On a mild October day, the annual harvest of traditional white corn by the Oneida Nation of Wisconsin begins in a circle, with tobacco and prayer. This year’s crop survived better than crops stricken by drought in other areas of the state.
The annual harvest and husking bee celebrates the traditional way of taking care of the corn. The community outing is sponsored by the tribe’s organic farming and cultural education program (called Tsyunhehkwa, in the tribal language). By taking care of the corn, the Oneida Tribe is taking care of its people.
“If you eat good food, that is culturally relevant to you, you’re going to strengthen your body, your family, your community,” says Raeann Skenandore-Summers, who manages the Oneida Market, a retail store where dried corn and its byproducts are sold alongside traditional herbs.
The annual harvest is a community-wide celebration of the corn that first grew in New York and was brought to Wisconsin with Oneida tribal members. The corn is harvest by hand, husked, braided in the traditional way and then hung to dry.
“We sit in a circle and do some mild, easy, labor and we tell stories,” says one community member. “It’s what the Oneida people have done for thousands of years.”
The six acres of cornfields are part of a larger, tribally owned organic farm that also includes a Three Sisters garden of corn, beans and squash; and free-range cattle and chickens. The farm, a nearby apple orchard, bison pasture, and retail store are part of the Oneida Community Integrated Food Systems. The farm’s name, Tsyunhehkwa, translates to life sustenance. Most corn harvested is processed, packaged and sold as kernels, corn flour and mush, with the very best kernels saved as seed for next year’s crop.
One key component of Tsyunhehkwa and the annual corn harvest is to share knowledge. “We’re hoping that we can not only keep white corn in our community, but we can also teach members of our community how to grow their own white corn,” says Jeff Metoxen, director of Tsyunhehkwa.
Years ago, white corn – which is much higher in protein than yellow corn – was an everyday food. But like many traditional foods of other tribes, it’s mostly eaten today only for special occasions and ceremonies. Metoxen and others hope one day white corn will once again be an everyday food for Oneida people.