Back from the Ashes: The Iroquois White Corn Project at Ganondagan

Today, Native Americans are working to keep their agricultural traditions and legacies alive by operating the Iroquois White Corn Project.


Grown traditionally, Iroquois white corn is grown to save the diversity of heirloom varieties, as well as to preserve the history of a food that is important to the Iroquois nation.

Photo by Laticia McNaughton

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Once upon a time, very long ago, there were three sisters who lived together in a field. These sisters were quite different from one another in their size and also in their way of dressing. One of the three was a little sister, so young that she could only crawl at first and she was dressed in green. The second of the three wore a frock of bright yellow, and she had a way of running off by herself when the sun shone and the soft wind blew in her face. The third was the eldest sister, standing always very straight and tall above the other sisters and trying to guard them. She wore a pale green shawl, and she had long yellow hair that tossed about her head in the breezes. . .

Thus begins the traditional Story of the Three Sisters, the corn, beans, and squash that were staples of the people in the thriving 17th-century Seneca town of Ganondagan (ga-NON-da-GAN) in present-day Victor, New York. The linked history of Ganondagan and the Iroquois White Corn Project (IWCP) is inextricably interwoven with war and devastation, but is ultimately about survival.

Ganondagan State Historic Site stands on the original location of the 17th century Seneca town. According to historical records and archeological findings, Ganondagan (meaning “the Town of Peace”) was populated by upwards of 4,000 Seneca people. They lived in bark longhouses and farmed more than 700 acres of fertile land. The Seneca belong to a confederacy of nations known as the Haudenosaunee, which includes the Cayuga, Onondaga, Oneida, Mohawk, and Tuscarora. The women living at Ganondagan minimally grew 3,700 bushels of nutritious corn a year to meet the needs of the community, as well as amassing a huge stockpile of stored corn. Along with many varieties of beans and squash, these three sisters (deohako, “the sustainers”) were the backbone of their healthy diet, along with the wild strawberry and many other fruits, plants, and animals.

The Seneca were successful trading partners with the European colonists in the fur trade era. In June 1687, in an effort to control this lucrative trade and punish the Seneca for interfering with their profits, the French sent an army under the Marquis de Denonville from New France (Canada) to Seneca country to eliminate them as competitors. A large contingency of men were away in present-day Ohio engaged in a campaign against the Miami. Thanks to advanced word of this attack, many at Ganondagan had already fled, taking with them their precious seeds. At Ganondagan, Denonville’s army set fire to approximately 500,000 bushels of stored and standing corn. The intent was to rid the Seneca of their main food supply and thereby starve them to death.

This was not to be the end of the war against the corn however. In 1779, in retaliation for raids on the frontiers of New York and Pennsylvania by the British-allied Haudenosaunee, George Washington ordered Generals Sullivan and Clinton to the Finger Lakes area to burn and destroy Seneca, Cayuga, Tuscarora, and Mesquakie towns from Cayuga Lake to the Genesee Valley. Recent data suggests that the destruction laid waste to forty towns, burned one million bushels of corn, 50,000 bushels of other vegetables, and more than 10,000 fruit trees.

So, where did this plant at the center of such conflict originate? According to prevailing science, the corn most likely originated in southern Mexico near Oaxaca and was developed from the wild annual grass, teosinte. The name, of Nahuátl Indian origin, is interpreted to mean “grain of the gods.” Scientific evidence indicates that one particular form of teosinte, known as Zea mays ssp. parviglumis, is the direct ancestor of maize. Corn has been cultivated in the Americas for at least five thousand years, although the process of domestication is thought to have started between seven and twelve thousand years ago.

In the traditional Haudenosaunee Creation Story, corn was brought to earth by Sky Woman as a gift from the Creator. It has been widely grown and consumed by the Haudenosaunee for at least 1,000 years.

Fast forward to 1997 to scholar/activist Dr. John “Sotisisowah” Mohawk (Seneca, Turtle Clan). Raised in a traditional Haudenosaunee spiritual and ceremonial way of life, Dr. Mohawk witnessed his people’s health declining with a diet heavy in consumption of government commodities and an associated alarming rate of diabetes. How could Dr. Mohawk have an impact on both the physical and spiritual health of his people, but also ensure their economic future? His concern translated into the founding of Pinewoods Community Farming, the original Iroquois White Corn Project at the Cattaraugus Reservation in Irving, New York alongside his wife Yvonne Dion-Buffalo (Samson Cree).

Growing and harvesting traditional Iroquois White Corn, the same variety grown for centuries, was done behind the project’s log cabin home. The indigestible hull was removed using cooking lime, a substitute for the traditional hardwood ash (the traditional method for removing the hull). Cooking lime also softens the corn and releases nutrients that otherwise would be locked inside.

Unlike “sweet corn,” Iroquois White Corn, with its long, straight ears and white kernels, is best described as having a naturally sweet, nutty and complex flavor and aroma. It is a traditional “slow food” digested gradually in the body so a full feeling is maintained for a longer time. It is also high protein, high fiber, gluten free, and proudly non GMO. Of particular importance, it is a low-glycemic index food, healthy for those with diabetes.

It looked like Mohawk’s wish to bring traditional corn back into Seneca diets, as well as provide a profitable business for his people, was becoming a reality. Sales enabled staff to be hired. Products were sold to Native and non-Native individuals and to more than 100 restaurants and high-end chefs including Bobby Flay. Major media attention included Gourmet Magazine.

However, Mohawk’s vision ended prematurely. In 2006, John Mohawk passed away, following the death in 2005 of his wife Yvonne. The project could not be sustained with the passing of these two dynamic and visionary individuals. With suppliers and sources drying up, it was soon abandoned.

