Our Changing Relationship to Foods: Part Four

By Rick Hill, Deyohahá:ge:, Six Nations Polytechnic

For the next few weeks, Rick Hill of Deyohahá:ge: gives us an overview of the origin of our seeds. In Part Four, we hear about the War Against Corn. If you missed Parts One through Three, they are available on our website www.tworowtimes.com.

War against corn

In the 17th century, some of our ancestral communities experienced an entirely new kind of warfare. The French colonists introduced the concept of total war — a scorched earth strategy — intent on destroying the supply of food in order to bring people into submission.

Unfortunately, our-old style longhouse villages and surrounding fields of crops were very susceptible to this kind of war against corn. Tree pole palisades, bark-covered longhouses and dried corn in the field did not offer much defence against the French torches.

In 1687, the French destroyed a great cache of corn at the Seneca village of Ganondagan, near present-day Victor, New York. It was reported that they set fire to half a million bushels of corn. For a village of 5,000 occupants, that is 100 bushels of corn per person. The amount of corn that the women were able to cultivate is staggering, all without horses and ploughs.

The French found that the Senecas already had some pigs and chickens, as well as vast fruit orchards, raising European apples, pears, plums and peaches.

The French employed this same strategy several other times, setting the torch to Mohawk (in 1693) and Onondaga (in 1696) corn fields. However, their strategy failed. Our ancestors knew how to survive off the land, even without corn. Plus, there were plenty of other villages left unscathed to provide corn to those who were attacked.

A century later, the American army tried the same approach — attacking Seneca, Cayuga and Onondaga villages in 1779 — setting fire to homes, crops and orchards. Their goal was to retaliate and stop the attacks that Joseph Brant and his followers were making on American frontier settlements. Aided by Oneida scouts, the Americans discovered and destroyed more than 40 settlements and many single dwellings.

The soldiers journaled about what they did, often marveling at the vast amount of crops they burned, and the long hours required to set just one field on fire because it was so extensive. At the Seneca village called Newtown, soldiers burned about 150 acres of what one noted was “the best corn ever I saw.” The time taken to destroy the corn in Newtown employed the army for nearly two days, and there appeared a probability that the destruction of all the crops might take a much, greater length of time than what was first apprehended. Altogether the Americans destroyed at least 160,000 bushels of corn. That did not match the amount of corn in just one Seneca village a century earlier.

At Kendaia, about 20 houses were torched and the army spent nearly a day destroying corn and fruit trees of which there was great abundance. “Many of the trees appeared to be of great age,” wrote one soldier, attesting to the fact that the Seneca had adapted the keeping of fruit orchards for quite some time previous.

At Kanandaque, the soldiers spent two days destroying the crops. Among the Cayugas was one settlement where they “destroyed two hundred acres of excellent corn with a number of orchards, one of which had in it 1,500 fruit trees.” At Cayuga Castle, about 110 acres of corn was destroyed.  Another Cayuga settlement had “apples, peaches, potatoes, turnips, onions, pumpkins and squashes, and vegetables of various kinds in Great Plenty.” Other villages also had peas, cucumbers, watermelons, parsnips, muskmelons, cabbage, and even large piles of hay for the livestock.

This war on corn was more successful, as it made refugees of about 4,000 Haudenosaunee citizens, most of who sought shelter among the British at Fort Niagara, only to face a harsh winter, disease and death. The British did not have enough food stuffs to feed that many people.

Eventually many of those Seneca, Cayuga and Onondaga people resettled at the newly formed community at Buffalo Creek and were able to replant. However, when they built their new settlements they abandoned the old clan-based village with extensive fields of crops. They began to live as individual families, more scattered across the landscape, each tending to their own garden.

In some way this was a response to the devastating war on corn. Never again would they be susceptible to such an attack, by scattering their homesteads and reducing the scale of their gardens. This signaled a change to the white man’s style of frontier life. Both the British and American governments advocated for this change – family farm with Euro-American livestock.

It was not long afterwards that beef replaced venison, pork replaced bear meat, chicken replaced grouse, ducks, wild turkey and wild geese. Milled wheat and refined sugar along with cow’s milk were introduced to nearly every Haudenosaunee household. Certainly planting corn, beans and squash continued, but European vegetables could also be found.

This “reservation” era reduced dependency on hunting, limited access to fishing spots, and increased dependency upon the trading posts to provide stables, as well as rum. The people fell into a very depressing lifestyle, often forgetting the ceremonies, not being very thankful for what they had, and alcohol abuse and domestic abuse was on the rise. Was this directly attributable to the colonized foods they were eating? No one can say for sure, but this era was a major change downward for our people.

Things got so bad that the Creator had to send a reminder in 1799. Four Sky Dwellers visited Seneca Chief Sganyadái:yoˀ (Handsome Lake) and took him on a journey in the sky to be able to see the conduct of the people and contemplate changes necessary to restore our heritage. For some reason they said that it was OK for the people to have a modest house, to plant and garden and have some domesticated animals. They did not advocate for a return to the communal longhouses of the past. People began to sober up, treat each other better, and turned to their agricultural heritage to feed their families. Our lives would never be the same as that of our ancestors.

Check the Healthy Roots section of the Two Row Times next week when we continue with Part Five of the Our Changing Relationship to Foods series.

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