O’Brien said, including some kernel colors and patterns not in the seed collection overseen by Echo-Hawk.

Although O’Brien peeked at a few of her red flour corn ears, most remained sealed in husks like wrapped gifts for the Pawnee people in Oklahoma.

She wanted to give them the experience of opening their own corn. “That’s the best part,” O’Brien said, “but it will be neat for me to see it for the first time, too.”

More new things

She left for Oklahoma knowing she had at least one multicolored ear with blue- and red-speckled kernels and another showing a few red-and-white-striped corn kernels at the tip.

New to O’Brien were two small ears with a mix of gold and purple kernels.

She hopes Pawnee elders will decide there are enough speckled kernels now to allow her to plant a few again to see what happens. “We (eventually) get back to a pure seed,” O’Brien said about the goal for all Pawnee corn varieties, “what the ag guys call F-1.”

The greatest urgency initially was to recover the Pawnees’ most sacred corn, the nearly extinct eagle corn. It has unique white kernels with purple splotches resembling eagle wings.

Steps forward

The project’s goals are to better understand such corn mysteries, build a bigger seed base and recruit more Nebraska growers. O’Brien said potential gardeners should know about growing corn, must commit to giving all harvested crops to the Pawnee and must keep detailed records.

A computer database is needed in the future to make it easier for Oklahoma and Nebraska growers to compile information and figure out links between inputs, growing conditions and crop features.

In Pawnee, Oklahoma, this weekend, O’Brien’s hand-drawn map of her garden was replicated on the ground. Then, each ear was placed in its labeled row and hill. Every husk and ear was photographed, and other recorded details will be added to and compared with information in O’Brien’s journal.

As she opened the husks of a few red flour corn ears a week ago, O’Brien clearly was excited about what more she might learn from her 2015 crop.

“I can hardly wait to get to Oklahoma to open all this corn,” she said. “It’s driving me crazy.”

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