[permaculture] Oneidas return to roots in food production
qazingulaza at gmail.com
Mon Nov 23 14:43:35 EST 2009
(Interesting that the protein in the native white corn is more than 3
times as high.)
Oneidas return to roots in food production
George Washington's troops at Valley Forge may have starved to death
without the white corn an Oneida Indian chief gave them in the winter
of 1777 during the Revolutionary War.
Now, the Oneida, like other tribes in Wisconsin, are returning to
indigenous foods such as high-protein white corn and bison to aid
their own survival, as diabetes and heart disease associated with
fast-food diets plague tribal members.
The heirloom corn can be traced back to the upstate New York homeland
of the Oneida Nation before the colonists arrived. It is grown today
on reservation land in three places in North America: upstate New
York, Canada (Thames, Ontario), and Oneida near Green Bay, according
to tribal officials.
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. Tribal culture and
ceremony are established around the planting and harvest, reconnecting
Oneida to a past that had been lost to many.
"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, manager of the tribal cannery, which
processes the corn for several food products.
The Oneida _ one of the Six Nations of the Iroquois _ came to
Wisconsin in 1821, pressured by the government and white land
speculators who demanded large portions of their homeland.
Today, at the Oneida organic farm in Wisconsin, white corn is picked
by hand during a harvest and husking bee that attracts a few hundred
Oneida and curious onlookers. A late fall breeze whispers through the
corn stalks as ears are plucked, one by one, and stalks are stomped to
Once the corn is harvested, the husks are braided together by hand,
and hung to dry in a storage shed. The corn is shelled by hand before
being turned over to the tribal cannery.
Oneida Nation schoolchildren are served corn soup once a month as part
of their school lunch program and corn mush once a month for
breakfast. The students 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, including dehydrated corn for soup traditionally served
at tribal ceremonies, and corn flour that is combined with water and
dried beans to make a nutritious cornbread. The products are available
year-round at the Tsyunhehkwa Natural Retail Store in Oneida, which is
open to the public.
This year's white corn harvest ended shortly before Halloween and took
about a month to complete, according to Frank Haney, a community
"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
The corn is harvested by hand because "corn cracks up and you lose a
lot with a machine harvest," said Jeff Metoxen, manager of the
Tsyunhehkwa Agricultural Center. "Hand harvesting allows us to pick
Standard field corn has 22 rows of kernels; the white corn of the
Oneida has eight rows of large white kernels. Its genetic variability
fashions flavors from earthy to sugary, depending on the stage of
development. Its protein content is 18 percent, compared with sweet
corn's 5 percent protein.
Metoxen said the harvest and husking bee are important to the Oneida
because they bring together tribal members to celebrate native
"When we plant it, we give thanks to the Creator for allowing us to
plant," Metoxen said. "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."
Now, the cannery is busy keeping up with demand for corn products at
the tribe's retail store, as many tribal members prepare for
Some of the 2,000 to 3,000 Oneida who live in the area mark
Thanksgiving with a family meal to give thanks for the earth's bounty.
Others consider it a day of mourning. There's some evidence that the
true "First Thanksgiving" might have been a feast for colonists to
celebrate the massacre of 700 Pequot natives at Mystic Fort near
present day Groton, Conn.
For local Oneida who mark Thanksgiving with a family meal, cornbread
is a staple, and something families look forward to sharing, said
Betters, of the cannery.
"We'll bake 700 to 800 one-pound wheels for families that have ordered
it," she said.
Betters takes pride in her cannery work.
"We're the last individuals to touch this corn, so it's important we
take good care of it, do right by it, and make it available not only
for ceremonial purposes, but also for individuals' everyday use."
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