When Del Ficke was a child, his Grandfather Adolph Ficke would take him to the old Pawnee camp site near Pleasant Dale, Neb. many times and tell him a story about a cold, challenging winter in the late-1800s.
Adolph heard the story from his father, H.F. Ficke, many times as well and was told to ensure it was passed on for generations to come. Today, that story has led to a reconnection between the Pawnee Nation and the Ficke family and a sacred blue corn harvest that goes far beyond seed.
“The story went like this, varying in versions each time he repeated it,” Ficke began, “In the winter of 1869, my Great, Great Grandfather, Johann Ficke, homesteaded on a hill overlooking Middle Creek less than a mile away from where the Pawnee had their camp. It was a harsh winter and the Fickes, with the limited provisions that many pioneers had in those days, were facing great difficulty. The Pawnee fed my ancestors during that very cold winter and my Grandfather told me without their help, they would have most likely died.”
The history of the Pawnee and their removal is outlined by Roger Echo-Hawk, a member of the Pawnee Nation, in a paper he wrote, Settling the Land Between Two Rivers, “The vast majority of the Pawnees were removed to Oklahoma in two groups in 1873 and 1874. The third (and last) group of Pawnees left Nebraska in late 1875 under the leadership of Baptiste Bayhylle. This final group consisted mainly of Skidis . . . The Pawnees came together on their new reservation in Oklahoma in 1876.”
Separated from the fertile soils of their Nebraska homeland, the Pawnee people carried their seed with them. But, the soils of Oklahoma were different, and their seeds were not acclimated there. The Pawnee Nation lost not only their homeland, but much of their ability to grow the seeds they loved.
Fast forward to 2003 when Ronnie O’Brien, an instructor at Central Community College in Hastings, Neb. reached out to Deb Echo-Hawk, the Keeper of the Seed for the Pawnee Nation. O’Brien was seeking information about Pawnee history and seed preservation. Today, the Pawnee Seed Preservation Project has grown to around 20 growers across Nebraska, that now include Ficke and his family and his cousin Gregg Eggerling.
“I met Deb Echo-Hawk, Electa Hare-Redcorn and Ronnie O’Brien at a presentation about the Pawnee Seed Preservation Project and approached them about planting some of their seed for them. I was honored they trusted me enough to take part in the project,” Ficke explained. “That’s how it all started. I began planting the seed three years ago. It was an opportunity to make a small difference in the face of all the wrongs that had been done to their people.”
In 2018, Del and Brenda Ficke delivered the largest harvest of Pawnee Sacred Blue Corn to the Pawnee Nation in Oklahoma in 125 years, “We have thoroughly enjoyed the group of Pawnee who return to Nebraska every year for the harvest. I know it is difficult for them to make the trip here. We were honored to deliver the corn to them in Oklahoma too. They are our family.”
“We greatly appreciate the chance to reunite with the Ficke family again,” Deb Echo-Hawk said. “This reunion and friendship aids and enhances all that the Pawnee Seed Preservation Project stands for in our world today.”
“Traditional foods are more than healthy foods, they are part of the history, land, culture and spiritual practice of a people – health, as well as part of the economic fabric of a tribe,” Deb went on. “Traditional foods are part of the generational heritage passed on from elders. Our friendship assures us that the future will be formed out of simplistic means that will bring food to the table. All the growers in this project are so important to us and we thank them. It’s about keeping homeland ties.”
Ficke said, “My goal was to get enough that every Pawnee could at least taste some of their blue corn and help connect them to their sacred traditions. Growing this corn for the Pawnee is a very, small thank you.”
This year the Fickes will harvest the corn again with their Pawnee friends that they now call, family. Learn more at: https://www.facebook.com/pawneeseedpreservation/