Corn is a sacred food for the Pawnee people. Over almost 1,000 years, the Pawnee cultivated many unique varieties of corn—among them blue speckled corn, white sweet corn, and eagle corn, with markings on the kernels that look like an eagle in flight. Traditionally, this corn bound the Pawnee to their land and gave them their identity. Corn was part of every meal. Corn was at the heart of the people’s healing ceremonies.
In the 1870s, the Pawnee people were forced to leave their ancestral home in Nebraska and to move to Oklahoma. They carried as much seed corn with them as they could. And when they planted their corn in the new land, it did not grow. The people stored their remaining seeds but as the generations passed, the supply dwindled.
In 2003, Deb EchoHawk had a small number of corn seeds saved in a mason jar. Then a Nebraska woman, Ronnie O’Brien, called EchoHawk out of the blue. O’Brien was a cultural educator and master gardener. She wanted to plant a garden that showcased the foods grown by the Pawnee people. EchoHawk told her about the corn, about how many varieties had been lost and how few seeds were left. O’Brien offered to plant the remaining seeds in her Nebraska garden, in hopes that they would grow again. An elder prayed over the precious seeds and then the Pawnee sent them off to O’Brien. Amid many challenges and setbacks, the two women collaborated and succeeded in reviving the corn. They got other gardeners and farmers involved in the expanding effort. And the varieties they had thought were extinct began to reveal themselves as recessive traits. With joy, the Pawnee began to practice their culture and to hold their healing ceremonies again.
Moses, like indigenous peoples of modern times, lived in a state of exile for much of his life. Moses didn’t have a home. He didn’t fit, didn’t fully belong, anywhere. He was born into an enslaved people, but he was raised by their oppressors. He was both Hebrew and Egyptian, and he was neither. After he killed a master who was beating a slave, he ran for his life. He became a fugitive, a refugee, an asylum seeker among the desert-dwelling Midianites. When Moses stood before the burning bush, on holy ground, God commanded him to remove his sandals. God’s desire that Moses stand with bare feet on the desert soil could have been a way of demanding respect or humility. However, we could also see it as an invitation to Moses to get comfortable—to let down his guard, to be himself, to be at home.
An old story in the Hasidic Jewish tradition goes like this: Rabbi Zusya, when he was an old man, said, “In the world to come, they will not ask me ‘Why were you not more like Moses?’ Rather, they will ask me: ‘Why were you not more like Zusya?’” There’s profound irony to this story, since Moses, too, struggled to be more like himself. Who am I to go to Pharaoh? was his first response to God’s call. Then he was afraid he wouldn’t have any credibility with the Hebrew slaves, that they wouldn’t believe he had spoken with the God of their ancestors. He needed God’s name. He needed proof. He was not a good public speaker, he objected. One by one, God answered his hesitations. And finally Moses pleaded with desperate honesty: “O my Lord, please send someone else!” God did not listen. Because God wanted Moses, not someone else. God knew that when Moses was free, to be himself, to be at home, to belong to his place, then he would be the right person to free both of his people—the Israelites and the Egyptians. He knew Moses could from them from the slavery that held them both in bondage, from the sickness that destroyed the souls or oppressed and oppressor alike.
In our times, Winona LaDuke calls us all back into the kind of deep, multi-generational relationship with place that indigenous peoples have. As I searched for a brief video clip to show you today, I noticed that Winona’s speeches almost always incorporate the recitation of the moons by which her people live. In this simple way, she illustrates how place is central to her people’s way of marking time, and thus to their whole life—their spirituality, their ethics and their activism. She writes more about this subject in an article entitled “How to Be Better Ancestors”:
I believe in place. Anishinaabe Akiing, the Land to which the people belong, that’s where I live. I live in the same area as my great-great-great-great-grandparents lived. . . . I harvest wild rice on the same lakes, canoe to the same berry patches. I am eternally grateful to my ancestors for their consistency and their commitment to land, to ceremony, and to those who had not yet arrived, like myself.
Transience means that we do not come to know and love a place. We move on, and in so doing are not accountable to that place. Always looking for greener pastures, a new frontier, we, I fear, lose depth, and a place loses its humans who would sing to it, gather the precious berries, make clean the paths, and protect the waters. My counsel is stay: make this place your home, and defend this land like a patriot. I look to “the excellent life” offered to the Anishinaabeg by the Creator. In this life, the basic teachings are elegant and resonate: care for yourself, the land, and your relatives. Remember that this world is full of spirit and life and must be reckoned with.
The land of berries, wild rice, maple syrup, and medicines comes with a covenant, an agreement between the Anishinaabeg, or myself, and the Creator. Keep that covenant, that agreement that we will take care of what is given to us, and your descendants will be grateful. Understand your responsibility for this moment. In a time when the rights of corporations override the rights of humans, stay human, and remember that the law must be changed. For civil society is made, as democracy is made, by the hands of people, courageous people, and is not a spectator sport. While at one time slavery was legal, it is no longer, and soon we must free our Mother Earth from her slavery to an exploitive economy and insure her rights.
This fall, I’ve been rewriting scripture stories, trying to narrate them in other voices. These voices are not made up. They are present in the stories already but they are not typically cast as the main characters. Today, I’m particularly trying to listen to what the burning bush on holy ground has to say. What I am hearing is pretty simple. When our bare feet touch the earth, we know the earth and the earth knows us. The soil shows us our true selves. The holy ground calls us home.
In these trying times, as bad news piles on top of bad news, I am still hopeful. Amid the cries of wildfires and floods, the laments of the sick, the hungry, the left out and left behind, amid the mourning and raging of a polarized nation, I hear other voices too. I can hear the divine voice calling to us from burning bushes on holy ground. I can sense God communicating through the soil and the waters, from mountains and deserts, through fragile ecosystems and a rapidly changing climate. God is speaking through our indigenous relatives, and through their invitations to repair the harm we have done to each other and to the earth. The Pawnee people, their corn, and the soil of Nebraska belong to one another, and can only thrive when they are together. Similarly, we must remember that our belonging to a place matters. Listen. God is commanding us to take off our shoes and rub our bare feet in the dirt of our place. God is urging us: remember who you are. Remember, this is your home. Amen.