Maize — from the Ancient Ones

By Rita Bober

Rita Bober

Imagine yourself in the forest on this continent a thousand years ago. You look up to a canopy of numerous tall trees with an understory of smaller trees, scrub bushes and vines. It is like a jungle in there. Now walk to the edge of the forest and you will see a large field of uniform plants — a field of maize (known today as corn). Just as Penny Kelly was asked in her book Robes: A Book of Coming Changes from the Little Men In Brown Robes, I ask you: Is a corn plant still a corn plant if there is no human to celebrate and eat its gift of corn? As the Men in Brown Robes stated: "The answer is no. The intelligence that is corn has no need to become a corn plant that will nourish human life except in response to the need of the human to have something to eat."

So, many years ago, the Natives of this land spent a lot of time and energy developing the various types of maize as well as beans and squash. And the only benefit they were interested in was the health of the people — health of the little people, middle-aged people and elder people. And to them food was medicine. I think that is why the value of Native heritage plants is far greater than the nutrition of the hybrids that we have today — hybrid foods that were developed with the idea of shipping durability, mass production, and short-term profits. Native foods on the other hand are weighted in something we might call "the life force."

It is believed that maize, or corn, originated from a wild grass, growing in warm, wet places in the Western Hemisphere possibly in Central or South America thousands of years ago. Imagine the years it took to produce the type of foods available in 1492 before Christopher Columbus arrived in this territory. During those days there weren't just white and yellow corn and a mix of the two. Native people raised over 20 different kinds of corn and more varieties of beans. They had squash, gourds and melons of many different kinds. Native Americans had also developed irrigation and terracing techniques. Some had developed a thriving lifestyle while others survived in harsher environments as hunter-gatherers. The growing of corn traveled from the middle of this hemisphere north and most Native communities depended on it for at least part of their daily food supply.

Recently I was reading Retrieving Michigan's Buried Past: The Archaeology of the Great Lakes and learned that maize (corn) was grown in small garden plots as early as 1000 A.D. here in Michigan. William M. Cremin in his chapter on "Upper Mississippian Adaptation: The View from Southwestern Michigan" stated that when French explorers arrived in Michigan, they found the "native peoples practiced a mixed farming-hunting-fishing-gathering economic strategy. During the summer months, women tended their crops of corn, beans, squash, and tobacco in small fields in the rich alluvial soils of the river floodplains and collected wild edibles close to their villages."

When Columbus landed and was given maize, he called it corn. Where did that name come from? According to Susun Weed, "Korn" is an old Greek word for "grain." All the grains were known as korn, i.e. wheat, oats, barley and even rice. Today we think of corn as only corn, but kore (pronounced "core-a") is also The Great Mother of us all. "Her name in its many forms — Ker, Car, Q're, Kher, Kirn, Kern, Ceres, Core, Kore, Kaur, Kauri, Kali — is the oldest of all Goddess names. 'Kern' is ancient Greek for 'sacred womb-vase in which grain is reborn.' The Goddess of Grain is the mother of civilization, of cultivation, of endless fertility…To the people of the America's, she is Corn Mother, she-who-gave-herself-that-the-People-may live…corn and grain are magic. The one becomes many…that which is reborn."

Marilou Awiakta in her book Selu: Seeking the Corn-Mother's Wisdom shares one story about this Corn Mother who gave herself that the People may live. This is a spiritual story about life, death, and rebirth. The Corn Mother gives us her seed thoughts. She shows us the interconnectedness of our lives: work — family — self. Corn Mother is a teacher of wisdom — one who feeds the People in body and spirit. Here are some of the words of wisdom from Corn Mother:

The corn is like our people. It draws strength from its clan. A single stalk will bear nothing. We need to live in communities to be whole.

As you hold up a calico corn — see how the different colored kernels are ranged around the cob — no one more important than the other. How each kernel respects the space of those on either side, yet remains itself — red, black, white, yellow or combinations of those colors — exemplifying unity in diversity.

"All around us we see life 'dying back' — in nature, in our families, in society. Homo sapiens are literally killing their own seed and the seeds of other life forms as well. One cause of this suicidal violence is greed." Perhaps you can be like a seed…live deep in your own spirit…each seed can represent hope for a better future.

The seeds of one decade are the harvest of the next. The reason this maxim holds true is that cycles are Mother Nature's way and She will take her course, so you're advised to work with her. For example: children who are "planted" in one decade and mature in the next.

Add your seed thoughts to our list — contemplate the value of your heritage, remember the stories that are meaningful to you and note the survival wisdom you've found.

During last winter, my husband and I saw the movie King Corn. To us it was a devastating story of how our Western culture has destroyed the "life force" of corn. Miles and miles of corn are planted each year, most of this genetically-modified corn. Some of this corn is used to feed animals and some is transformed into high fructose corn syrup which has no nutritional value at all but is added to many of today's food products found in our grocery stores to sweeten them. What have we done in the name of profit? Are we destroying ourselves and future generations? After viewing this movie, we decided to acknowledge and appreciate the goodness of Native corn by bringing it into our food lifestyle. This year we have planted some dent corn that we will grind to use as cornmeal. Most seed companies have very few varieties of Native corn seed but Seeds Savers Exchange, Inc. and J.L. Hudson, Seedsman both have a variety of corn seeds, including Bloody Butcher, Blue Hopi Calico, Cherokee, Black Aztec, Oaxacan Green, Tuscarora Flour, and Oneida among many others. Because we grow our own food, we can choose what we plant.

Somewhere in my teachings, I learned that cornmeal is also used in the same manner as tobacco or sage. It can cleanse and heal. It can be used to send prayers to the Creator. Cornmeal is a feminine plant while tobacco is a male plant. Take some cornmeal and run your hands through it. Let the energy of this healing plant cleanse you and send its blessings to you. May these corn seeds that I have shared today be a remembrance — a gift from the Corn Mother who feeds the People in body and in spirit.


Published in Natural Balance Magazine, Winter/Spring 2010.