Back from the Ashes: The Iroquois White Corn Project at Ganondagan

Today, Native Americans are working to keep their agricultural traditions and legacies alive by operating the Iroquois White Corn Project.

  • Grown traditionally, Iroquois white corn is grown to save the diversity of heirloom varieties, as well as to preserve the history of a food that is important to the Iroquois nation.
    Photo by Laticia McNaughton
  • White corn is central to healthy lives and healthy communities of the Haudenosaune people. Distinct foods convey symbolic meaning to their culture. Seeds for white corn varieties are available at Baker Creek Heirloom Seed Company
    Photo by Laticia McNaughton
  • Iroquois White Corn Project volunteers hand husk, carefully braid, and hang the ears of corn in a corn crib to dry for the winter.
    Photo by Laticia McNaughton
  • The Iroquois White Corn Project offers hulled white corn, white corn flour, and roasted white corn flour. It can be purchased from their website
    Photo by Laticia McNaughton
  • White corn is central to healthy lives and healthy communities of the Haudenosaune people. Distinct foods convey symbolic meaning to their culture. Seeds for white corn varieties are available at Baker Creek Heirloom Seed Company
    Photo by Laticia McNaughton
  • The long ears of Iroquois white corn come from corn seeds that descended from seeds planted in the 1600s. The seed has been managed and protected to keep the genetics pure and non-GMO.
    Photo by Laticia McNaughton

Once upon a time, very long ago, there were three sisters who lived together in a field. These sisters were quite different from one another in their size and also in their way of dressing. One of the three was a little sister, so young that she could only crawl at first and she was dressed in green. The second of the three wore a frock of bright yellow, and she had a way of running off by herself when the sun shone and the soft wind blew in her face. The third was the eldest sister, standing always very straight and tall above the other sisters and trying to guard them. She wore a pale green shawl, and she had long yellow hair that tossed about her head in the breezes. . .

Thus begins the traditional Story of the Three Sisters, the corn, beans, and squash that were staples of the people in the thriving 17th-century Seneca town of Ganondagan (ga-NON-da-GAN) in present-day Victor, New York. The linked history of Ganondagan and the Iroquois White Corn Project (IWCP) is inextricably interwoven with war and devastation, but is ultimately about survival.

Ganondagan State Historic Site stands on the original location of the 17th century Seneca town. According to historical records and archeological findings, Ganondagan (meaning “the Town of Peace”) was populated by upwards of 4,000 Seneca people. They lived in bark longhouses and farmed more than 700 acres of fertile land. The Seneca belong to a confederacy of nations known as the Haudenosaunee, which includes the Cayuga, Onondaga, Oneida, Mohawk, and Tuscarora. The women living at Ganondagan minimally grew 3,700 bushels of nutritious corn a year to meet the needs of the community, as well as amassing a huge stockpile of stored corn. Along with many varieties of beans and squash, these three sisters (deohako, “the sustainers”) were the backbone of their healthy diet, along with the wild strawberry and many other fruits, plants, and animals.

The Seneca were successful trading partners with the European colonists in the fur trade era. In June 1687, in an effort to control this lucrative trade and punish the Seneca for interfering with their profits, the French sent an army under the Marquis de Denonville from New France (Canada) to Seneca country to eliminate them as competitors. A large contingency of men were away in present-day Ohio engaged in a campaign against the Miami. Thanks to advanced word of this attack, many at Ganondagan had already fled, taking with them their precious seeds. At Ganondagan, Denonville’s army set fire to approximately 500,000 bushels of stored and standing corn. The intent was to rid the Seneca of their main food supply and thereby starve them to death.

This was not to be the end of the war against the corn however. In 1779, in retaliation for raids on the frontiers of New York and Pennsylvania by the British-allied Haudenosaunee, George Washington ordered Generals Sullivan and Clinton to the Finger Lakes area to burn and destroy Seneca, Cayuga, Tuscarora, and Mesquakie towns from Cayuga Lake to the Genesee Valley. Recent data suggests that the destruction laid waste to forty towns, burned one million bushels of corn, 50,000 bushels of other vegetables, and more than 10,000 fruit trees.

So, where did this plant at the center of such conflict originate? According to prevailing science, the corn most likely originated in southern Mexico near Oaxaca and was developed from the wild annual grass, teosinte. The name, of Nahuátl Indian origin, is interpreted to mean “grain of the gods.” Scientific evidence indicates that one particular form of teosinte, known as Zea mays ssp. parviglumis, is the direct ancestor of maize. Corn has been cultivated in the Americas for at least five thousand years, although the process of domestication is thought to have started between seven and twelve thousand years ago.



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