Family's Indian corn keeps an ear toward history

HUFF, N.D. (AP) — Mary Graner bent down a barbed-wire fence and waded into 10-foot stalks in her family's cornfield.

The Huff-area farmer and rancher reached up to pick an ear of flint corn, commonly called Indian corn, bringing it down to shuck its husks and see the kernels' colors.

Not quite ready.

"We need sunshine," Graner said on a misty, wet Friday morning. Sunshine helps the corn ripen into hard, colorful globules like shiny marbles or glass beads.

Graner's family grows variants of corn for food, ornamentals and silage, or animal feed. For years, the family has sold sweet corn in Mandan and Indian corn to the Papa's Pumpkin Patch fall tourist attraction in rural Bismarck, the Bismarck Tribune reported .

Graner and her husband, Kenny, both grew up selling sweet corn. After they married, they began growing corn for a little extra income.

Indian corn is a "huge" seller, said Dave Pearce, owner of Papa's Pumpkin Patch, which goes through about 600 dozen ears, peeled, bunched and tied for sale.

"It's so wonderfully, uniquely colored, and her ears of corn are wonderfully big and full," said Pearce, before he and others were to begin peeling and tying ears from another supplier last week.

"It's one of those symbols, like the pumpkin, of the harvest, of Thanksgiving," Pearce said.

Indian corn isn't a widely grown variant. Graner said she knows of no one else in Morton County who grows it. Pearce said it's hard to find growers in the area or up north, given the corn's growing season of more than 100 days.

"You've got to be early in the ground with it. You've got to pay attention to how you grow it to get it," he said.

Corn goes back generations among the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara tribes of the upper Missouri River, who also raised beans and squash in their gardens.

In a 1917 account of Hidatsa agriculture, gardener Buffalo Bird Woman described nine varieties of corn in the gardens of Like-a-Fishhook Village, which was directly north of what is now Beulah Bay on Lake Sakakawea.

Buffalo Bird Woman also recounted the legend of how the Hidatsas were introduced to corn upon migrating to the Missouri River.

"One of the Mandans on one side of the river took his arrow, tied a half of a cob and shot it over the river," said Darian Kath, interpretive park ranger at Knife River Indian Villages National Historic Site near Stanton.

"And the word for 'eat' is the same for Mandan and Hidatsa, and so they tried it and took it back to the rest of their villagers, and for the Hidatsas, that's how they started growing corn, was from the Mandans introducing it to them," he said.

They were aware of cross-pollination, or "corn traveling," and used variants of corn for many purposes, from flour to cornmeal to cornballs.

"I could talk to you all day about corn," Kath said.

Graner's Indian corn will be ready in about a week. Her family might expand their sweet corn next year, owing to its success.

"It just turned into a nice family project," she said.

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Information from: Bismarck Tribune, http://www.bismarcktribune.com