Ronnie O’Brien, a Catholic from Nebraska, has spent the past seventeen years working with Deb Echo-Hawk, Keeper of the Seeds for the Pawnee Nation in Oklahoma, on a project close to the heart of both women: Bringing back the Pawnee’s sacred ancestral corn from the brink of extinction.
Their Pawnee Seed Preservation Project has grown through patient, hard work and, they both say, some timely assistance from Saint Kateri Tekakwitha.
When their project began in 2003, the Pawnee tribe’s supply of Eagle Corn had dwindled to just fifty seeds resting in a single mason jar. The corn had been central to Pawnee culture and spirituality for hundreds of years, but it had not grown well in Oklahoma where Echo-Hawk’s ancestors had been forcibly resettled from their homelands in Nebraska in the 1870s.
“The corn has been there for us since the beginning,” Echo-Hawk told Crux. “It’s involved in all of our ceremonies and, historically-speaking, it was probably served daily, so we can’t imagine really being without it.”
Faced with the possibility of permanently losing their nutrient-rich ancestral corn strains, Echo-Hawk’s tribe’s culture committee made the tough decision to take a chance on O’Brien, who had grown up farming corn in their ancestral homeland and had volunteered to plant their remaining seeds back in that Nebraska soil.
After a rocky first growing season in the Nebraska garden, the preservation efforts started to bear fruit in 2005. Since then, O’Brien has been slowly building up a network of volunteer gardeners and farmers across Nebraska who today tend seventeen different gardens and fields that feature several strains of Pawnee ancestral corn.
“Everything that we grow in our own fields, with our own equipment, goes right back to the Pawnee because it’s theirs, it’s part of what we agreed to, that it all goes back to them,” O’Brien told Crux. “We’re just trying to help this tribe get their corn back.”
Due to the project’s gradual growth, the Pawnee have been able to slowly reintroduce their ancestral corn back into their ceremonies and their diets. Echo-Hawk hopes that the project might eventually bring some economic benefits to their struggling community, but both women were quick to stress that the seeds are still endangered, so it will still be some time before they’re stable enough to begin to think about sharing them more widely.
At several key moments during the last decade of this preservation project, both Echo-Hawk and O’Brien firmly believe that the Catholic Church’s first Native American saint, Kateri Tekakwitha, has intervened to ensure the project’s survival.
Echo-Hawk, much like the vast majority of her tribe, is not Catholic, but each week for two years in the build-up to Kateri’s 2012 canonization, the Pawnee’s Keeper of the Seeds said a rosary and a set of Kateri prayers in hopes that the Catholic Church would recognize Kateri’s holiness.
Since then, Echo-Hawk has no doubt that the saint known as the “Lily of the Mohawk” has communicated with her and protected her tribe’s seeds. “I have three rain stories for Kateri,” she explained, “where I prayed and asked for help, sought her out, and then everything happened, she helped me out.”
In each of the three cases, Echo-Hawk believes that Kateri held off the rains just long enough, including one instance where torrential rainfalls were on the verge of ruining seven years’ worth of corn seeds. A statue of Kateri now sits in the Pawnee tribe’s main garden in Oklahoma, serving as a sign, she says, that even her tribe’s non-Catholic Nasharo Council of Chiefs believe her accounts.
“I love Kateri, who went through so much, whose faith was so strong that it carried her through difficult times,” said Echo-Hawk. “I think she’s a gentle reminder of a people who have been invisible, and yet have so much to offer.”
An identical Kateri statue also rests in O’Brien’s personal garden back in Nebraska. O’Brien says that Kateri has been a consistent guide for her in her work with the Pawnee, and she also credits Kateri with leading her to the St. Kateri Conservation Center, an organization devoted to inspiring and equipping Catholics to participate in local responses to ecological challenges.
O’Brien now serves as the Center’s Coordinator for Indigenous Programs, a new role she believes will allow her to draw on her experiences with the Pawnee to support similar preservation movements for other tribes, pulling in more Catholics along the way in the spirit of Laudato si’.
“Pope Francis really gets it in Laudato si’,” she said. “He is saying we Catholics must work with the indigenous, and not just the Catholic indigenous, and there’s now a movement within the Church to try to make that happen.”
“And when it comes to their relationship to the earth, the indigenous are so far ahead of us,” she added. “They really need to be leading our response to ecological problems and we need to be listening to them.”
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