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Lac du Flambeau tribal members plant flint corn as alternative to declining wild rice

Wild rice is in decline, so some members of the Lac du Flambeau Ojibwe are turning toward another traditional crop for sustenance – flint corn.

They’ve established a community garden to grow and share corn.

Flint corn, also known as calico corn or Indian corn, has multi-colored kernels of deep purple, red and gold. It’s the type of corn cultivated by American Indian people hundreds of years ago to make hominy.

In Lac du Flambeau, the Ojibwe tribe used flint corn to supplement a diet of wild rice and venison.

“If you went back 150 or 200 years, our people didn’t have pantries, but they had birchbark baskets. In these birchbark baskets, in their food caches, there was both corn and wild rice,” says Greg Johnson, a Lac du Flambeau tribal member, cultural teacher and artist.

He says few tribal members still grow flint corn and make their own hominy.

But with climate change disrupting wild rice growth, he’s trying to bring the staple back.

“We’re all facing the same dilemma when it comes to wild rice,” Johnson says. “Wild rice is in decline, so I thought back to the beginning. What would our people do? This is probably what they would have done. They would have a garden for everybody to share. We’re not trying to sell (the corn) or do anything other than provide food for our families and, in some sense, replace that wild rice that’s been sustaining us forever.”

Johnson and a dozen tribal members planted more than 40 rows of flint corn at the tribe’s Golden Eagle farm.

When the corn is harvested in the fall, it’ll be braided and hung up over the winter, then boiled with maple ash in the spring to enrich the corn and turn it into hominy.

It’s a practice that dates back centuries, but one Johnson hopes can help tribal members deal with the more recent challenge of climate change.

Erin Gottsacker worked at WXPR as a Morning Edition host and reporter from December 2020 to January 2023. During her time at the station, Erin reported on the issues that matter most in the Northwoods.
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