Those who believe in things that are meant to be will understand what happened next.

In 2011, G. Peter Jemison (Seneca, Heron Clan), Ganondagan State Historic Site manager, artist, Faithkeeper and cousin to John Mohawk, had a vision himself. What if the Iroquois White Corn Project were to return to Ganondagan, back from the ashes to take its rightful place? Jemison brought the idea to the Friends of Ganondagan and its Board of Trustees. He presented it as a potential business initiative to provide an income stream for the Friends, the small non-profit supporting the work of Ganondagan State Historic Site through an array of programming and activities that reflect the living culture of the Seneca and the Haudenosaunee people.

The re-imagined Iroquois White Corn Project at Ganondagan became a reality in 2012 through an initial grant from the Max and Marian Farash Charitable Foundation in Rochester, New York. An old farmhouse at Ganondagan was renovated by New York State Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation to become the new processing facility and project home, producing three products—hulled (whole) white corn, white corn flour, and roasted white corn flour, and selling Iroquois White Corn Project merchandise.

To visit the Iroquois White Corn Project now is to see ancient traditions happily ensconced in the 21st-century. Its staff of one, Project Manager Kim General Morf (Mohawk, Wolf Clan), relies heavily on volunteers for all phases of production. Morf has a quiet strength when she speaks about the corn, noting that the only additives are “love and positive energy”.

“Before the corn is hand planted, we hold a ceremony and continue to give thanks every time we are in the field” she said. Ms. Morf is serious about her relationship with the corn, reminding herself and her volunteers about the importance of having a “good mind” when working with this precious plant.

Currently, the IWCP’s supply is supplemented by corn grown by traditional Haudenosaunee farmers. Last fall, 6,000 hand-picked ears of corn were delivered, grown by a Tuscarora farmer. In one husking bee weekend, Ganondagan volunteers husked and braided them all. Hand husking is necessary for the traditional method of drying the corn. Three husks are left on each ear and carefully braided into lengthy bunches to hang in a corn crib and dry for the winter; unused husks are sorted for other crafts like cornhusk dolls and braided mats. Once the corn is dried, it is carefully hand shucked for size and color. All rejected kernels are recycled for the wild birds and animals.

All the products begin with the kernels boiled to remove the indigestible hull, then hand-washed in traditional ash splint baskets. “Hulled” corn is then dehydrated, packaged and ready for cooking. The hulled corn is perfect for traditional Iroquois corn soup, and mixes beautifully in soup, chowder, chili, summer salads, stews, casseroles, salsas, or other recipes calling for whole hominy or beans. 

To become white corn flour, the hulled corn is stone ground into a medium-to-fine grind flour suitable for any recipe using regular corn meal, corn flour, or gluten-free flour in breads, muffins, pancakes, granola bars, and more. Many cooks also use it as a flavorful and nutritious thickener. Vegans and those looking for gluten-free food choices find the products a welcome discovery. Recipes have been created and adapted for all three products, and the corn’s flavor palette succeeds in a surprisingly diverse variety of menu items.

For roasted corn flour, the corn goes through a commercial-sized coffee roaster, carefully monitored for a rich, brown color and unmistakable sweet and nutty aroma. Anyone present during corn roasting can’t miss the wonderful roasted corn smell wafting through the farmhouse. These kernels are stone ground to medium grind flour, imparting its lovely, earthy flavor to breads, muffins, pancakes or any recipe calling for regular corn meal or flour. It also provides the indispensable flavor in the IWCP’s much-loved cornmeal cookies.

The products are sold in one-pound and ½-pound packages directly through the website and select distributors and retail outlets. “We’re proud to bring a healthy, sustainable food back to life,” says Friends of Ganondagan Executive Director, Meg Joseph. “The taste, health benefits and ease of use are inspiring people to add white corn to their diets.” Friends Program Director Jeanette Miller (Mohawk, Snipe Clan) knows firsthand the value of adding corn to her meals. Since introducing it daily, she has seen a decrease in her blood sugar and an improvement in her overall energy and health. An exceptional cook, she is committed to creating innovative new recipes “beyond just corn soup”.

Thanks to recent traditional and social media coverage, word of mouth, food and recipe sharing at area farmers’ markets, distributors, retailers, and several farm-to-table restaurants, the products are gaining in popularity with Native and non-Native people. Regional Access in Ithaca, New York, is a supplier and a 26-year supporter of New York State’s long agricultural heritage. Jesse Wysong from sales support spoke about the white corn: “This area has been farmed for over a thousand years. It is important to us that the history and heirloom crops of those first farmers are protected. As long as we are able to continue exposing more people to the legacy being kept alive by the Friends of Ganondagan—and its completely unique corn—we will be proud and honored to do so.”

Back at the Cattaraugus Reservation, the Seneca Nation of Indians partners with the The Seneca Diabetes Foundation to sponsor the “Food is Our Medicine” project directed by Ken Parker. Its objective is to establish a Native American horticultural program that will promote, educate and encourage Native American community members to re-introduce traditional foods back to the family table. The potential long-term impact of this project will bridge the gap between elders and youth to create awareness on how to reconnect back with our Mother Earth. “Our present food system is broken,” Parker said. “Eating habits and the readily available processed foods are having a direct impact on minority groups across the country. Native Americans and the Seneca have been hit the hardest. Bringing back our traditional foods promotes a healthier lifestyle. Chicken wings, pizza and French fries are NOT our three sisters. It’s time to take back our corn and make this a regular part of our indigenous diet.

Amy Blum has been a public relations and marketing professional for more than two decades. A resident of the Rochester, NY area, she has clients in numerous sectors. Amy has worked with Friends of Ganondagan since 2010, and is an enthusiastic consumer of its Iroquois White Corn.