Role of Blue Corn in Native American History
Written by Ben Jacobs May 18, 2023
What is “BLUE” corn?
Originally, blue corn was developed by the Hopi, the Pueblo and many other Native American tribes from the Southeastern United States. Its name, stemming from types of flint corn found in these Native areas, was given due to the fact that it is generally of a blue hue. Over time, it has taken on many other names, such as: Hopi maize, Rio Grande Blue, Tarahumara Maiz Azul and Yoeme Blue.
Blue corn is versatile in both chromaticity and utilization. The blue corn varieties vary in color - from a light, blue-gray to a dark black. Due to it being starchy rather than sweet, blue corn is often referred to as a flour corn. It is made up of a blueish, harder exterior and a white, softer interior. In terms of utilization, corn is not just for human consumption. (Keep reading to learn more about the history of corn and how it is used today.)
Where Does Blue Corn Come From?
It is often said that corn, also referred to as “maize”, is the most essential food crop to have ever been cultivated in the United States. Before what we now know to be “corn” existed, it began as a mixture of wild grasses from Mesoamerica (the modern-day countries consisting of: Belize, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico and Nicaragua.) Over time, the maize was bred and hybridized to create corn.
The first documented corn cob dates all the way back to over 7,000 years ago in the Tehuacan Valley of Mexico. Sometime during the next 1,000 years, corn began to move further North, eventually reaching the United States.
In terms of the varieties of blue corn, the most well known varieties are: Hopi Maize, Yoeme Blue, Rio Grande Blue and Tarahumara Maize Azul. Each of these vary in size and weight of each corn kernel, along with the overall height of the corn plant. Hopi Maize plants were resistant to droughts. Their roots ran deep and they rarely exceeded four-five feet in overall height from the soil. Rio Grande blue corn plants tended to be taller in height, generally between five-seven feet tall. While they produced a higher yield, they were not as drought resistant as the Hopi Maize. The Yoeme Blue kernels were small in size, grew to be about three-four feet tall and were extremely tolerant of the heat in Arizona, where they were located at the Salt River Pima Territory. Tarahumara Maiz Azul originated in the Sierra Madre deserts of Mexico and tends to have larger kernels that are blueish-black in color.
Over approximately the last century, many crop diversities have been lost as a result of some farmers abandoning their local crops to instead take part in high yield monocultures. These monocultures are usually placed into environments that were not meant to house them. Thankfully, there are still indigenous crops that are being nurtured properly by people, such as the Hopi (a sovereign nation in north-eastern Arizona). Instead of trying to remake the environment to fit certain crop production, the crops (such as corn) should be made to fit the environment.
The people who care about the Indigenous sourced foods, as well as the environment they are in, are diligently working to eradicate these harmful and unfruitful planting practices. One of the places currently doing so is the Acoma Pueblo village in New Mexico. Blue corn is one of the crops they have successfully rematriated (returned to its “mother” land/home).
Native Americans, through many generations of planting, have discovered that one of the most beneficial planting methods is “companion planting”. This method involves planting multiple types of crops together in a way that allows them to thrive and assist each other. With companion planting, they learned that they were producing far more ecological advantages than that of fields who only plant one type of crop.
Learn more about Companion Planting by reading our article here: Companion Plant The Indigenous Way: Three Sisters
Role of Blue Corn in Native American History
For many Native American communities, the role of blue corn in their daily lives is crucial and diverse. This cherished plant provides far more than mere sustenance but also deep cultural connection. As with many other Indigenous plants, blue corn has been grown under many methods and conditions based upon regional locations and individual community approach.
Historically, many Indigenous people would not irrigate their corn when they planted it. Generally, they would rely solely on two types of natural water sources: winter snowfall and summer rain. It is common to plant corn in multiple fields in different locations. This tried and true method is done in order to increase the chances that at least one planting location will produce a good crop.
One common type of planting would include settling on an ideal planting location which would then be cleared of weeds and debris. Some communities would then use sand as a natural source of mulch, which prevents moisture from evaporating too quickly. A flat-tipped stick was often used for digging a one-foot deep hole. Approximately eight to ten kernels of corn are then planted into each hole so the corn will grow in clumps. When the corn was ready to be harvested, the community would gather fresh picked corn, which would then be dried out and stored for later use.
Over time, Native peoples have adapted to changes in natural water sources, such as less snowfall in the winter. However, many growing traditions still remain true to their Indigenous ways. Children are still taken out to the land to be educated on the deep-rooted history of traditional corn planting. The children are taught basics, such as seeds and water and sunlight, as well as more complex reasons for planting corn, such as how it teaches them responsibility, patience and teamwork.
The Evolution of Corn
Native Americans have been using corn, especially blue corn, for many types of food staples for centuries. Some examples include blue corn mush (a type of porridge), a hot beverage called “atole”, boiled breads and tortillas. Hopi people will cook blue corn in a thin layer; then it is rolled to produce what they refer to as Piki or “paper bread”. Corn can be found, in Iroquois nations, used in foods such as: tamales, dumplings, hominy and even in ceremonial “wedding cake” bread.
At Tocabe, we want to make our Indigenous food staples more easily accessible to all. Our Indigenous Marketplace has Ute Mountain Blue Cornmeal (both harvested and milled at Ute Mountain Farm and Ranch), Navajo Roasted blue corn from Navajo Pride Foods and Ramona Farms blue corn available to you.
Many tribes would eat corn at almost every meal, with blue corn being a favorite due to its nutritional value. They learned of its versatile qualities in terms of cooking. Corn would be eaten straight from the stalk, roasted over a fire or even baked into breads or soups. When an excess of corn was present, it would be hung to dry in the sunlight. Later, the dried corn would be ground into cornmeal for use in tortillas, tamales and other meals.
Blue corn is still commonly used in many foods today, such as blue corn chips and blue corn pancakes. You can try our “blue corn pancake mix” (made from our hand-blended Ute Mountain Blue Cornmeal) from our Tocabe Indigenous Marketplace now:
Native Americans do not use corn merely for human consumption, though. They have been known to use corn as mattresses or containers and even for childrens’ toys. Surprisingly, corn is still used to this day in childrens’ toys. The Native Americans will use the corn husks to make dolls.
Today, it is said that only approximately 15% of the corn harvested in the United States is used for human consumption. The remainder is used to feed livestock or to produce products such as paper or gunpowder. Corn is even grown for use in ethanol production.
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