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The Historical Importance of Corn to Haudenosaunee Culture

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Corn or maize is an Indigenous North American plant and it plays an important role in Haudenosaunee history and culture. The Haudenosaunee cultivated and harvested corn on a large scale within the ancestral Haudenosaunee lands of present day New York State. Corn was a principle and favourite vegetable food of the Haudenosaunee and they harvested many variations.

Historical accounts by settlers as early as 1535 describe thriving Haudenosaunee villages that had vast vegetable gardens and orchards. Several of these historical accounts mention the planting of corn, beans, and squash together. Haudenosaunee stories of the ‘Three Sisters’ (corn, beans, and squash) and ceremonies such as the ‘Green Corn ceremony’ or the ‘Green Bean ceremony’ attest to the spiritual significance of corn to Haudenosaunee culture. The importance of corn to Haudenosaunee culture was so significant that the Haudenosaunee called it by a name meaning, “it sustains us” or “our life.”

Maize was an essential food staple and also played an important role in Haudenosaunee trade and commerce. For example, the Haudenosaunee harvested corn in excess for trade or emergency. Thus, if one ally nation experienced problems with seasonal crops, another nation would respond to the need with additional corn and food stores. The needs of individual villages were taken care of and Haudenosaunee nations maintained good will through assisting ally nations in times of need.

From the early 1600’s to the early 1800’s, accounts of Haudenosaunee peoples assisting early settlers during times of starvation are known. For example, in Captain John Smith’s book History of Virginia (1632), he attributed the survival of his group to being fed by the Haudenosaunee. Another account of assistance from the Haudenosaunee came from the early settler colonies of Jamestown and Maryland that were rescued from starvation or famine several times by foods made from corn, given or sold to them by the Haudenosaunee that had cultivated and harvested it. These examples illustrate that the success of early settler societies can be attributed to the generosity of the Haudenosaunee and the cultivation of corn.

Ironically, the same corn that was used to save settlers from starvation became a target of war. Corn was known by the Europeans to be such an important food staple and article of commerce that European invaders realized it would be more detrimental to burn Haudenosaunee cornfields than to burn the Haudenosaunee villages. As villages could be rebuilt in a short period of time, burning the Haudenosaunee cornfields was more destructive as fields may not yield another crop for some time afterward.

The Haudenosaunee were skilled agriculturalists. Historical accounts by early settlers describe vast fields of corn, beans, and squash, as well as vegetable gardens and orchards. The Haudenosaunee were also skilled at creating corn-made recipes that kept them healthy and sustained their societies. Hunting parties survived on corn-made powder that was so nutritious, it was all that they required, keeping them energized for their trip. The Haudenosaunee were also known to be very adaptable and innovative. Although they continued to cultivate their traditional forms of corn, they also cultivated new varieties that could be sold for higher prices at markets nearby.





Elijah, M. (Ed.) (2013). Our Thirteen Grandmother Moons - Oneida Cultural Activities. Ontario: Oneida Language and Cultural Centre.

Parker, A.C. (1910). Iroquois Uses of Maize and Other Food Plants. New York State Museum Bulletin 144. The University of the State of New York, Albany.

Waugh, F.W. (1973). Iroquois Foods and Food Preparation. Ottawa: Canada Department of Mines, Geological Survey, Memoir 86. Anthropological Series, (12). Ottawa: Government Printing Bureau.