Sacred Seed Project Gives Native American Corn—and Tradition—New Life

Food travels around the world to get to our plates, but this corn had practically traveled through time. Its kernels were red, purple, orange, white and even black, and it had a depth of flavor and nutrients unlike the corn you find at your average supermarket. And it had come dangerously close to becoming extinct.

Taylor Keen, a professor at Creighton University and member of the Omaha and Cherokee Nations, is on a mission to rescue varieties of crops native to the Omaha, Neb., region where his ancestors once farmed. 

Keen’s mentor started this journey a decade ago when he told him that the native varieties of corn and other crops were in danger of being cross-pollenated with corporately-owned varieties. To preserve them, Keen set off on a journey to collect and propagate untainted heirloom seeds from museums and other historical centers.

“I’m interested in correcting history, exploring the sacred seeds and other indigenous heirlooms and somehow getting it into the hands of the right people,” Keen said. “I started this project to preserve and increase the biodiversity among these crops, and hopefully one day, someone will be glad that people like me are trying to save them.”

Keen planted the crops the way his ancestors did. He wore traditional clothing and sang over the newly planted soil. His mother said a prayer in Umónhon, the language of the Omaha tribe, over the seeds that were planted by women of childbearing age at the first new moon of the new year marked by the first thunder. The corn is planted as part of the “four sisters”—corn, beans, squash and, to break the windy storms in the Nebraska region, sunflowers. This process is repeated at each of the 5-7 lots around Omaha where his crops are planted. You can find photos of Keen's backyard crops on his Instagram page.  

Keen is not only preserving the heirloom crops, but also the way they’re planted and prepared. His crops are planted on raised mounds and grouped together in patterns, not rows, that eliminate the need to let the fields fallow between growing seasons. Once harvested, some of the corn is made into hominy through a traditional nixtamalization process, which involves using wood ash lye to break down the hard outer shell of the kernel.

Keen’s project has bloomed into a company—Sacred Seed LLC—that seeks to preserve and propagate tribal seed sovereignty, battle for tribal sacred geography and revitalize tribal culture. He also teaches a class at Creighton on “The Sacred Economy of Indigenous Seeds” and is writing a book titled “Rediscovering America: Sacred Geography, the Ancient Earthen Works and the Real Story of America.” 

“This has been a spiritual journey – something awakened in me getting close to the cycle of the sun, moon and plants while physically, every day, having my hands in the soil,” Keen said. “Each year I find more and more seeds, so I plan to continue the journey and let the soil do the healing.”


Source Contact Information

Creighton University
Instructor at the Heider College of Business