A ritual in May in a field near Salina changed Abbi Han's life.

Han had never been a caretaker for plants. Now, the research resident at the Land Institute is responsible for the survival of a diverse smattering of crops with traditions steeped in American Indian culture.

Every day, Han checks on the plants she sowed in May, watering them from a well as needed and pollinating by hand to avoid cross-breeding from an industrial corn operation across the road.

Following the advice of Taylor Keen, whose Sacred Seed project aims to preserve plant varieties that have provenance with indigenous tribes, Han even serenades her Cherokee White Flour corn with whatever song is in her head — perhaps the last tune she heard on the country radio station she listens to while driving to the small plot.

"I feel a kind of peace when I’m at the plot," Han said. "It’s a different type of feeling with the plants because I’m with them, talking to them every day."

The life-altering experience sprouts from the intersection of the 5-year-old Sacred Seed project and efforts at the Land Institute, a science-based research organization, to develop alternatives to destructive agricultural practices.

Keen, a business instructor at Creighton University in Omaha, Neb., studies the history and etymology of corn and its importance to indigenous people. He is a member of the Omaha and Cherokee tribes.

“All of the tribes have corn in their cosmology," Keen said.

His efforts to promote appreciation for small-scale growing of diverse varieties of plants — "braiding the sacred," as he calls it — includes turning his urban backyard into a dense garden and contributing seeds to a collective project in the Old Market area of downtown Omaha.

Keen reconnected with a former student at the Land Institute last year, when he was invited to speak at a couple of events, including the annual Prairie Festival. He gifted the institute the seeds they would plant this spring: Cherokee Trail of Tears beans, Scarlet Runner beans, Moon and Stars melons, Lakota squash, Cherokee okra and Arikara sunflowers, in addition to the corn.

Keen joined Han and others in early May for a ceremonial planting in which they used digging sticks to carve a spiral into earth over a 15-square-foot plot.

The planting paid homage to the "three sisters" of Native American mythology: Beans trellis up cornstalks and fix nitrogen in the ground while squash provides ground cover and wards off raccoon with its spiky leaves. They added a fourth sister — sunflowers that act as a windbreak and extract heavy metal from the soil.

Aubrey Streit Krug, director of ecosphere studies at the Land Institute, said the Sacred Seed project fits the institute's goal of developing perennial grain crops that can be grown alongside other plants, a system referred to as polyculture farming. The project is an opportunity to learn about American Indian traditions and the way people relate to plants, Streig-Krug said.

“There are longstanding indigenous traditions of polyculture plantings on this continent," Streit Krug said. "That work is important to learn from, and the relationships indigenous people have with those cropping systems are also really important."

The personal attention given to the plants at the Land Institute, and the diversity and size of the organically maintained patch, stand in sharp contrast to the commercial corn-growing operation across the road, where compact rows of a single crop nurtured by nitrogen fertilizer may produce 200 bushels or more per acre.

To prevent the mingling of genetics between modified and native varieties, Han pollinates her corn as the silks of developing cobs emerge.

"The tassels release anthers that hold the pollen, so I grab a handful of anthers, gently rub them in my hands, and put the pollen on the silks," Han said.

When the crops are ready to harvest, the Land Institute will save seed and, if things go well, contribute to a community meal.

The project helps the institute look for meaning in the codependency between people and plants. For hundreds of years, Native Americans in the Midwest relied heavily on corn crops, which didn't have the benefit of modern technology. Keen said there were thousands of varieties of corn in the region.

People provided the care the plants needed, and the plants provided the food people needed.

“It’s one thing to intellectually know that people have relationships with plants that are material but also cultural and emotional, in addition to economic relationships with plants," Streig-Krug said. "But I think maybe it’s another thing to actually feel and experience and kind of practice making those relationships with these plants and learning not only from them but with them.”

Keen said he appreciates the economics of mass corn production — he is a business instructor, after all — and the need for mass production. Still, he believes it is possible to feed the planet and have reverence for plants.

“When you look at the history alone," Keen said, "wherever there was corn, there were people.”

Keen said he isn’t interested in launching a large-scale operation with his heirloom seeds. Instead, he wants to use gardens to inspire and teach. People need to learn to feed themselves again, Keen said.

Native American tribes forged a spiritual and emotional connection with harvest crops, Keen said. Plantings were a ritual guided by the moon, wind and stars.

Keen said indigenous people have "notions" about "blood memory," or what we might recognize as instinct in animals, that we inherit from our ancestors.

“I think there’s stuff in our DNA that perhaps in the modern age we’ve become disconnected with," Keen said. "We don’t walk to places much anymore. We are influenced by technology and manufactured air. Starting out in my backyard, with little plots, and watching it grow was just amazing. It changed me. It brought me a sense of beauty.”

Streit Krug