For more than 1,000 years, Seneca White Corn has fed the Haudenosaunee People both physically and spiritually. Conflict and colonization diminished this nutritious staple crop that was considered to be a gift of the Creator, but now the Seneca Nation of Indians in New York is revitalizing it’s appreciation as an intrinsic part of their culture and of a healthy diet. The Iroquois White Corn Project based at Ganondagan State Historic Site encourages Seneca farmers and volunteers to come together to grow and prepare this versatile grain, and in doing so Tribal members are strengthen in their connection to their culture while sharing it with the greater world.
A People of Peace
Ganondagan State Historic Site is the home of the Iroquois White Corn project, a relatively recent endeavor to benefit the health and heritage of the Seneca Nation of Indians. In the 1700s Ganondagan was the largest village of the Seneca Nation, a member of the Haudenosaune Confederacy of Nations (Iroquois Confederacy) that also includes the Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga and Tuscarora nations. The Haudenosaune Confederacy of Nations to this day is revered for its concepts of peace and democracy that influenced the founders of the United States. The formation of this peaceful league also allowed large-scale agriculture, notably beans, squash and corn–The Three Sisters–to thrive. The village of Ganondagan is where much of the Seneca White Corn for the confederacy was grown in the 1700s. Seneca White Corn, called onëögä:n, is a nutritious crop that made up much of the region’s diet.
Today the Seneca Nation of Indians includes three territories: Cattaraugus, Allegeny and Oil Springs. Ganondagan today lies outside of the Seneca Nation of Indians land and is managed by the State of New York. Still a place of deep meaning to the Seneca People, it is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It presents the history and culture of the Seneca People who prefer the name Haudenosaunee (Hodinöhsö:ni’)–“People of the Longhouse.” Within the site’s 569 acres is a reconstruction of a bark longhouse in which the Haudenosaunee lived in family groups up to 60 people. Ganondagan had 150 longhouses at its peak until the village was burned during a fur-trade war with French fur trappers. Miles of hiking trails here wend through woods and traditional farmland, and the Seneca Art and Culture Center displays artifacts to modern artwork. While Ganondagan State Historic Site isn’t Tribally owned, Seneca Nation of Indians Tribal members are deeply involved with its operation, direction and outreach.
A Return to Tradition
The Iroquois White Corn Project was founded in the 1990s by Dr. John Mohawk (director of the Center for Indigenous Studies at the Center of the Americas State University of New York in Buffalo) and his wife, Dr. Yvonne Dion Buffalo, on farmland in the Cattaraugus Territory, one of three sections of the Seneca Nation of Indians reservation. Their goal was to reintroduce this healthy and culturally important crop back to fellow Tribal members. The land of the Seneca People was greatly diminished by the newly formed United States, and missionaries further impacted the Seneca People’s traditional agriculture in the 1800s by insisting that different crops be grown (such as wheat for bread), and also that men should do the farming. Traditionally, it was Seneca women who would plant, tend the cornfields and prepare the corn kernels for traditional foods. This change in diet and culture greatly impacted the way of life for the Seneca People, and Dr. Mohawk and Dr. Buffalo wanted to help reclaim their Tribe’s relationship with Seneca White Corn.
The passing of Dr. Buffalo in 2005 and Dr. Mohawk in 2006 threatened the project until G. Peter Jemison restarted the program in 2011. Jemison, a member of the Heron Clan of the Seneca Nation of Indians, had worked with Drs. Mohawk and Buffalo on the project in its beginning at SUNY. After he became the site manager of Ganondagan State Historic Site in Victor, Jemison decided to re-establish the Iroquois White Corn Project at this state park dedicated to Haudenosaunee culture. Ganondagan would once again be a place for growing Seneca White Corn. The project would also create a market for small Seneca farmers and serve as a point of sale for the finished product. Revenue from sales would benefit the Friends of Ganondagan, the non-profit volunteer group that supports Ganondagan State Historic Site.
“We were able to purchase additional acreage for Ganondagan that included a small farm house,” Jemison says. “I spoke with Dr. Mohawk’s family and was able to purchase the equipment he used on the Iroquois White Corn Project. We set up shop in this farm house, and we’re still there.”
The main piece of equipment used in Seneca White Corn processing is a coffee roaster. Unlike yellow corn, Seneca White Corn must be dried, roasted and dehulled (remove the kernels’ indigestible outer covering) before it is used like hominy or be ground into a flour or meal. It’s a labor-intensive processes, much of which is done by hand. The Iroquois White Corn Project processes and sells about 5,000 pounds of corn product a year.
“We quickly realized that we weren’t going to get rich doing this,” Jemison says. “In the beginning we were approached by William and Sonoma and other large companies that wanted to carry our products, but we realized that for all of the expense, labor and time of producing that much corn at the price they wanted would hurt what we had set out to do, which is to bring this back to our people.”
Jemison says the goal of the Iroquois White Corn Project is to get Seneca Nation of Indians Tribal members eating this healthy and culturally significant food again.
“It’s a very time-consuming food to grow and prepare, and also to cook,” Jemison says. “We wanted to make it easier for people to use White Corn often in their cooking. We did want to establish a market for it, but for Haudenosaunee farmers so that it would be worthwhile for them to grow it.”
The Iroquois White Corn Project at Ganondagan State Historic Site was also able to help the Seneca Nation of Indians develop its own farm, Gakwi:yo:h Farms, Jemison says.
“One of our goals was to get the Seneca Nation itself growing its corn again,” Jemison says. “We supplied them with seeds and showed them how to process it. They now provide Seneca White Corn to our Area Office for the Aging and Head Start program. We were already selling at our One Stops (Seneca Nation of Indians-owned convenience stores), and they were able to enter that market as well. That’s a great way to make it easy for Seneca People to get the corn and use it frequently. The farm is now growing a variety of fruits and vegetables for Tribal members, including organic apples in the farm.”
