How Native Communities Are Reclaiming Their Corn

Native Americans spent centuries cultivating crops before colonization compromised their food supply. Now, some Native communities are taking it back.

What do we celebrate when we celebrate Thanksgiving? For some, it's an excuse to watch football with cousins we hate; for others, it's a chance to reflect on the now-debunked communal feast between colonists and members of the Wampanoag Nation in 1621. The latter is, of course, a fantasy riddled with historical inaccuracies. But it's a powerful fantasy, conjuring visions of a bountiful table covered with gourds, horns of plenty, and, perhaps most notably, multicolored ears of corn.

No food represents Thanksgiving dissonance quite like corn. On one hand, the crop represents that idyllic maize harvest that cemented the settlers' new North American home. (There was a harvest, but it was entirely thanks to Tisquantum, a member of the Pawtuxet Nation who spoke English—a language he was forced to learn after being captured by English explorers and sold into slavery.) On the other, more than 92% of North American corn is now genetically modified, with production and pricing largely dictated by mega-corporations like Monsanto. Tight regulation makes corn susceptible to some of the food shortages that plagued consumers at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.

But corn is also sacred to numerous Indigenous communities, whose predecessors spent centuries cultivating the crop for North American soil before colonization compromised their food supply. Of course, Native nations are far from monolithic, with vastly diverse agricultural traditions that feed their communal practices. Now, those communities are working to reclaim those traditions, rebuild their inter-tribal connections, and re-establish their food sovereignty.

A brief history of corn

The uniformly sized yellow kernels you'll see on your Thanksgiving table? Those are new—at least, when compared to their progenitor, an ancient grass called teosinte. Maize domestication began with teosinte around 9,000 years ago in the Balsas River Valley of south-central Mexico. Farmers in the region cultivated favorable traits of teosinte, eventually producing a crop closer to the corn we know today. That crop migrated to other parts of the Americas, where it evolved further thanks to the work of Indigenous farmers.

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Along the way, certain types of corn appeared in the sacred histories of numerous Indigenous communities. Take, for example, the Oneida Nation of Wisconsin. Becky Webster, a member of the Oneida and a co-founder of the Ohelaku ("among the corn stalks") white corn cooperative on the reservation, explains the significance of her community's traditional white corn crop. "Our corn is scattered all over our creation story," Webster says. "Corn is the eldest of the Three Sisters and, thus, the leader of our food crops. Some say corn made up between 70 and 80 percent of our diets prior to European contact."

That European contact brought violence, theft, and the elimination of food sovereignty—essentially, each community's right to define its own food and agriculture systems.

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Pre-colonization, the Oneida lived in New York state. In the early 1800s, the state of New York—along with white land speculators—forced the Oneida to sell large portions of their land, steadily shrinking the Oneida Nation's homeland. In the 1830s, large groups of Oneida were removed and resettled in the Green Bay, Wisconsin area. There, Oneida lands were once again chipped away—this time by the federal government, who demanded the land as settlers and industry flooded the area. This further burdened the Oneida community's agricultural practices.

It's a common story, says Patty Loew, a member of the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Ojibwe and director of the Center for Native American and Indigenous Research at Northwestern University. Loew references the 1837 treaty in which Ojibwe and Dakota leaders were forced to cede a large swath of land across what is now east-central Minnesota and western Wisconsin.

"We still had hunting, fishing, and agricultural rights on the land we were forced to give up," Loew says. "But then dams went up, farmland was cordoned off, and our access to our traditional foods was impeded. A new way of life was forced upon us—with new dietary restrictions."

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That new way of life made it difficult for Native communities to access the lean meat, wild fish, and protein-rich grains they relied upon. That left members vulnerable to a number of health conditions; today, Native Americans have a greater chance of having diabetes than any other U.S. racial group. But the land removal also marked a period of deep spiritual and existential crisis for communities like the Ojibwe and the Oneida, where traditional crops represent so much more than food.

“We are the wild rice”

It's not just corn. Loew explains that many Native communities have unique relationships with plants known as relative crops. "My community has a relationship with wild rice going back to our really old migration stories," she says, explaining that the Anishinaabeg—a group of Indigenous communities including the Ojibwe, Odawa, and Potawatomi peoples—initially returned to their ancestral region of the Great Lakes as settlers overtook the east coast. As they migrated, they knew to go back to where, as Loew puts it, "the food grows on water." (Wild rice is an aquatic grass that grows in shallow water.)

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Now, wild rice plays an integral role in Ojibwe culture. "Our naming ceremonies, our cultural ceremonies, our pow-wows—​​our annual Manoomin pow-wow literally means 'wild rice pow-wow,'" she says. "Every aspect of our society and our history and our spirituality emanates from wild rice. We are the wild rice."

Tom Weso, a member of the Menominee Indian Nation of Wisconsin and the author of Good Seeds: A Menominee Indian Food Memoir, agrees. The Wisconsin Menominee also honor wild rice as an ancestral crop; he still remembers the first time he found and processed his own after growing up hearing his grandmother's stories about the harvest.

