Winter Projects: Wagmíza Yukpáŋ

This was one of my waníyetu wíčhoȟ’aŋ, or winter projects, last year.

After the flour corn has hung in braids inside my home for a few months, dried out by time and the heaters that parch everyone and everything indoors during these Northern Great Plains winters, it’s ready to be made into cornmeal.

First, a note on language: wagméza is a southern Lakota word for corn. On Standing Rock, wamgíza is more common. The Dakota word I know for it is wamnáheza.

In my understanding, the best Lakota word for the action of grinding corn is yukpáŋ. Yukpáŋ means that somebody grinds something, especially dry materials. It has to do with grinding something fine, or pulverizing it. The product is wókpaŋpi – or in English, cornmeal.

Both oŋ these words have their roots in kpáŋ, which refers to something that is “ground fine[ly]” or , something that is “of fine grain quality” (source: New Lakota Dictionary). There are 11 words related to kpáŋ in the dictionary, depending on whether someone is grinding something with a tool, a hand, or a foot – and even whether the thing being ground is wet or dry. The one I’m most familiar with is okpáŋla (crumbs, scraps, or bits), which is the word I hear on Standing Rock to refer to corn chips or potato chips.

The corn that I was grinding in this picture comes from the garden behind one of the Indian Health Service buildings in Fort Yates. They grow a traditional garden there each year, and a friend of mine who was an IHS worker gifted me a few cobs from their harvest. So it was ultra-local.

There are a few intermediate steps before you get to grinding your corn: removing the kernels from the cobs (I don’t know the Lakota verb for this action) and winnowing them (kačháŋ), which is the subject of another post.

One disclaimer, before I discuss my process:
I do not grind corn in a traditional way. A few years ago, I attended a corn-processing workshop taught by Kevin Finney, a knowledge-keeper from Potawatomi territory, and participated as he walked us through the traditional process that they use there. But while I incorporate a few things from his method, I do not know the traditional ways that this is done in the Great Plains, either for Lakota people or for my own tribe. So what I am about to describe is in no way traditional. This is just one person’s trial-and-error method for turning dried corn into flour – often with a lot more error, than anything else.

The tools I use for this process (which may change) are currently:
-a granite mortar & pestle. (Holds about 500cc; great find at a Korean grocery store in Denver.)
-a fine wire sieve to filter out big kernel pieces that need more grinding
-a bowl to catch the sieved cornmeal
-a canning funnel to transfer the cornmeal into a jar
-a glass storage jar for the finished cornmeal
-a heavy cloth “skirt” for the mortar (I will explain).

The first thing I noticed when I tried to grind corn is that as soon as I applied any pressure, the pieces of corn kernel started jumping out of the mortar and flying through the air. I thought back to Kevin’s workshop: not only was his mortar (or bootagan, as the Anishinaabe and Potawatomi people I know call it) much deeper, but it also wore a skirt.

The bootagan skirt was a heavy piece of leather, weighted down on the edges, that goes over the top of the mortar. There is a narrow slit cut in the leather to put the mortar through, with no room for the corn kernels to fly out. Since I didn’t have a good piece of leather, I improvised and did the best I could with heavy cloth, tied around the mortar and the pestle. (I will try it with the leather option, once I have a good piece I can use.)

Another disclaimer:
I am certain that there are many Potawatomi traditional teachings around the bootagan skirt that I don’t know, so I am only describing the functional aspects of it here. However, if anyone reading this feels this is inappropriate for me to share, or inappropriate language for me to use, please reach out to me and I will correct myself accordingly.

The second thing I noticed, once I figured out how to make the corn stay in the mortar, is that grinding corn by hand is hard work. The first few times I tried it, I grew sore and tired quickly. I was only grinding a small amount for ceremonial use. I am in awe of our ancestors, who ground quantities of corn that I can’t even imagine for daily food use – and with a skill and speed beyond what I could probably ever reach, even if I did this every day. Much respect, Ancestors.

When most of the corn in the mortar was starting to look like flour, I poured it through my fine wire sieve into a bowl. I returned the remaining large bits of corn kernel into the mortar, and pounded them again. I repeated the process several times until almost all of the kernel pieces were fine enough to fit through the sieve. (The remainders, I put outside as offerings for any hungry creatures trying to survive the harsh winter.)

I also learned that the best way to do this is a little at a time. If you put too much into the mortar at a time, it is harder to hit any individual kernel enough times to pulverize it, and it takes much longer.

When I’ve been in a hurry, I have also tried to grind up corn in a coffee grinder. Some coffee grinders do this better than others. One grinder I’ve used worked pretty well (though you still have to re-grind the large chunks). Another wound up shooting powdery gusts of corn flour out the sides, like little puffs of smoke, each time I tried it – so that was not productive! I also tried grinding corn in a meat grinder, but even on the finest setting, all it did was break the kernels in half.

One of our local elders and famed wasná makers, Loretta Bad Heart Bull, grinds corn in her blender. I’ve seen her do it, and was pretty impressed with the speed and even texture of her cornmeal. But I have not had similar success with my own blender. So while it is certainly possible to use a kitchen appliance to grind your corn at home, I prefer using my mortar and pestle. I also find a kind of satisfaction in the physical work.

Due to the greater surface are exposed to oxygen, cornmeal degrades more quickly than corn kernels –therefore, I’ve found that it is better to wait until right before you plan to use the cornmeal, to grind up your corn.

People who have tried the wasná and cornbread that I have made from our local indigenous corn varieties have commented on their superior taste to store-bought corn, and the fact that it feels more nourishing when they eat it. I have heard (most recently, from the North Circle Seeds podcast) that indigenous North American flour corns have twice as much protein on average (~15%) as commercial GMO varieties (~7-8%).

As you may be gathering from these waníyetu wičhóȟ’aŋ posts, winter work is not easy, sedentary, or idle work. And these hours of grinding corn are not only connecting me more closely to my food, but they are giving me so much respect for the ancestors, mine and other people’s, who engaged in this work daily, without commenting or blogging about it, to survive. While I still have so much to learn, I am filled with gratitude for those ancestors for all the knowledge and traditions they passed on to me.

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