Corn — good for eating and looking nice

Lee Pulaski
City Editor

Corn can be a vital staple in meals for Native Americans and other Indigenous cultures, but certain corns can also have other uses, as well, including making necklaces and bracelets.

Dolly Potts showed a small workshop of people on July 27 at the Sustainable Development Institute on the College of Menominee Nation’s Keshena campus how to cook with Bear Island flint corn to make the hard shells edible, but she also showed them how the uncooked kernels can be combined with beads and other things to make beautiful items to wear. While much of this knowledge is a part of the history of many tribes, it has become lost as those tribes were forced to assimilate into the white man’s world in America through reservations, boarding schools and tribal terminations.

One of the benefits of Bear Island flint corn, according to Potts, is its ability to withstand colder temperatures, which makes it a good crop for tribes in Wisconsin and other northern states.

“So many times, this corn is grown on islands and near water, because the water warms the earth and helps to grow the corn,” Potts said. “Another reason we like it is because it has a short growing season (85 days), and a lot of corns take a lot longer.”

The Bear Island flint corn is more commonly associated with the Ojibwe than the Menominee, but the colorful corn helps to prop open the door for Indigenous knowledge with the tribe as it tries to reclaim its identity and its past. The corn currently grows in the community garden at the institute, but Potts and others affiliated with the college have been working with other tribes to learn about its uses and how to prepare it properly.

“We went through the process of processing it, drying it out, and then we decided to hull it,” Potts said about the efforts to learn about growing and using the corn.

Potts noted that she and the others learned about the flint corn’s hard shell and how it needs to be boiled for hours to remove the hard shell and make it ready for consumption. However, it takes more than water to soften the corn, and during the workshop, bags with a hardwood ash from oak trees were used to aid the processing.

“It’s the best ash to hull corn,” Potts said. “It’s a traditional way of hulling corn. It adds a smoked flavor to the corn.”

With a forested area comprising much of the reservation, the Menominee are in a good position to hull the corn and prepare it for consumption, according to Potts. The institute was able to used the burned wood as biochar to help grow the corn, she said.

Prior to the workshop with the flint corn, Potts did a workshop about milkweed, showing participants how to harvest it and use it in cooking. More workshops are in the development stages, and information about them can be found on the CMN Sustainable Development Institute’s Facebook page.

“A lot of our knowledge exists with our elders, and they pass it down to others,” Potts said. “In these times, we’ve got to go back to these old ways. I’m glad that young people are learning that way of doing things. We didn’t have tractors and cultivators, and we couldn’t go to Farm and Home and get fertilizer. We had biochar and fish emulsions, and those things were found in the ancient garden beds (on the reservation).”

Potts is eager to continue her work in showing the Menominee and other Native Americans how the old ways can still be the best ways to maintain a healthy and sustainable lifestyle.

“This is my life,” Potts said. “I do this everyday.”