"Back in the early 1980s, I found some wild rice growing along the banks of the Wolf River," he recalls. "I didn't have the expertise [my grandparents had], so I stuck the bag of rice on top of the refrigerator. A week later, it was all dried up—but my grandfather told me how to winnow the wild rice, removing the chaff with your hands." After removing the rice's inedible chaff, he was stunned to find half a pound of perfectly edible wild rice.

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"It was like that 'dawn of man' scene in 2001: A Space Odyssey," he says, laughing. "My eyes were opened."

Restoring food sovereignty

Now, Weso is committed to retelling the stories associated with Native agriculture. "We have lost our connection to the land—to rivers, to waters, to lakes, to weather," says Weso. "If we grow our own food, harvest our own wild animals, farm our own goods, it helps us to restore that connection."

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Meanwhile, other Native leaders—leaders like Lea Zeise—are working to physically restore traditional agricultural practices and trade routes. Zeise (Oneida Nation) is the agriculture program manager for United South and Eastern Tribes (USET). She coordinates tribal agriculture throughout the entire eastern region from Maine to Texas, bringing together federal, state, and tribal partners to bolster Native conservation and food sovereignty efforts.

"Restoring traditional foodways is this lynchpin of cultural restoration, health restoration, ecological restoration, and inter-tribal relations," Zeise says. "When you have a vibrant traditional food system, people are able to access foods within our cultural landscape—foods within our creation story, foods we have ceremonies for." That creates an undeniable connection, she explains. "Growing traditional foods connects us spiritually with those foods as we work to honor the treaty that we have with them and the Earth," Zeise says.

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Zeise understands that connection firsthand. She's an active member of the Ohelaku white corn cooperative that she founded along with her mother, Laura Manthe, her cousin, the previously mentioned Becky Webster, and several other founding families. Every year, the members of the cooperative hand-plant, hand-weed, and hand-harvest acres of traditional Oneida white corn.

"It's an incredible experience going out for harvest," Zeise says. "You're out in the corn, so you can hear the leaves rustling together; meanwhile, you're seeing all of our hard work coming to bear. You're also with the community—everybody's out together picking; you've got little kids running around. It's a really jubilant atmosphere."

After the corn is harvested, members of the cooperative bring their haul to a barn for processing alongside community volunteers. "We sit in a big circle and we husk it, which is when people are telling stories and telling jokes and building relationships with one another that we wouldn't otherwise be building," Zeise says.

She explains that all of her efforts—everything from hand-harvesting with the Oneida to restoring inter-tribal foodways—relates back to the food sovereignty that was stolen from communities like the Oneida. She argues that the modern food landscape focuses too intensely on efficiency, which almost invariably leads to scarcity.

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Similarly, in Hunter-Gatherers: Insights From a Golden Affluent Age, anthropologist Marshall Sahlins writes:

"Modern capitalist societies, however richly endowed, dedicate themselves to the proposition of scarcity. Inadequacy of economic means is the first principle of the world's wealthiest peoples." The [food] shortage is due not to how much material wealth there actually is, but to the way in which it is exchanged or circulated. The market system artificially creates scarcity by blocking the flow between the source and the consumer. Grain may rot in the warehouse while hungry people starve because they cannot pay for it."

That scarcity is clear in the modern agricultural landscape, which is driven by the aforementioned mega-corporations like Monsanto. These corporations deal in strict contracts dictating how and when farmers can grow their genetically modified seeds—seeds that are, in many cases, modified descendants of crops cultivated by Native communities. "When you have genetically modified seeds, you're signing up to grow them only that year," Zeise explains. "You cannot save seeds from year to year or you'll be breaking your license and [large seed companies] will sue you."

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But the corn cooperative has seed sovereignty, which means freedom. The cooperative uses heirloom seeds, which are saved over the course of centuries and carefully protected against modification. "We can harvest our seeds from year to year," Zeise says. "We know that our people will be able to feed ourselves in perpetuity as long as we have these seeds. The value of our food doesn't fluctuate with the market."

Zeise points out that seed sovereignty also makes sense from a climate perspective, as monoculture foods are more vulnerable to extreme weather events and blight. "Our food system is really diverse; it also depends on trading seeds with other tribal nations to keep a lot of genetic diversity in our corn so it's resilient to any kind of pest or disease," Zeise says.

Reciprocity and gratitude

Is it possible to enjoy a modern American Thanksgiving while also acknowledging the oppression inherent in our food system? Maybe. This isn't meant as a knock against the modern American interpretation of Thanksgiving, ahistorical though it may be. This also isn't an attempt to correct the inaccurate and often burdensome telling of the original Thanksgiving story. Indigenous communities are already doing the latter, working to share their own Thanksgiving experiences while correcting the misinformation still being taught in American schools.

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Ultimately, as Thanksgiving approaches, bringing with it a season of indulgence, celebration, and, hopefully, reflection, settler descendants have an obligation to reconsider our consumption habits, approaching this day—and every day—with a sense of mindfulness.

"I don't think Native people have a monopoly on being in relationship with their environment," Loew says. "But when we think about the kinds of foods that we generally have at Thanksgiving, I urge my students to think about the relationship that the first people on this continent had with those same foods that they now enjoy, and be mindful of and grateful for that."

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