Vann Bighorse, director of the Wah-Zha-Zhi Cultural Center in Pawhuska, Oklahoma, is keenly aware that Osage traditions are getting closer to slipping away—permanently.
A current project to preserve Osage culture and revive a millennia old tradition is now three years in the making. The Cultural Center has been building a collection of heirloom seeds and recently started growing traditional foods for traditional purposes. The Cultural Center currently has a small garden located at the facility. It is a small garden with huge potential, and Bighorse knows this project has to happen now.
“It’s going to revitalize a corn that’s been dormant for over a hundred years…. it is going to be wonderful to use a corn that was used by our people over a hundred years ago,” said Bighorse.
The seed preservation initiative has been successful to this point due to the Osage tradition of keeping and passing down seeds from generation to generation. When seeds are passed from one generation to the next the importance of the seed, caring for the seeds and any other stories that go along with each family’s seed is also passed down.
Growing traditional foods has proven to be an ongoing learning process. Unpredictable conditions are often a part of gardening and working with nature. Deer and an armadillo were among the annoyances that would dig through the newly-planted seeds and then later the almost full grown plants. Also, an unusually rainy summer with cooler temperatures hampered the plants’ growth.
Nonetheless, nature’s unpredictability did not halt the project and the focus remains on the cultural preservation of an Osage tradition.
The goals of the heirloom seed bank are always evolving.
The seed project will start by building up a volume of enough seeds that can be available to tribal members for them to plant and eventually have crops that can be stored, shared, planted again, and the working knowledge of growing a traditional food.
This summer, the plan is to sow the garden with mostly corn; a strain known as “Roan Horse Brown Corn” and a couple other heirloom varieties, according to Bighorse. There will be about two rows of either squash or a type of watermelon from Pawnee seeds.
This is the beginning phase of stock piling the grain for tribal use. The Cultural Center wants to be able to distribute the grain, which is used for hominy, to any family who has a feast and desires to prepare traditional food. “I’d like to be able to have enough [corn] so one day I can say to someone, ‘Hey, this is for your family’s dinner,’” said Bighorse.
The next stage will be developing a training curriculum on preparing food, such as, traditional hominy.
For more information about the Wah-Zha-Zhe Cultural Center’s Heirloom Seed Project contact, Renee Harris, WCC Administrative Assistant, at 918-287-5538.