November 1, 2017

Corn-- Thank you Native Americans

by Brandon Marie Miller

Activity: Make a Corn Husk Doll

Long before Europeans ever arrived on American shores Native American farmers had bred many varieties of corn. Farming was typically a woman's job-- a necessary part of her nation's survival. Corn served as an important food for native nations across the land.

Native American women planting corn, Theodore de Bry, engraver, 1591. [Library of Congress, LC-USZ62-31869]

The Indian nations of the Powhatan Confederacy were the first confronted by the arrival of English colonists in Virginia. Using tools made of clamshell and deer bone, the Powhatan usually planted corn in the same hole with beans and squash. The three crops, called "The Three Sisters," worked together. Corn stalks supported the climbing bean vines and the beans added nitrogen to the soil. The large spreading leaves of the squash protected corn from other plants. Powhatan women planted the rows in April, May, and June to ensure a long growing season.

"The Three Sisters" Native American life explored at Jamestown, Virginia

Corn was eaten fresh but the kernels were also parched (dried) then pounded and ground into a coarse whole grain flour-- involving a lot of muscle and hard work! The corn meal could be stored in baskets and pots for food during the winter months. Powhatan women wove corn husks into sleeping mats and shoes, children made corn husk dolls, and dried stalks and corn cobs were burned as fuel. Nothing went to waste.

The early Virginia colonists relied on corn from Native Americans. In times of drought and poor crops, when Indian nations had little to share, the English often took what they wanted with threats and a show of guns. When the English kidnapped Pocahontas in spring of 1613, corn was one of the ransom items they demanded from her father, the paramount leader of  the Powhatan Confederacy.

Pocahontas later married an Englishman named John Rolfe. She traveled with him to England in 1616 and sat for this portrait. To learn more about her remarkable life, take a look at my book Women of Colonial America, 13 Stories of Courage and Survival in the New World. [Library of Congress LC-USZ62-8104.]

Today, people all over the world benefit from the Native American nations that domesticated and bred corn.

Follow this link to learn how to make a corn husk doll.

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