Women from the Winnebago Tribe husk corn as part of an annual corn harvest on the reservation in northeast Nebraska. Photo by Kevin Abourezk

Winnebago Tribe turns to tradition with annual corn harvest

'That’s how I remember it'
Community gathers for corn harvest on Winnebago Reservation
By Kevin Abourezk

WINNEBAGO, Nebraska – The three women sit on lawn chairs before a growing pile of corn husks.

One by one, they pull the husks off the corn and throw the corn into a blue rubber container. They tease each other, as well as the three young men who are dumping the piles of corn kernels onto wire meshed wooden frames in order to dry them in the sun.

The men and women are harvesting corn recently taken from a nearby field. They are doing their work behind a Dollar General in Winnebago, in full view of traffic passing on nearby U.S. Highway 77.

Sarah Snake, 62, tells the men she found a caterpillar on one of the corn cobs and took it off. Later, she found the caterpillar on her ankle, biting her.

“He was probably eating the corns on your feet,” one of the men tells Snake, making her and the other women laugh.

Sarah Snake of Ho-Chunk Inc. helps husk corn during the Winnebago Tribe's annual corn harvest in northeast Nebraska. Photo by Kevin Abourezk

The scene, Snake says, is reminiscent of a much older time, when the Winnebago people would harvest their corn as a community. The men would pick the corn, while the women would husk the corn and cut the kernels off with spoons, placing the kernels on sheets. The men would then take the sheets and dump the kernels off of them onto screens to dry the corn.

Children would play, and other men would sing harvest sings in the Ho-Chunk language.

“That’s how I remember it as a child growing up,” Snake said.

Indianz.Com Video by Kevin Abourezk: Tribal Harvest Returns to Tradition

And so she recently decided to help the three young men charged with harvesting the Winnebago people’s corn and teach them how their people harvested corn in the old days.

“It’s an experience that they can carry on and that I hope they can teach their children and their grandchildren so that it’s not a dying art of our people,” she said.

Aaron LaPointe, agricultural business supervisor for Ho-Chunk Farms, said this is the second year that the tribe has planted and harvested corn.

Aaron LaPointe of Ho-Chunk Farms pulls corn cobs off stalks in a field near Winnebago, Nebraska. The Winnebago Tribe began its corn harvest recently. Photo by Kevin Abourezk
Jeremiah Nieman, harvest specialist for Ho-Chunk Farms, pulls corn cobs off stalks recently during the Winnebago Tribe's annual corn harvest. Photo by Kevin Abourezk

The harvest will take about two weeks, and Ho-Chunk Farms is hopeful the harvest will yield 200-250 quarts of corn.

The company hired two harvest specialists to help with the harvest, and several community members have volunteered to help process the corn, LaPointe said.

“We’re trying to get the community involved and kind of revive a traditional practice that’s been diminishing,” he said.

A tub of corn sits near where three Winnebago women husked corn as part of their tribe's annual corn harvest. Photo by Kevin Abourezk

He said multi-colored corn being harvested is especially popular for soup.

“It’s a product that has high demand in our community and the supply is actually really low,” he said.

He said the tribe doesn’t use dehydrators or other mechanical means to process the corn.

The tribe doesn’t have its own traditional corn to plant but rather uses corn planted by other farmers in the region, he said. This year, Ho-Chunk Farms planted 1.5 acres of corn, compared to just half an acre of corn last year.

He said the company is hopeful community members will help with the harvest.

“It’s hard work when you’re out here in the field, but I think it’s important if you’re a tribal member,” he said.

Aaron LaPointe of Ho-Chunk Farms pulls corn cobs off stalks in a field near Winnebago, Nebraska. The Winnebago Tribe began its corn harvest recently. Photo by Kevin Abourezk

Snake said the Winnebago Tribe’s corn is highly sought after because of the traditional methods the tribe uses to process its corn.

She said a local Catholic prayer group of which she is a member also plants and harvests corn and even sends nearly 20 quarts of corn each year to members of the Ho-Chunk Nation of Wisconsin, a sister tribe to the Winnebago.

“They know that we do it the traditional way, that we’re not using dehydrators and stuff,” she said. “We’re dehydrating it in the sun.”

She said the traditional way of planting and harvesting corn involved saying prayers before planting the corn, harvesting the corn and drying the corn.

Dried corn would often be one of the few food items that tribal members had to eat during the winters, Snake said. They would often add wild game to it to make a soup.

She said harvest time is one of her favorite times of the year.

“This is a part of my life in this time of year,” she said. “I just love to go around and help people do it and give them a hard time.”

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