In the heart of corn country, an Omaha business teacher is on a mission to preserve Indigenous farming practices for future generations.

By Robin Pfeifer
August 24, 2020
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Taylor Keen
| Credit: Karla Conrad

For Taylor Keen, corn represents his heritage as a member of the Omaha Tribe in Nebraska and the Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma; memories in his grandmother’s garden; and now his calling as a keeper of Indigenous crops through an educational nonprofit called Sacred Seed. Interview with Robin Pfeifer.

RP How does a Creighton University business instructor get into corn?

TK It all started in my Cherokee grandmother’s garden. Digging in the hardscrabble Oklahoma soil isn’t the most pleasant experience, but it sustained us. I started to pine for it again and the lessons I learned there.

RP And those lessons transformed into the creation of Sacred Seed?

TK Cherokee nations normally get their identities from their mother’s side. I identify with my grandmother’s clan, Wild Potato. They take care of the plant world. I thought farming was a “white man thing.” I was well-versed in white man’s education, but I didn’t know a lot about my people’s ways. Forming Sacred Seed helped me piece together insights into tribal agriculture lifeway systems.

RP You see corn as living history?

TK All tribes have a story about Mother Corn. All tribes have revered it. It went from being used in ceremony to being used by everyone. Sale of excess corn helped support the tribes. That’s why I’m surprised when people tell me, “You can’t eat Indian corn.” All corn is Indian corn. Sacred Seed’s work of planting and sharing heirloom varieties using traditional methods happens in plots across Omaha, by those who truly love the seeds. We saw a world that had once been, and we can do it again.

RP There must be a learning curve.

TK I had to figure everything out. A student found an 1800s seed catalog with pictures showing how crops were threshed and harvested. Through a contact in Iowa, I learned about a similar back-to-the-land movement—traditional, no-till Jewish farming. You’re covered in sweat. Your clothing is stained from the soil. But doing it by hand feels organic and good.

RP What are obstacles you’ve faced?

TK Raccoons. The night before we were going to harvest, we had six or seven plots that got clobbered. We planted the corn in rows, which the raccoons ran through like linebackers. They knocked down everything except two plots that used the Three Sisters methodology: When planted together, corn, beans and squash protect each other from predators like raccoons. Sunflowers planted around the perimeter cut the wind. They didn’t touch them.

RP What have you learned about yourself throughout this process?

TK The corn is healing me. It’s so much hard work, we just bust our butts all the time, but it leads to these moments of elation that come when we harvest. No matter what’s happening in the world, I can put my head down in the plants, and it’s going to be alright. Even if it’s just a salsa garden on your back porch, grow it. Open your heart. Learn from the plants. They are always there for us.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

HOW TO HELP You can join the Sacred Seed cause with a donation—or by planting heirloom corn in your own backyard.