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our crop


Buffalo bird woman , Hidatsa, born about 1839, used centuries old agricultural methods to grow corn, beans, squash and sunflowers.
In the year 2000, Stargazer, Crazy, and Paco Solitare use these same age old methods to stumble through challenges and obstacles to a successful harvest, using heirloom vegetable seeds collected from the Hidatsa, Mandan, and Aricara tribes.
   "With their hoes, my mothers cut the long grass that covered much of the field and bore it off the line to be burned."
{Paco and Stargazer successfully convinced Crazy to make buffalo shoulder blade hoes and then had him clear the field!
 "With hoes and digging sticks my mothers next dug and softened the places where hills were to be laid in rows."
Now in our garden, Crazy has meandered off to the horses while Paco and Stargazer use the buffalo shoulder blade hoes and digging sticks to work the soil and create hills for planting.  We made the hills as tradition dictated, 4 feet apart with 6 to 8 seeds per hill.  We then patted the hills with our hands as Buffalo Bird Woman used hers.  
   Hills of beans were planted between the corn hills, then hills of squash and pumpkins were planted in a border around this.  An  outer border around the whole garden was made of hills of sunflowers spaced 8 or 9 paces apart.  This was the traditional planting arrangement of a Hidatsa garden.  The distance between hills in the garden seemed to me a waste of space, but there was a reason for it in those days.  With no irrigation it was the best way for crops to have full advantage of only natural rainfall.  We did find it necessary to irrigate in this year 2000, one of the worst drought years in history.
   "When the corn is 3 inches high we hill up."   Earth was gathered from  all directions and brought up around the shoots to conserve water.  This process was repeated, again using our bone hoes, in the hills containing beans, squash, etc.  This was another reason for the large spacing between hills, since it took a lot of dirt to hill up.  It is interesting that my 92 year old mother remembers her  own mother conserving water by hilling up around the flowers in her garden on their dry farm in Idaho.  
   Masked bandits [raccoons] began raiding for corn in August.  This was contrary to Buffalo Bird Woman's garden whose bandits were young men sneaking into the garden to harvest green corn for roasting treats.  She, with her mothers and sisters built a corn watching stage to better scan the field for young men as well as winged thieves.  The girls would sing songs over their fields to make their corn happy, as a mother would sing to a child.  The words of these songs were actually taunts to the boys.  Jill thought, "These songs make the corn happy?  My kind of corn, for sure!"  Now Jill would never think of taunting Paco and Crazy!
   Summers end brings harvest time. Mandan summer squash turned out to be quite pretty, white with either green or yellow stripes.  These were cut with Squash knives made of buffalo bone, into rings, much as one would slice an apple.  These rings were hung to dry on sticks laid across drying frames. Later they were strung on grass ropes for storage.  
   Our corn, which was 3 feet tall at maturity, was harvested late September.  By then it was dry on the stalk and suitable for grinding to flour or seed for next years crop.  Corn was shelled from the cob with the thumb.  Our corn was evidently an exotic red variety, a sweet corn, which was once a staple of the Mandan  villages.
   Red beans were picked when the shells were dry.  These are a beautiful red, brighter than the red beans we see in the stores today.  Winter Arikara squash and Omaha pumpkins we have stored whole, though records mention these being sliced and dried the same way as summer squash.  Sunflower heads were laid out to dry face down, then fruit is removed by beating the heads with a stick.  Jill is extremely good at using the beating stick, just ask Crazy!
   These seeds were not easy to find.  It took several months to track down sources.  We finally were able to contact the professor who wrote the book The Way To Independence, a story of Hidatsa life based on Gilbert Wilson's interviews  with Hidatsa families. From them we were able to find limited seed available for purchase.  Some may ask, why bother to grow the old varieties?  It is because they are an endangered species as much as any of the animals we are concerned about today!  They are a part of our North American heritage and in; that respect alone are worth saving.  These old vegetables, through many years of selecting the best of the crop for seed, have developed unique qualities, such as drought resistance, to be best adapted to grow in their region.  There are as many as 10,000 genes combined to make each heirloom variety unique but in this modern world of mass production and demand for uniformity many crops now depend on too narrow a genetic base. Genetic uniformity is an invitation to disease epidemics, such as the Irish potato famine in the 1840's and the Texas corn blight of the 1960's.  Both were widespread because the entire area's crop was based on a single genetic variety.  The loss of genetic and species diversity could mean tragedy in the future as diverse genes will be unavailable for breeding. Saving these Native American varieties is a way of passing on something from our history.
   Now, how does all this relate to the mountainmen and the fur trade? According to Charles Hanson Jr, large quantities of shelled corn were sold to the trading companies for employee rations and resale to other Indians.  There is evidence of one Indian village selling over 500 bushels of corn to the American Fur Co.  Earlier we  hear of Lewis and Clark supplementing rations at the Mandan village with Native American vegetables.  Several journals mention this type of trade, and following are a few quotes from these journals:
   As we were in want of food…….we proceeded to the boats where we found a considerable number of Indians assembled to trade.  They gave jerked buffalo meat, tallow, corn, and marrow; in return they received tobacco in carrots, vermillion, blue beads,etc.      Bradbury
   2nd  Mr Kipp, the American Fur Co. agent for the Mandans presented me some dry corn and some roasting ears.
   3rd   Floated 2 hours and stopped to breakfast, having found no game.  Have lived much upon the stores we have taken from the forts above.  At the last place we were presented with some green corn which we are now roasting.    Wyeth 1834
   For those interested in other areas of the country, journals also mention varieties of corn, beans, etc. grown by tribes form Cal. To the Southwest, and of men supplying themselves with such rations.
   I traveled from the Spanish village of Taos to Fort Osage on the Missouri in 34 days.  I had supplied myself with provisions for the journey consisting of meat, beans, and peas.          Becknell, 1825




