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Long before European settlers plowed the Plains, corn was an important part of the diet of Native American tribes like the Omaha, Ponca and Cherokee. Today, members of some tribes are hoping to revive their food and farming traditions by planting the kinds of indigenous crops their ancestors once grew.

Taylor Keen is hoping to lead that comeback in Nebraska. On a warm, bright September afternoon, Keen is singing to the corn. Walking through a maze of corn rows and a carpet of pumpkin vines behind his home in Omaha, Neb., he wears a cowboy hat, Wranglers and a traditional bead necklace.

“Well, this is what was formerly known as my backyard and is now home to the ‘four sisters,’ ” Keen says. “We have corn, bean, squash and the sunflower.”

He calls them the four sisters because of how they work together. The beans fertilize the corn as they climb the stalks. Sunflowers hold them up against the wind. Squash keep the raccoons at bay. There are also tomatoes, okra, gourds, sage and sweet grass.

Tribes Revive Indigenous Crops, And The Food Traditions That Go With Them

Photos: Grant Gerlock/Harvest Public Media

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People who know something about native bees often know about the “Squash Bee” Peponapis pruinosa. However, there are a number of other native squash bees, and here is one.  This is Xenoglossa strenua.  It doesn’t help that it looks mighty darn similar to Peponapis pruinosa…but both the male and females have yellow on the base of their mandibles, while P.p. does not.  Helpful under the microscope at least.  

This specimen is one of the few, and the only recent, records for Maryland.  An interesting note is that this species is not found in Maryland on any native plants, but only on the agricultural squash and pumpkin plants which originated in the Southwest and were migrated here eons ago by Indian farmers.  Squash plants cannot overwinter in the region, but the squash bees can.