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Omaha Magazine

Taylor Keen's Heirloom Efforts

May 30, 2019 12:15PM ● By Chris Bowling

A soft breeze rolls across the top of the sunflowers, bowing them as they stretch toward blue summer sky. Beneath them and rising ears of corn, a man weaves through thick stalks, singing an old tribal song. 

Taylor Keen is a member of the Omaha tribe, which once roamed the rolling hills along the length of the Missouri.

Today, a small part of the land has kept their name but its landscape of concrete, brick, and asphalt couldn’t appear more different. Everywhere except this backyard in Dundee where Keen, an instructor in Creighton’s Heider College of Business, has planted and raised these crops in his tribe’s ways.

This is Sacred Seed, a project Keen started in 2014 to grow native heirloom crops, genetically unique plants specific to certain regions and tribes, in an effort to preserve their history, and by extension, his own.

The idea for Sacred Seed started with a call from a long-time mentor.

“‘Young man, what are you doing to protect your corn?’” Keen remembers Dr. Deward Walker, a professor emeritus of anthropology at the University of Colorado, Boulder, asking him. “And I said, ‘Do what?’”

Walker implored Keen, a Dartmouth and Harvard graduate who grew up mostly in Oklahoma, to heed the danger of large seed companies edging out native heirloom crops.

The idea stuck in his head. One day about five years ago, after he’d moved to Omaha, he received a letter from the Cherokee Nation, of which he is also a tribal member, advertising heirloom seeds. Though he had little gardening experience, he tilled a 4-by-1-foot plot in a corner of his yard and planted the seeds.

“As they began to grow,” Keen says, “it was like [watching] children.”

The next year, he formally established the Sacred Seed project, turning his backyard into a jungle along with help from volunteers and students of a Creighton course he taught called “The Sacred Economy of Indigenous Seeds.” The project has grown to at least four other backyards in the city as well as a new plot this year on the corner of South 13th Street and Leavenworth. His harvest includes crops from several tribes including the Cherokee, Omaha, and others.

After his first crop, Keen went to find Omaha varieties. He talked with other growers and tribal members trying to trace down seeds and searching in cellars for old preserves that were never there.

Taylor Keen of the Omaha tribe

Then he heard about the Museum of the Fur Trade in Chadron, a center built on the remains of the area’s trading post that supposedly sold Omaha Pumpkin Squash seeds.

He found not only the seeds but a book detailing everything he needed to know about his people’s farming—when to plant, how to plant, who did what job, what time of year they worked, and even what angles to build mounds in to receive maximum sun.

“It was a very powerful experience because here were instructions on how to do it,” Keen says. “It was a treasure trove.”

While Sacred Seed is not alone among many organizations and individuals preserving native heirloom crops, Keen’s movement has found footing among others who think there’s something to learn from the Omaha ways.

The Land Institute in Salina, Kansas, a non-profit focused on finding sustainable solutions to agriculture, partnered with Keen to grow some of his crops on their plots—including Arikara Sunflower, Cherokee White Corn, Arikara Melon, Cherokee Trail of Tears Beans, and Cherokee Okra.

Director of research Tim Crews said this is not a typical partnership. The institute focuses on perennial crops, and most of Keen’s crops are annuals. However, Crews said the partnership works because both are aimed at the ultimate goal—building an agricultural system in tandem with a culture that has respect for natural systems and ecological balance.

“We need a different model,” says Crews, “and we feel like what Taylor is keeping alive and spreading in his work is an example of a model that has proven to persist through time.”

In 2016, Keen drove to Cody, Wyoming, to identify some Native American artifacts for Becca West, his friend and curator of the Buffalo Bill Center of the West. One morning before going through the museum, Keen went for a run to mull over a line he’d just read in a book about listening to the Earth for guidance.

“Creator, if the plants or animals ever need to speak to me, may I be a strong enough vessel,” Keen prayed along the Cheyenne River’s banks.

At the museum later that day, West pulled out a large box of Omaha tribe artifacts containing a bag sealed with tape, yellow with age. Keen slowly dragged his knife around the edges and lifted the plastic away. Inside was a stick affixed to an ear of white corn, its crown painted blue with four lines leading down toward a still-intact husk.

Mother corn.

The sacred Omaha object, a symbol of the Earth-Sky union used to bless a newborn child and the tribe, was believed lost nearly 130 years ago, Keen says. And yet here she was before him, in a museum. It felt like his work with the book and Sacred Seed just received the highest blessing.

“If you want to believe in things aligning,” West says, “this was one of them.”

The past few years of Keen’s life are filled with these stories. Experiences that seem at once connected to spiritual currents beyond his control. Over the years he’s travelled to burial mounds, tribal origin places, and other sacred areas. Each time it reinforces the sacred beauty in the connection between all life as well as the purpose for his work.

Nowhere is that on display more than his backyard. As he plants, waters, and works, he can feel his ancestors watching over him.

“It’s our religion to honor the Earth and honor sacred places on the Earth,” Keen says. “But ultimately there is a relationship between the blood and bones of our ancestors [and the Earth].”

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This article was printed in the June 2019 edition of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

Taylor Keen holding heirloom corn