Iroquois White Corn Project: Revive, restore, and regenerate with indigenous seed

By Arianne Pfoutz
Published: April 1, 2020

Iroquois white corn was a staple of the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) diet for over a thousand years. Dr. John Mohawk (Seneca) and Dr. Yvonne Dion-Buffalo (Samson Cree) were inspired to restore the cultivation, daily consumption, and distribution of this traditional nutritious corn for the Iroquois people—while fostering job opportunities for Native American youth.

Peter Jemison (Heron Clan of the Seneca Nation) was acquainted with Dr. Mohawk’s work, and after his passing, returned the Iroquois White Corn Project to its original home at Ganondagan in 2012. Spanning 569 acres, Ganondagan is the original site of a Seneca town that thrived in the 1600s; Jemison manages the Ganondagan State Historic Site in Victor, New York—the state’s only Native American-themed site.

Reviving the cultivation of this indigenous, non-GMO corn strengthens food sovereignty while supporting sustainable agricultural and cultural identity for the tribe.

A 1,000-year old corn, chock-full of health

Hand-planted, hand-picked, and hand-processed, Iroquois White Corn products are non-GMO and gluten-free, and have a low glycemic (sugar) index. They’re high in fiber, protein, and amino acids. This contrasts with standard sweet corn—a yellow, high-sugar type with a digestible hull.

Native Americans throughout the U.S. have the highest rate of diabetes of any ethnic group, affecting nearly one in six. Limited access to healthy, fresh food has exacerbated this. “Our original diet is a healthy diet,” Jemison said. “The diabetes began when the government began supplying us with food of lower quality.”

The 5,000 pounds grown yearly is made into Iroquois White hulled corn, corn flour and roasted corn flour, for use in breads, mush, and baked goods. Hulled corn is popular in soups and salads.

A labor-intensive, sacred tradition

Producing the corn products is a “many hands-on” proposition. “The process has to be scaled to the labor force—no machinery is used—so you can’t take on too many acres at once,” Jemison said. “The crop is vulnerable to predators (deer and raccoons love it) and weather changes.”

Four regional Native growers supply the project. Demand currently exceeds supply, and the focus has shifted from creating a profitable venture to running a program with specific goals: train entry-level young Native Americans, while distributing food to the community and beyond.

“It’s a break-even venture at this point,” said Jemison. The Iroquois White Corn Project’s biggest current challenge is finding sufficient labor; most young workers move on once they’ve acquired some experience. “How much corn can we process to stay ahead and grow the business?” Jemison asks continually.

When Seneca Nation growers tried to raise the white corn using machinery, the corn was damaged. The traditional approach of not using plows or domestic animals also keeps the ground intact, preserving the soil. Intercropping and interspersing are also incorporated.

Traditionally, women grew the corn. After planting and a 120-day growth period, the corn is gathered before rainy season. “We then hold a husking bee,” Jemison explained, “pulling back the husks except for three small pieces that are braided together 30-plus at a time. The corn is hung to dry until April or May, then we hand-shell it from the cob, wash and sort it.”

Some seeds are collected for the next year’s crop. Kernels are then boiled, the hulls removed with culinary lime, then sorted into hulled corn or corn to be ground. Some kernels are roasted with hulls on—this cracks the hull, which is ground into roasted flour.

Adhering to tradition, corn laborers work with a “good mind,” bringing good intentions to the process while acknowledging the Creator and Mother Earth.

Lea Zeise (Oneida Nation) of the Intertribal Agriculture Council, says of Native seeds: “They’re not inanimate objects for us, but more like physical relatives or ancestors.”

History alive: Rising from the ashes

The Seneca settlement at Ganondagan was destroyed by the French army in 1687, over fur trade disputes; 1.3 million bushes of corn were burned. In 1779, during the Revolutionary War, George Washington destroyed the re-settlement—burning 350,000 corn bushels. The tribe fled, and many died during that winter.

“This is the food that our Creator provided us with,” Jemison said. “Because so much corn was destroyed at Ganondagan, we believe it is very important to grow it and sell it here.”

The Ganondagan State Historic Site features a full-size bark longhouse replicating a typical 1600s Seneca home. The newly built Seneca Art & Culture Center shares the story of Haudenosaunee contributions to art, culture, and society; the grounds include interpretive trails highlighting the significance of plant life. The Seneca people influenced our modern understanding of equality, democratic government, women’s rights, ecology, food sovereignty, and holistic medicine.

“We approach all decisions and issues using the power of the ‘good mind,’ ” said Jemison.

New legislation to help protect sacred indigenous seeds

Food sovereignty for Native peoples is currently threatened by biotech corporations, climate change, contamination from GM crops, and the disappearance of seeds. The U.S. has lost nearly 93 percent of its food seed variety in the last century (Civil Eats). Organizations like Seed Savers Exchange, Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds, and Native Harvest feature growers sharing colorful varieties including Cherokee White, Painted Mountain Corn, Tama Flint, and Gem Glass Corn.

These traditional varieties, teeming with genetic diversity and the potential to ward off climate impacts to food supplies, are unprotected by the government, unlike genetically modified and hybrid seeds. The Native American Seeds Protection Act of 2019 could change that. It would mandate a study of the long-term viability of Native seeds and protections for them—and support health care, food security, and economic development in tribal communities.

Native corn growers participate in regional gatherings called Braiding the Sacred, to collectively harvest, exchange seeds, and offer encouragement in protecting the crop. Native growers “know how to sing for [our foods], hold ceremonies for them, and maintain that relationship,” Zeise noted. In Native cultures, protecting seeds is inherently linked to protecting sacredness of the culture. At a time of return to regenerative agriculture, biodiversity, and traditionally grown food to sustain the planet and its people, the Iroquois White Corn Project symbolizes the promise of these efforts.

© Copyright The Organic & Non-GMO Report, 2020