Our Changing Relationship to Foods: Part One

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

Starting today and continuing for the next few weeks, Rick Hill of Deyohahá:ge: gives us an overview of the origin of our seeds. In Part One we hear about the Creation story and how traditional food came to be for the Haudenosaunee.

“[Haudenosaunee women] bake the loveliest, lightest wheaten bread, of which, by the way, her men folk complain loudly, declaring that she forces them to eat this new-fangled food to the absolute exclusion of their time-honored corn bread, to which the national palate ever clings; her rolls of yellow butter are faultlessly sweet and firm, her sealed fruits are a pleasure to see as well as taste, in fact, in this latter industry she excels herself, outdoing frequently her white competitors at the neighboring city of Brantford, where the “southern fair” of Ontario is held annually.”

  • Pauline Johnson, 1900.

We know that some women, especially longhouse women, have continued to cook corn, beans and squash. It was required in ceremonies and part of our cultural expression. However, as Johnson noted above, the western diet had overtaken the daily life at Grand River well before 1900. How did this happen? What were the consequences?

In 1926 the Ohsweken Women’s Institute held a banquet with the following menu: “cold ham, salads, jellies, bread and butter, cheese, pickles, celery, ice cream and cake and coffee.”  The Institute often provided snacks for local school children, including ice cream, lemonade or hot cocoa. This shift to an Anglo-Canadian diet was firmly entrenched by that time. The residential and day schools advocated for such a culinary shift, and occasionally included Irish stew, liver and gravy, bean and vegetable stew, or cold roast served with water or milk. Mostly, they served mush at the Mohawk Institute. The foods offered were heavy on carbohydrates and the great diversity of heritage foods was absent.

In 1933 a Syracuse newspaper stated that the Six Nations Agricultural Society in New York was installing an exhibition titled, “The Evolution of Corn” at the Indian Village that stood on Haudenosaunee land within the New York State Fairgrounds, near Syracuse, NY. The ‘exhibit’ was actually four different beds of corn – Aztec, heirloom Haudenosaunee corn, corn grown by the pioneers, and modern-day corns. The article noted that corn was considered a ‘Great Gift from the Great Spirit.’ Many of our own people think just as much today. In reality, corn came into existence before the spirit being who created humans existed. Corn was already a spirit being in the Sky World, of unknown origin, but its history connects that world to this world in profound ways.

Raining Corn

In the Sky World, according to the Onondaga and Mohawk versions of the Creation story, a great drama was taking place, before this world was created. A girl, who would be later known as Sky Woman, was restlessly mourning the death of a loved one, as it was the first death experienced in the Sky World. She was sent to see the Old Man who had been guarding the Celestial Tree of Life, which had blossoms that gave off light, but that light was also beginning to fade. The Old Man was tormented by a recurring dream – he wanted to see the tree uprooted in order for a new world of constant regeneration to be birthed.

When they first met, they exchanged foods, indicating the medicinal powers of food to sooth our emotions. Sky Woman gave him cornbread with berries, and he gave her roasted venison. Not only did this forecast future roles of humans – women to cultivate crops and men to hunt for meat – it symbolized the ‘marriage’ of men and women, who were to be like a medicine to each other.

The Old Man then asked Sky Woman to return to her village and instruct the people to remove the bark rooftops of the longhouses. That night, after his instructions were followed, corn seeds rained from the sky, and filled each longhouse, ensuring that people would have plenty to eat. This was his gift to commemorate the ‘marriage.’ Thus corn and deer venison would become staples in our ancestors’ lives, for many generations to come.

Origin of Our Seeds

In the Onondaga story, corn, beans, squash, and sunflower were already spirit beings in the Sky World before Sky Woman fell (or was carried away by the winds) while carrying three ears of corn, dried meat of the spotted fawn, and three bundles of wood.

In the Seneca Creation story, the Ancient-bodied (Sky Woman) is cast from the Sky World because she betrayed the trust of the Old Chief who was guarding the Celestial Tree of Life. She had inadvertently spoken to a young lacrosse player, despite instructions to the contrary.  That lacrosse player was actually the Fire-dragon with the White Body (Sky Panther, or Comet) who had transformed himself, trying to win the affection of the Sky Woman. (He is called Fire Dragon of the Storm in the Onondaga Story)

When she began to fall from the Sky World, he raced up to her. He could not stop her descent, but he apologized for causing her such harm, and to make up for it he gave her several items that she will need in order to survive in the world below:

  • Handful of seeds (we assume they were corn, beans, squash, strawberry, tobacco, and wild potato)
  • A ceramic pot to use in cooking foods
  • A bundle of sticks to kindle a cooking fire
  • A corn pounder and pestle to prepare the foods

In nine of the written versions recorded at the end of the 19th century, there is mention of Sky Woman grabbing seeds and roots as she fell. That may be a modern interpretation. In the Onondaga story, the Old Man gave her wood to make fire after she fell. The Senecas say that when she safely arrived on the back of a giant Turtle, Sky Woman began a dance in a circle toward her right, casting some of the seeds she had carried from above into the newly made earth. Plants began to grow. The Seneca story tells us “it was not long, verily, before the various kinds of shrubs grew up and also every kind of grass and reeds. In a short time she saw there entwined a vine of the wild potato.”

Origin of Mound Agriculture

Sky Woman was pregnant as she did this, and soon a daughter was born. The daughter grew mysteriously fast, like the plants. However, within her daughter soon grew twin boys, who often clashed with each other even before they were born. (In the Seneca story, she became pregnant by the West Wind).

Upon their birth, the daughter died because the second born, called Flint, decided to come out from underneath her arm pit, and in doing so, caused the death of his mother, forecasting his role of bringing death to the new turtle island.

The first-born twin, originally called Maple Sapling to symbolize new life, later made humans from the clay of the earth, which is why we refer to the Earth as our Mother. We were born from her flesh – clay. Since the good-minded twin created humans, we call him, the One Who Finished Our Body, more commonly referred to as the Creator.

When Sky Woman buried the body of her daughter, she covered it with a mound of earth. Soon, several plants appeared. From her daughter’s head grew tobacco (reminding us that our minds should always be thankful for what has been provided by the Creator); from her breast grew corn (symbolising the life giving qualities of both breast feeding and the milk that flows through the ripening corn kernel); from her hands grew squash and beans; and from her feet grew blue/purple potatoes.

In sacrificing her life to bring the spiritual forces of life and death into the new world, Sky Woman’s daughter gifted this land with the foods to sustain human life. Her burial mound, and the bounty it produced, set the pattern for later use of mound agriculture among our ancestors. It is also why women were the first agriculturalists in our ancient society as they have a genetic connection to the First Woman, Mother Earth, the buried daughter, and the Three Sisters that sustain us – Corn, Beans and Squash. We don’t really have an expression such as the Three Sisters. Instead, the spiritual essence of Corn, Beans and Squash are part of the Johëhgöh (‘Foods that Sustain Us,’ in the Seneca language), or Diohe’ko (“These sustain us”), which includes all of the plant foods.

Seneca scholar Arthur Parker believed that the mound in which the corn is planted symbolized the earth mother’s breast. Parker also felt that the corn milk therefore symbolized mother’s milk that feeds the children of the earth.

Check back in next week’s issue of the Two Row Times as the ‘Our Changing Relationship to Foods’ series continues. In part 2: Discovery of corn, origin of animals’ foods, preparing food, and the sacred gamble over seeds.

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