A Community Coming Together
It takes a lot of effort to grow and prepare Seneca White Corn, far more so than yellow corn, Jemisen says, because it can’t be eaten until each kernel has been roasted and dehulled, a process made easier today with cooking lime that is thoroughly rinsed afterward. Seneca White Corn is higher in nutrients than many other types of corn, and low in sugars like sweet corn. White corn is also high in fiber and protein. Once dehulled, rinsed, roasted and dried, kernels can be eaten directly like hominy, added to soups, or can be milled into flour for baking. The cornmeal can also be used in soaps as an exfoliant.
Cornfields are hand-planted and hand-weeded by staff members and volunteers. With the exception of the cooking lime used in processing, no chemicals are used during production. In addition to what is grown at Ganondagan, independent Seneca farmers are encouraged to grow Seneca White Corn organically on their land as well, and sell it to the project.
Preparing the corn for eating is a labor-intensive process, but one that traditionally brought the Seneca community together. Women would sit in a circle as they worked, sharing songs and stories and thereby strengthening and perpetuating Seneca culture.
Today, Friends of Ganondagan and volunteers from the general public work together to process the corn. Founded in 1989, Friends of Ganondagan is a tax-exempt, not-for-profit organization that supports Ganondagan State Historic Site. As a 501c, it can solicit donations and apply for various grants from the state, federal and private entities, including corporate, private and State of New York Regional Development grants (regionalcouncils.ny.gov). Grant money and donations made to the Friends of Ganondagan allowed in part the construction of a replica bark longhouse in 1998, and the $13 million Senena Art and Cultural Center at Ganondagan that opened in 2015. The facility houses classrooms and demonstration spaces, an art gallery, theater, multipurpose auditorium and a gift shop, and allows Ganondagan State Historic Site to be open year-round.
Anyone is welcome to volunteer to help with activities ranging from tending the fields to helping with events such as dances, guiding trail walks and working in the gift shop. Most importantly for the Iroquois White Corn Project, volunteers are needed to husk the cobs, hull the kernels, and other processing and packaging tasks including roasting that takes place in a coffee roaster at Ganondagan State Historic Site. Volunteers then use stone grinders to pulverize the corn into meal or flour that is weighed and packaged for sale in local stores, farmers’ markets, at Ganondagan State Historic Site and the Seneca Iroquois National Museum in Salamanca. Iroquois White Corn Project products are also sold online at these facilities’ websites at Ganondagan.org and shop.senecamuseum.org.
“What we try to do is continue on with the story of Dr. Mohawk, to have the communities using the corn again and growing it, and getting excited about it,” says Jeanette Jemison, program director for Friends of Ganondagan and a member of the Mohawk tribe of the Iroquois Confederacy. “We encourage people to grow their own gardens and get Iroquois White Corn back on their tables for their families.”
In order to get Tribal members excited about Seneca White Corn again, Jemisen says she has developed a cookbook with recipes, and also works with Seneca Nation community cooks. Cooking demonstrations are also held at Ganondagan State Historic Park, and the Indigenous Food event is held annually at the Seneca Art and Culture Center in October during which accomplished Native chefs “share their insights and beliefs on their deep connection to the natural world, reciprocity, and how food sovereignty is vital for a thriving culture.”
“We’re an educational organization,” Jemisen says. “But Seneca White Corn is such an important part of Seneca culture that it’s a part of everything we do.”
The time spent together working together kept Seneca culture strong for centuries. This labor and time can be a detriment in terms of economics, but invaluable for continuing Seneca traditions. Every October there is a husking bee in which people gather at Ganondagan to husk the corn and tie it into strings for drying. Elders show children how to work with the corn as it has been for centuries.
In partnership with the Iroquois White Corn Project at Ganondagan State Historic Site, Seneca White Corn is a major crop being grown at the Seneca Nation of Indians’ Gakwi:yo:h Farms in Collins. The Tribal farm plants 25 acres of white corn annually throughout its Cattaraugus and Allegany territories. Gakwi:yo:h Farms first sent its corn to Ganondagan State Historic Site for processing, and now is able to process its own. It is then sold at Tribally owned Seneca Nation One Stop convenience stores and the Seneca-Iroquois National Museum (www.senecamuseum.org). Gakwi:yo:h Farms also holds farmers markets in Cattaraugus and Allegany territories, bringing healthy white corn products and fresh fruit and vegetables to Seneca Nation of Indians Tribal members weekly. In addition to corn, maple syrup, potatoes, squash and other traditional foods are sold as well. Gakwi:yo:h Farms has also started a Red Angus cattle herd at its new Great Valley farm and will be able to offer Tribal members and the general public with locally raised meat.
Gakwi:yo:h Farms’ stated mission is to address food security and food sovereignty for Seneca Nation of Indians communities by implementing a traditional Haudenosaunee approach to agricultural practices, and its active Facebook page serves as a community message board for keeping Seneca Nation of Indians up to date concerning where and how to obtain healthy food.
“Our goal is to produce healthy food, employ quality food processing procedures and make these foods available to our community members, from field to table,” reads Gakwi:yo:h Farms’ mission statement. “The foundation of our mission rests on the ability to positively impact our people, to contribute to a conscious shift toward healthier eating habits and to change the way we bring food into our homes… . By honoring the value of each corn stalk, each ear of white corn and each individual kernel, we increase our understanding and appreciation for who we are, as a people.”
Through the Iroquois White Corn Project, this mission is being met at the Seneca Nation of Indians.