Oneidas return to roots in food production
ONEIDA, Wis. (AP) – 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 six to eight 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 the ground.
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 outreach worker.
“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.”
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 about everything.”
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 five percent protein.
Metoxen said the harvest and husking bee are important to the Oneida because they bring together tribal members to celebrate Native culture.
“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.”
The cannery was busy keeping up with demand for corn products at the tribe’s retail store, as many tribal members prepared for Thanksgiving.
Some of the 2,000 to 3,000 Oneida who live in the area marked 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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