   Cooking and serving of most traditional dishes was very simple, such as Bradbury's journal records;  
"The squaw prepared something for us to eat.  This consisted of dried buffalo meat mixed with pounded corn..  Some offered us sweet corn mixed with beans."  There are several "recipes" which are of interest or have become favorites of mine:
   
    Four-vegetables-mixed:
Into a pot of water throw one double handful of pre soaked beans and cook a few hours.  Cut about 18 inches off the dried squash strung on the grass rope. Tie the ends of the rope together and immerse this into the pot.  When the squash is tender lift it out and mash and chop it, then return it to the pot and throw away the rope. Now add 4 or 5 double handfuls of mixed meal and cook a few minutes more.  Mixed meal is made of parched and pounded corn and sunflower seed, a little less of sunflower seed than corn. A little salt can be added to taste.

   Sunflower seed balls

Using parched and pounded sunflower seeds, form a handful into a ball, then enclose it in the palms and gently shake it.  This brings out the oil in the seeds and helps the ball hold together.  Warriors carried one of these balls to eat if he became tired or sleepy, and it would refresh him, no matter how weary!

   Corn balls   
   2 cups each of beans cooked till the water is gone, then mashed, and of corn meal, and of baked, mashed squash.  It may take a little more corn meal to make it thick, about like cookie dough.. [ I add some salt, and a little sugar to please the taste of my white man husband.]  I place spoonfuls of this mix on screens and dry it in the dehydrator.  We took some of this on our 5 day ride and it kept well.  Any longer and it starts to taste stale.


See ya on the  food trail !
This garden and Artical was
put gather by same three
Stargazer, Crazy, and Paco
with help from these sources:

       The Way To Independence by Gilman Schneider
       Buffalo Bird Woman's Garden by Gilbert Wilson
       The Heirloom Gardener by Carolyn Jabs
       Museum of the Fur Trade Quarterly Vol.2 #3
       Seed Savers Exchange
       Native American Seed Search
       Travels in the Interior of America by John Bradbury
        Selected Letters of William Becknell
        The Journals of Captain Nathaniel Wyeth's Expeditions to the Oregon Country and Selected Letters