The Mysterious Origin of Corn

by Carol A Westbrook

Modern corn (maize)

The new research technician walked into my lab at the University of Chicago, and I introduced her to my research group.

“I enjoyed the walk from home to the lab,” she added. “Everyone in Hyde Park is so friendly! Why just today I stopped to talk to a gardener. He proceeded to tell me about the corn plants he was cultivating. He showed me how he pollinates the plants by hand, and he began to discuss the complicated genetics of corn. “Honestly, Hyde Park is a very impressive place to live. Even the gardeners are highly educated!”

Everyone laughed. “Looks like you came across George Beadle,” someone said. “He’s a Nobel laureate and former president of the University. He’s now retired and doing the research that he always wanted—to determine the origin of the corn plant using genetics.” He likes nothing more than to discuss his theories with anyone who walks by, and spends his day working in his beloved corn fields, where he is doing his research on corn plants.”

This is a true story. George Beadle won the Nobel prize in 1958 for his genetic work on the mold Neurospora, which led to the “one gene-one enzyme” theory, a true breakthrough in understanding the function of DNA. But Nobel prize or no Nobel prize, Beadle’s real passion was the work he started while a graduate student at Cornell University, and that is to solve the mystery of corn’s origin. Read more »

An American Creation Story

by Akim Reinhardt

BeringiaThere is scientific evidence indicating that Asiatic peoples migrated from Siberia to America many millennia ago via a land bridge that was submerged by the Bering Sea after the Ice Age ended, or by island hopping the Pacific cordillera in coastal water craft. But when I teach American Indian history, I don’t start the semester discussing Beringian crossing theory.

Instead, I first talk about Indigenous creation stories. For example, a Jicarilla Apache story says that in the beginning, all the world was covered with water. Everything lived underwater, including people, animals, trees, and rocks, all of which could talk. People and animals used eagle feathers as torches, and they all wanted more light, except for the night animals who preferred the darkness: the panther, bear, and owl. The two sides competed by playing the thimble and button game. The sharp-eyed quail and magpie helped people win five consecutive games until the sun finally rose to create the first day. People then peered through a hole to see another world above them: Earth. They climbed up to it.

Or there’s a story from the Modocs of California and Oregon, which says the leader of the Sky Spirits grew tired of his home in Above World. It was always cold, so he carved a hole in the sky and shoveled down snow and ice until it almost reached the Earth, thereby creating W’lamswash (Mt. Shasta). He stepped from a cloud onto the mountain. As he descended, trees grew where ever his finger touched the ground, and the snow melted in his footsteps, creating rivers. Long pieces from his walking stick became beavers, and smaller pieces became fish. He blew on leaves, turning them into birds, and the big end of his stick created the other animals, including the bears, who walked upright on two legs. Pleased with what he’d done, the leader of the Sky Spirits and his family lived atop the mountain. But after his Mt. Shastadaughter was blown down the mountain by the wind spirit, she was raised by a family of grizzly bears. When she became a woman, she married the eldest grizzly bear son, and their children were the first people. When the leader of the Sky Spirits found out, he was angry and cursed the bears, forcing them to walk on all fours ever since.1

One reason I begin the semester with Indigenous creation stories instead of scientific evidence about the peopling of the Americas is that, like most people who teach American Indian history nowadays, I look for ways to emphasize Indians’ historical agency. Stressing agency, the centrality of people in manifesting their own history, is an important part of teaching any group’s history. However, for too long, American Indian history was taught (when it was taught at all) through a EuroAmerican lense. Instead of looking at what Indians did, historians used to focus on what was done to them. Indians, they told us, were victims of aggression and/or obstacles to progress. Native people were reduced to two-dimensional tropes, mere foils in the larger story about European empires and the rise of the United States.

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Waging War on Christmas, to Save Thanksgiving

Blackfriday Weeks before Halloween, Christmas decorations started appearing around town. At the local department stores, mannequins of witches and zombies were crowded by Santa’s elves. The Christmas season has, it seems, overcome Halloween. Halloween is a charming holiday, so this is lamentable to some degree. But given the relatively stable interest children have in candy and play-acting, Halloween is not in danger of extinction. The constantly-expanding Christmas season does not threaten to undermine its spirit.

Sadly, the same cannot be said for Thanksgiving. When pitted against the aggressive encroachment of Christmas and the corresponding shopping season, Thanksgiving, our most humane and decent holiday, doesn’t stand a chance.

Unlike Halloween, Thanksgiving is a holiday of human significance. Though it is occasioned by the mythology of Pilgrims and Wampanoag Indians, the point of Thanksgiving is not that of rehearsing or commemorating that original event. In this respect, Thanksgiving differs crucially from other holidays. The Thanksgiving gathering is not a means to some other end, such as memorializing the signing of a document (July 4th), observing an ancient liberation (Passover), celebrating the birth of a god (Christmas), or honoring the bravery and sacrifice of soldiers in war (Veterans Day). The point of Thanksgiving is rather to gather with loved ones, to reaffirm social bonds, to enjoy company, and to appreciate the goods one has. To be sure, the Thanksgiving celebration is focused on a meal, typically involving large portions of turkey and cranberries. Still, the details of the meal are ultimately incidental. The aim of the Thanksgiving gathering is not to eat, but to be a gathering. The coming of people together is the point– and the whole point– of Thanksgiving.

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