THE ONEIDA NATION: FOOD TRADITIONS PRESERVED THROUGH A TURBULENT HISTORY

By Melissa D. Corbin | August 27, 2017
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The Oneida Nation’s annual Big Apple Fest on Sept. 16 is just another example of the importance that food plays in its culture, but this festival will have a special added attraction as work was expected to be completed on a “long house” in time for a festival.

The unique structure has significant ties to the nation’s history. Originally known as “The People of the Long House,” the Oneida were Iroquois who were forced from their land in New York after the Revolutionary War.

Today, more than 17,000 Native Americans are registered as part of the Oneida Nation and more than 7,000 reside on the Oneida Nation Reservation, a 12.5- by 8-mile patch of land that straddles Brown and Outagamie counties. The abundance of apples available today at the festival stands in stark contrast to those days after the war so many years ago.

“They burned our orchards and other crops; we were dependent on the U.S. Government for new ways. That was the beginning of a tough time for our people. From then on, it was difficult to depend upon someone else,” says Oneida Chairman Tehassie Hill.

The Iroquois people were hunters and gatherers, farmers and fishermen, but the main staples of their diet came from farming. So when they were split into the six new nations (Cayuga, Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Tuscarora and Seneca), they did everything they could to protect their food ways.

Born and raised on the Oneida reservation, Oneida Nation Public Relations Director Bobbi Webster explains the basics of her people’s creation story: “For the Oneidas, our creation began with a woman that fell from the sky. She was carrying twins, and when she fell out of the sky into the water, from the waters emerged a turtle, and on the back of the turtle is where the world was formed. She was the beginning of our creation from the sky world. It makes sense. You will always know who your mother is, as you came from the canal of your mother, but from the planting of that seed, we don’t always know who that father is. The strength of the beginning comes from the mother. It speaks to how important it is to know, respect, care for and understand the role of the woman.”

Nothing reflects that any better than “The Three Sisters,” another example of the Oneida’s farming traditions.

This planting system is “the most common companion planting of the corn, beans and squash. It had to do with the manner in which the plants complemented, supported and nourished one another, and the environment they created to hold the moisture into the soil. It’s our tradition … There are a lot of things that reflect the importance of women, such as the three sisters,” says Webster.

A matrilineal society, there are actually three clans within the nation of Oneida. The Turtle clan represents the shifting of the earth and its moon cycles and is responsible for all things related to the environment. The Bear clan is the healers; whereas, the Wolf clan is pathfinders who are to help guide people to live the way their Creator intended. These clans depend upon one another for a succinct society.

“Between 1765 and 1845, the Oneida Indian Nation weathered a trio of traumas: war, dispossession and division,” writes Karim M. Trio in his book, The People of the Standing Stone: The Oneida Nation from the Revolution through the Era of Removal.

IT’S THE CORN

At the center of sustenance, then and now, is corn. “Not only was the corn used for food, but it was also used for trade. It still serves as a great revenue source,” says Chairman Hill. The Oneida white flint corn is an ancient variety dating back to their ancestral homelands in upstate New York. In fact, this same corn offered by Oneida Chief Skenandoah (a.k.a. Oskanondonha) is what nourished George Washington’s starving troops during the harsh winter of 1777-78 at Valley Forge.

Yet, this did not spare the Oneida people their land. The 19th century led to the treaty with the Menominee Nation where 65,400 acres were purchased for their reservations.

However, The Dawes Act of 1887 began a new era where non-Indian people would own much of the land. It was a devastating blow. So, since the United Oneida Tribal Council was formed in 1977, they’ve worked diligently to buy back their land. In 1993, the nation opened an extremely successful casino that funded land purchase and by 2013 they owned 25,042 acres (39 percent) of the reservation as well as opened their own school system and founded the Oneida Community Integrated Food System (OCIFS).

TSYUNHEHKWA - LIFE SUSTENANCE

The Oneida people are their own nation. And, at the center of this nation is the OCIFS 80-acre organic farm known as “Tsyunhehkwa” (pronounced Joon-heh-kwa) where, you guessed it, corn is grown. Of course, womankind cannot live on corn alone. So, there’s all sorts of produce and animals. There’s livestock and poultry, the apple orchard, strawberries, tomatoes, cucumbers, onions, peppers, but standing proudly in their midst is the corn. From seed to plate, this heirloom vegetable is revered with respect and is responsible for many of the Oneida Thanksgiving celebrations throughout the year.

Once the corn is picked, the husks are pulled back to reveal the kernels. The husks are then braided to form a rope of corn where the cobs are hung to dry. Finally, the dried kernels are removed and processed at the OCIFS Cannery for numerous applications. Milled into a flour, the corn can be combined with kidney beans for a traditional Oneida corn bread. This bread is a dense loaf meant to be boiled or sliced and pan-fried with butter. It’s an Oneida delicacy.

Also a palate pleaser is Corn Soup. Boiled along with pintos and salted pork, this soup is an all-day affair. Much like hominy, the corn must be boiled with wood ash to remove the husks and rinsed before adding to the pot of beans and pork. Webster suggests there’s no such thing as a small batch of Corn Soup: “This is a year-round dish. In fact, at all the powwows people will go around to see who has corn soup for sale.”

SHE USES:

2 pounds of dried corn
1-2 pounds of dried pintos
5 pounds some kind of pork (country style ribs or roast)
1/2 pound salt pork, sliced

She soaks the beans and corn overnight. Then fills her pot with meat, beans and enough water to cover 2 inches. She adds a healthy handful of salt (1/4 cup salt) and cooks until beans are soft, before adding corn for another hour, or so.

“That’s how I make it, but there’s a recipe on the back of that corn,” Webster smiles. Hill reminds not to miss the wood ash step, or else the corn will be tough.

All of these products and many more traditional foods can be found at the Oneida Market, which is owned by the nation and is located at 501 Packerland Drive in Green Bay.

TWAKHWALÓ·LOKS (HARVEST THANKSGIVING)

If you would like to participate in the corn harvest, join the Oneida Nation in their annual Husking Bee in October. This is a time for people to learn about the science behind the Three Sisters Garden and have some fun doing it. This celebration will recognize and give thanks for the harvest. Harvesting and braiding the Oneida white corn is a highlight of the event. There will be music and demonstrations and vendors from the Oneida Farmers Market, prepared foods and other cultural events.

The Oneida people give thanks for their harvest during this three-day celebration fi lled with ancient stories, songs, dances and prayer. It is a time when they practice a good mind, a good heart and a strong fire.

While many Americans sit down to give thanks this Nov. 23, Native Americans often will fast or spend time with their families in recognition of the tremendous loss and suffering of their people. Yet, prayers of thanksgiving abound within the Oneida Nation, as a thankful heart is a daily commitment. Indeed, gratitude holds certain healing properties. In this modern age of uncertainty, we could all learn to take a moment to offer up this Oneida morning prayer:

Watkatanehelatu ka’í:k^ w^hnislate tsi’
niw^hnisliyo khále’ wakatshanú:ni tsi’
wa’katatyatewe’

I give thanks for this day
It is a good day and I’m glad that I’m here

Article from Edible Door at http://edibledoor.ediblecommunities.com/eat/oneida-nation-food-traditions-preserved-through-turbulent-history
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