Edible Colors: The Many Colors of Corn

Learn some history of Native American corn and the many corn colors, with a special look into blue corn.

| Winter 2015-16

boy with corn

Allen Fowler III holding ears of dry blue corn. Blue corn, which contains more protein and nutrients than most other colors of Zea mays, is a crop bred by the ancestors of modern Hopi.

Photos by Kelley Fowler

The many colors of corn, Zea mays, are as endless as the colors in a summer Southwestern sunset. White corn is used to make the traditional “kneel down bread” and “thez shi bezh,” the Navajo cooked corn that is slow-roasted on coals underground or in mud ovens. Red corn is used in ceremonies for young girls. Yellow corn is for weddings.

But it is perhaps the sacred blue corn, naa-daa dootlizh in Navajo or sakwa qao in Hopi, that has brought native peoples of this continent the most blessings and is the corn most often grown by indigenous Americans. Blue corn is central to the culture of many Southwestern tribes, including the Hopi, the Navajo and the Pueblos along the Rio Grande River.

Historically, it is believed it was the Hopi who bred blue corn out of the ancestral maize that tribes first brought out of Central America around 5,000 years ago. Central to the tribe’s staple, piki bread, the corn is also used to make blue corn mush, tortillas, atole, posole (hominy) and many other dishes. In fact, blue corn has a nutritional profile far superior to white corn; it has 20 percent more protein than white corn. It contains healthful anthocyanins, and its levels of niacin are higher when ground.

Much as the Eskimos have a hundred words for the different kinds of snow, in the Hopi language there are many words for blue corn, based on color and use. There are words for dusky grey blue corn, deep purple-blue corn and corn that is so blue it borders on black.

The corn itself is used, but also the pollen, which is considered sacred by both the Hopi (who call it “talasi”) and the Navajo (who call it “ta-ta deen”).

“All these seeds came down from my grandfather,” says Leigh Kuwanwisiwma, a cultural preservation specialist with the Hopi tribe who grows acres of blue corn in the washes at the foot of mesas at 6,000 feet elevation near Kykotsmovi on the Hopi reservation. Leaving his office on a late summer afternoon, Leigh stops at a nearby gas station to fill up his propane bottle. A few miles away , out in the fields, he hooks the propane bottle up to a propane “gun” that fires off noises randomly to scare the crows and elk off his corn crop, which are maturing in the hot August sun.

elderberry, echinacea, bee hive


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