Oneida embrace planting, harvesting of white corn as a staple of diet, culture

By Karen Herzog
Condensed by Native Village

Wisconsin: George Washington's troops at Valley Forge may have starved to death without the white corn an Oneida Indian chief gave them.  Now the Oneida and other Wisconsin tribes are returning to indigenous foods such as white corn and bison. They hope their ancestral diet will fight the diabetes and heart disease which plagues them. 

The heirloom corn can be traced back to the Oneida's New York homelands.  It is grown today on Oneida reservation lands in upstate New York, Canada (Thames, Ontario), and near Green Bay.

Oneida from Wisconsin visited the New York reservation 16 years ago and brought back seeds from the tribe's seed bank. Each year, the Wisconsin Oneida plant 6 to 8 acres of the corn.
Standard field corn has 22 rows of kernels;  Oneida white corn has 8 rows of large white kernels. Its protein content is 18%, compared with sweet corn (5%).

Tribal culture and ceremony accompany the planting and harvest. This reconnects the Oneida to a past that had been lost to many.

"When we plant it, we give thanks to the Creator for allowing us to plant," said one tribal member. "At the close of harvest, we provide another tobacco offering, and it carries prayers to the Creator, thanking the Creator for the harvest. When all the corn is off the field, everything goes to sleep to revitalize itself for spring."

The Oneida are one of the Six Nations of the Iroquois. In 1821. they came to Wisconsin after land speculators and the government pressured them to move off their homelands.

"Even though we've been removed from New York, we're still connected. The white corn goes back to the creation story to provide for our people," said Vickie Cornelius.

At the Oneida organic farm in Wisconsin, white corn is harvested and husked by hand.  The husks are hand- braided and hung to dry in a storage shed. Then the corn is hand-shelled before being turned over to the tribal cannery.

"You need to have a good mind" to patiently harvest corn by hand, said Jamie Betters, 27, who works at the cannery. "This is our traditional food, and our creation story talks about taking care of the corn, and the corn saying it won't stay if you don't take care of it."

Oneida Nation schoolchildren are served corn soup and corn mush once a month. Students also tour the cannery to learn about the native corn, and how it is prepared.

"We are teaching our children that this is something we need to preserve and pass on," Cornelius said.

The cannery turns the corn into nine products. One is dehydrated corn for soup traditionally served at tribal ceremonies,. Another is corn flour that, when combined with water and dried beans, makes a nutritious cornbread. The products are available to the public at Tsyunhehkwa Natural Retail Store in Oneida

Previous Story      Next Story