Goals, Rationale, and Background Information
Many of the Indians of the Great Plains did not plant crops with the exception of a little tobacco. Most of them were hunters and gatherers eating wild fruits and berries. However, the Pawnees, Rees, Mandans, Hidatsas, and Plains Apaches tribes were cultivators of the land and succeeded at planting corn. Corn or maize is a domesticated plant of the Americas. Along with many other indigenous plants like beans, squash, melons, tobacco, and roots such as Jerusalem artichoke, European colonists in America quickly adopted maize agriculture from Native Americans. Crops developed by Native Americans quickly spread to other parts of the world as well.
Over a period of thousands of years, Native Americans purposefully transformed maize through special cultivation techniques. Maize was developed from a wild grass (Teosinte) originally growing in Central America 7,000 years ago. The ancestral kernels of Teosinte looked very different from today's corn. These kernels were small and were not fused together like the kernels on the husked ear of early maize and modern corn. By systematically collecting and cultivating those plants best suited for human consumption, Native Americans encouraged the formation of ears or cobs on early maize. The first ears of maize were only a few inches long and had only eight rows of kernels. Cob length and size of early maize grew over the next several thousand years which gradually increased the yields of each crop (Prindle 1994).
Eventually the productivity of maize cultivation was great enough to make it possible and worthwhile for a family to produce food for the bulk of their diet for an entire year from a small area. Although maize agriculture permitted a family to live in one place for an extended period of time, the commitment to agriculture involved demands on human time and labor and often restricted human mobility. The genetic alterations in teosinte changed its value as a food resource and at the same time affected the human scheduling necessary for its effective procurement.
As the life ways of mobile hunting and gathering were often transformed into sedentary agricultural customs, very slowly the cultivation of maize, along with beans and squash, was introduced into the southwestern and southeastern parts of North America. The practice of maize agriculture did not reach southern New England until about a thousand years ago. A Penobscot man described the transformation of maize for the shorter growing season of northern New England. Maize was observed to grow in a series of segments, like other members of the grass family, which took approximately one phase of the moon to form, with approximately seven segments in all, from which ears were produced only at the joints of the segments. Native Americans of northern
New England gradually encouraged the formation of ears at the lower joints of the stalk by planting kernels from these ears. Eventually, as ears were regularly produced at the
the cornstalk, the crop was adapted to the shorter growing season of the north and matured within three months of planting (Prindle 1994).
Native Americans of New England planted corn in household gardens and in more extensive fields adjacent to their villages. Fields were often cleared by controlled burning which enriched not only the soil but the plant and animal communities as well. Slash and burn agriculture also helped create an open forest environment, free of underbrush, which made plant collecting and hunting easier. Agricultural fields consisted of small mounds of tilled earth, placed a meter or two apart sometimes in rows and other times randomly placed. Kernels of corn and beans were planted in the raised piles of soil to provide the support of the cornstalk for the bean vine to grow around. The spaces in between the mounds were planted with squash or melon seeds. The three crops complemented each other both in the field and in their combined nutrition (Prindle 1994).
Native Americans discovered that, unlike wild plants and animals, a surplus of maize could be grown and harvested without harming their environment. Tribes in southern New England harvested great amounts of maize and dried them in heaps upon mats. The drying piles of maize, usually two or three for each Narragansett family, often contained from 12 to 20 bushels of the grain. Surplus maize would be stored in underground storage pits, ingeniously constructed and lined with grasses to prevent mildew or spoiling, for winter consumption of the grain.
Many Native American traditions, stories and ceremonies surround corn, one of the "three sisters" (maize beans and squash). Even in New England there are many variations on how maize was brought or introduced to Native Americans here. Generally in southern New England, maize is described as a gift of Cautantowwit, a deity associated with the southwestern direction; that kernels of maize and beans were delivered by the crow, or in other versions the blackbird. Responsible for bringing maize, the crow would not be harmed even for damaging the cornfield. Other Algonquian legends recount maize brought by a person sent from the Great Spirit as a gift of thanks (Prindle 1994).
New England tribes from the Mohegan in Connecticut to the Iroquois in the Great Lakes region had rituals and ceremonies of Thanksgiving for the planting and harvesting of corn. One ceremony, the Green Corn ceremony of New England tribes, accompanies the fall harvest. Around August Mahican men return from temporary camps to the village to help bring in the harvest and to take part in the Green Corn ceremony which celebrates the first fruits of the season. Many tribes also had ceremonies for seed planting to ensure healthy crops as well as corn testing ceremonies once the crops were harvested.
Purpose and Objectives
Students will understand the importance of corn to the Plains Indians. They will look at corn kernels on a cob, cornmeal, popping kernels, and the husks of a shucked ear of corn. They will draw diagrams and label them based on what they see and observe. They will identify that corn was a staple that could be used all year around after harvesting. They will make a list of all foods they eat that contain corn. Students will plant a garden with the three sisters and reflect on its growth, recording observations, measurements and care instructions in a science journal.
Structure and Outline
Corn is Maize: the Gift from the Indians
, chart paper, markers, corn kernels, corn on the cob, cornmeal, popping kernels, squash seeds, bean seeds, corn seeds, soil
one day for the book, three to five weeks for the three sisters garden and science Journal
whole class reading of
Corn is Maize
, small group investigation of corn items, whole group discussion of findings, small groups for construction of lists, and small groups will plant several plots of the three sisters, individual science journal writing
listen to story, investigate, observe, write, record, measure and reflect
read, give directions and facilitate and help when needed
1. Shared reading of
Corn is Maize
2. Discussion of story and its key elements involving the relationship between theIndians and corn.
3. Investigate the corn products, draw diagrams and label the parts.
4. Make lists of foods that are made with corn products
5. Discuss and review the three sisters. Plan out the plots for the three sisters' garden
6. Record growth, measurements, and observations in science journals
Assessment and Monitoring
Look for evidence of understanding the importance of corn in the Native American culture. Look for connections of how many things we eat today have corn in them. Enrich student thinking while garden grows on how corn stalk becomes a pole for the beans to grow on and how squash surrounds stalk. Elicit students to share and make connections in their science journals.
Reflections, Connections, and Emergent Curriculum
This lesson lends itself to be extremely diversified in that it cuts across many curricular areas. It is very hands on and provides the students the opportunity to grow squash, beans and corn from seeds. From this lesson you can continue in the science discipline and study the water cycle, germination of a seed and may other important cycles