While the cultivation of corn was important to most bands of Ojibwe, the people of Red Lake were masters at growing beautiful fields of it along the southern shores of their vast lake. Reports from traders, Indian agents, and missionaries state that they were the most fore-handed of any band in the Ojibwe nation in terms of agriculture.
The Red Lake people cultivated corn extensively. The corn cultivated by the Red Lake people was a small, eight-rowed variety, about six inches in length. The color of the kernels was white and blue, in varying proportions in individual ears with the white and blue mixed in the ear. The ears would occasionally produce red kernels.
Cultivation was done using hoes bought from traders to break up the ground. Seeds were sprouted before planting by placing a layer of moss in a large, flat tray made of birch bark, then the seeds would be spread evenly upon the moss and covered with other layers of moss and both layers would be wet down with warm water. The trays containing the sprouting corn were kept in the wigwams during the evening, but were placed in the sun during the day. The advantage of sprouting corn was that there was no loss from imperfect germination and the corn would be advanced in growth by about a week or ten days, which was important with the short growing season of northern Minnesota.
When harvested, the corn was cured by braiding or tying in bunches and hanging it up on wood racks 10 feet high. Sometimes the corn was “smoked” when hanging on the racks. It was claimed that this would render the corn impervious to damage from moisture or insects. Once cured and shelled, the corn was put into sacks made of cedar bark, holding about a bushel each, and then stored in a hole in the ground for months without damage.
It is debatable as to the probable source of the Red Lake corn. Some suggest that it originally came from Canada (around Lake Winnipeg), but little corn was ever raised there during early times. Others suggest that it is a form of corn obtained from the Mandan, which seems likely as the Red Lake people had contact with them and were on mostly good terms.
Read more about corn in: Corn in Montana: History, Characteristics, Adaptation. By Alfred Atkinson (1915)
A collaborative effort of members of the Ojibwe and Metis communities