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Tribal Community Preservation Despite COVID-19

"Our relatives at Pawnee are onto something in the article below. Physical, Mental, Spiritual, and Nutritional wellness by getting back in touch with our ways of life. One of our goals at the Intertribal Agriculture Council is to bring back feeding ourselves as a way of life everywhere, as our Pawnee relatives are doing in this article. When feeding ourselves is as basic as breathing, then our societies will begin to become whole again." Zach Ducheneaux

Women with visions of planting seeds that build communities, don’t allow even pandemics to diminish their dreams.

This DNA of endurance was planted unfairly and abruptly when the Pawnee were separated from the fertile soils of their Nebraska homeland. Still, the Pawnee carried their seed with them. But, the soils of Oklahoma were different, and their seeds were not acclimated there. The Pawnee Nation lost not only their homeland, but much of their ability to grow the seeds they loved.

Today, due to the leadership of Deb Echo-Hawk, the Keeper of the Seed for the Pawnee Nation, and the helping hands of many others, the Pawnee Seed Preservation Project has grown to around 20 growers across Nebraska and, most importantly, local growers have arisen at the Pawnee Nation in Oklahoma.

“Traditional foods are more than healthy foods, they are part of the history, land, culture and spiritual practice of a people – health, as well as part of the economic fabric of a tribe,” Echo-Hawk said about the seed preservation project. “Traditional foods are part of the generational heritage passed on from elders.”

“We need our local growers now more than ever,” Echo-Hawk said passionately.

While taking COVID-19 safety precautions seriously, Pawnee Tribal members in Oklahoma knew their seed work must continue. Electa Hare-Redcorn, who is a Pawnee Tribal member, Health Policy Research Scholar and has also been part of the seed project since its fruition said, “The women stepped up. You know how we do. It is time for women to be looked to for their leadership and logic. We cannot operate out of fear. We must operate from what we know – and that is planting and growing. What does not change is the soil and the ceremony of doing these practices. This is no different than how we would handle it if the men were out fighting or getting buffalo.”

“Some of the younger ones who have been through the seed internship were curious about making the mounds,” Hare-Redcorn went on to explain what it was like when the COVID pandemic was in its fruition. “One night they learned how, and we did about four rows. Then a small group of us came together the following Saturday and maintained the safe, six-feet social distancing in the garden from about 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. We did not announce we were doing it. We simply went out there and shared our knowledge and did 13 rows of eight mounds.”

“It has been really tough,” Echo-Hawk admitted. “Normally the Seed Blessing kicks off our season. This year, the men have a part in our ceremony, and they did it in private. Later, the public always comes. What we normally would have at the public ceremony are about 50 families coming together. We were not able to do that this year because of the virus.”

“When the women were out in the garden near the elder center, they felt like rebels because of the social distancing rules that were in place,” Echo-Hawk admitted about venturing out to the gardens early on in the season. “Another challenge is we do not have access to the building we were working in (to handle the seed). We were able to use the commercial kitchen in the past and there is no public access now. Getting the seed out to our gardeners here and in Nebraska is going to be a trick. I am going to have to go into a sanitized building and get the seeds and then it will have to be sanitized again.”

“We had a lot of volunteers come out to the Pawnee Nation College garden too and we did a workshop on how to use the woodchipper safely. We take all the corncobs and make a mulch out of them that looks somewhat like popcorn,” she explained. “Everyone had to wear masks, goggles and gloves. It was a little bit daunting.”

Echo-Hawk said because the Oklahoma clay they are planting into has concrete-like qualities, the mulch is very important. They also have been using an auger to drill into the mounds to make sure the roots have plenty of room, “We are trying to spend a lot of time on our soil. ‘Farmer Del’ (one of the gardeners from Nebraska) taught us how important it is to have healthy soil. That is something I am encouraging all the gardeners to do – to keep mulching and not adding any chemicals at all. I am just hoping to get more local gardeners involved.”

Hare-Redcorn said, beyond the seed preservation project at Pawnee Nation, she is seeing many examples of Tribes rising to help one another through the challenges that COVID-19 has presented to people across the globe, “For example, the Onondaga People realized that restaurants were still getting their weekly orders when the coronavirus hit. They got creative and contacted a vending company and said that the restaurants were closed and if you still have surplus produce, we will meet you. So, a group of grassroots people met the food trucks and some of the foods is being donated to food banks and distributed to the elders.”

“Some tribes are taking remarkable measurers to make sure their communities are being looked out for and are safe,” Hare-Redcorn added, noting how Tribes responded to immediate needs. “The Cherokee are delivering food from the government in an organized way to elders. The Osage and Pawnee are still delivering pre-COVID services to the elderly and are taking into consideration the new safety regulations.”

Hare-Redcorn said there has been a surge in awareness by Tribal citizens of food security issues that impact their lives, “People are realizing we do need to feed ourselves. It is important to convince communities that the work to grow food must go on – the planting and processing needs to carry on even with the shelter in place order. This is essential work. We all have to eat, and we all have to look at creative, local solutions that have always been there but have just been out of practice. It’s time to put them into practice again.”

“We know being out in the soil, getting exercise and getting our Vitamin D from the sun will help keep us healthy,” said Echo-Hawk. “In general, gardening is good for you and I hope that people realize they need to concentrate on how they can produce a crop. Doing this will be really valuable for themselves and their families.”



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