top of page
  • Writer's pictureThe Linguistic Foodie

The Iroquois White Corn Project: revitalizing the traditional Native American diet of Western NY

Updated: Jul 30, 2022

Nya:wëh Sgë:nö’ (Seneca Greeting)

This kernel of corn is too small. It needs to be put aside to be composted. This kernel is cracked. Put aside. This kernel has mold. Put aside. The process of sorting Iroquois white corn is strenuous, time consuming, and requires hours and hours of mindful, thoughtful labor. Nonetheless, the Iroquois White Corn Project is vital for preserving the diet and culture of Native American people in Western New York.

After Native American people were forced onto reservations by the United States government, the traditional diet of these peoples, including the Iroquois, disintegrated. They resorted to eating the unhealthy food options the government provided and in modern times to fast food. The loss of the traditional diet has been detrimental to Native American lives and cultures and has caused them to be prone to diseases like diabetes and obesity.

Image of from Ganondagan's website--legend of the three sisters with words in the endangered Seneca language

The Iroquois Confederacy

The Iroquois Confederacy, also known as the Haudenosaunee (hoe-dee-no-SHOW-nee), consists of six Native American nations located predominantly in Upstate New York and Ontario. The Seneca Nation, for example, has historical ties to the land that we live on in Rochester. According to the Iroquois story, Legend of the Three Sisters, the traditional Iroquois diet consists of the three staples of white corn, beans, and squash. These three foods represent three sisters and are inseparable. Iroquois White Corn dates to over 1,400 years in Haudenosaunee communities but it has slowly crept out of the Iroquois diet.

The Iroquois White Corn Project has since changed that. The Project focuses on revitalizing this corn by restoring the farming, production, and consumption of it and distributing it to the Seneca Nation, Native American Communities, and the general public. The mission is to integrate the corn into the diets of the Iroquois people to make it an everyday staple like it used to be. The corn can also provide Native American Communities with a healthier alternative because it is gluten-free, high in fiber and protein, and low in sugar.

Originally founded in the 1990s, the Iroquois White Corn Project has been occurring for decades and is currently based at Ganondagan State Historic Site in Victor, New York. Ganondagan, which is the only New York State Historic site dedicated to a Native American theme, produces and sells three different products with the corn--Iroquois hulled corn, corn flour, and roasted corn flour. The hulled corn is used in things like stews, soups, and salads and the flour can be used to make bread and baked goods. Many recipes containing white corn can be found on Ganondagan’s website.

White corn cornbread/ stew at Ganondagan

The corn is not easy to produce, as it is hand-grown, hand-picked, and hand-processed. Ganondagan runs the project out of a small antique farm, where they rely on volunteers and staff to braid, sort, and process thousands and thousands of pounds of corn. From the farming to the harvesting, the husking to the sorting, and the processing to the final product, the entire process centers on Native American land, ideology, and tradition.

Key for which kernels to keep and which to compost

White Corn at Ganondagan

Personally, I decided to volunteer to help sort corn for the Iroquois White Corn Project. As soon as I walked into the building, I was offered some home cooked food made with Iroquois white corn. There was some delicious corn bread and a delicious stew made with corn and veggies. Sorting the corn was time consuming, repetitive, but impactful, I felt like I was making a difference.

There are deep cultural and spiritual roots associated with the sacred strand of corn. Therefore, the Iroquois emphasize that when people work with white corn, they do so with a “good mind”. As volunteers, we were encouraged to respect the corn and where it came from, acknowledge connections to nature and mother earth, and work effectively with others.

The project is a lesson of how endangered Native American cultures and languages are. In addition to revitalizing their diet, there are efforts to revitalize the Seneca language, the language once spoken by the Iroquois that lived in Rochester NY. The word for Seneca in Seneca is Onödowáʼga which means “those of the big hill”. The Seneca language is very endangered and at one point, it only had like 50 speakers left. However, since 2013, there is an active revitalization program that has made schools for children to learn Seneca, bilingual signs, and a partnership with RIT which has documented the language! Both the revitalization of Seneca language and diet is well underway.

The Iroquois White Corn Project represents hard work, resilience, and commitment. Angel Jimerson, the production manager for the project, reflects, “For me, Iroquois White Corn is a teacher, it has taught me patience, acceptance, resourcefulness, gratitude, and mindfulness.” Step by step, the momentous project is helping to reestablish the lifestyles of the Iroquois peoples while also building a budding community of passionate volunteers and informing individuals about Native American culture.

If you wish to learn more about the Seneca language, culture, or diet, or you want to buy some Iroquois White Corn, visit Ganondagan! Here is the website where you can learn more: Learn more about the Seneca language here:

Dëjinyadade:gë'ae' ("we will see eachother again" in Seneca)

-The Linguistic Foodie :)

Parts of this blog post were adapted from work I did in the Trapezoid newspaper of Brighton High School

34 views0 comments


bottom of page