A Celebration of Native American Food
The Dunkirk Historical Society is pleased to present their annual “Celebration of Native American Traditions” on Sunday, November 6, 2011 from 1:00 p.m. to 4:00 p.m. at the beautiful Clarion Hotel, in Dunkirk, NY. This year’s celebration will feature Native American food: Stories, History, Demonstrations, & Samples to share. Everyone is welcome to this free event. Native American food artist Joyce Jamieson (Seneca) will present demonstrations, recipes and stories featuring Native foods, including a discussion on different kinds of corn. Jamieson worked for twenty years at the Native American magnet school in Buffalo as a cultural resource specialist. Jamieson reminisced about how she learned to make Native food, “It was our way of life. I was always at my grandmother’s house. My grandmother’s sister, Aunt Sadie and Uncle Bill . . . they were the ones who taught me to make corn soup. My father’s friend, Ruby Schindler, she lived right next to my grandmother’s house. My grandmother was handicapped. Ruby was handicapped as well. Grandma would say, “Go help Ruby.” They were corn soup makers. For being disabled, Ruby could lift those pots. I learned their tricks . . . how to wash corn, how to soak corn, and how to cook it. I learned to make fry-bread from my grandmother.” Samples of Jamieson’s special corn soup and fry-bread will be served at the event. Other highlights include demonstrations by Native American traditional artists such as Michael Jones, a traditional potter and Blaine Tallchief, a gastowë maker, as well as performances by the Alleghany Indian River Dancers. Storytelling, traditional games, music, participatory dance and much more make this annual tradition a regional favorite. This event is made possible by the generosity of the New York State Council on the Arts; the Seneca Nation of Indians; the Clarion Hotel, Marina and Conference Center; Northern Chautauqua Community Foundation; Evening Observer; WDOE 1410 AM; 96 KIX FM; Petri Baking Products; Arkwright Printing; and the Dunkirk Cultural District. The Dunkirk Historical Society is a member of the Dunkirk Cultural District, along with Adams Art Gallery and the Dunkirk Historic Lighthouse and Veterans Park Museum. The Dunkirk Cultural District is proud to embrace the Free Community Project, an arts-based initiative designed to eliminate child abuse and child neglect.
The Haudenosaunee, the people of the longhouse, have inhabited the northern woodlands of North America for thousands of years. Called the “Iroquios,” by the French, the most famous of the Haudenosaunee were the five nations that inhabited upper New York State: the Seneca, Cayuga, Onondaga, Oneida, and Mohawk. The sixth tribe, the Tuscarora, joined later. The Five Nations (also known as the Six Nations and the Iroquois Confederacy) represent the most influential confederation of Native North Americans in documented history.
The Haudenosaunee tell the story of how the world began on the back of an enormous Turtle. At the beginning of time, the Master of Life decreed that all people live in harmony and love. According to most tribal lore, an early period in their history was marked by intertribal discord and unrest. The Master’s message was forgotten, so he called upon a holy man known as Deganawida, the Peacemaker. The Peacemaker crossed Lake Ontario in a stone canoe. There he met Hiawatha. Hiawatha grieved the daughters he lost to tribal fighting. The Peacemaker comforted Hiawatha’s heartache with wise and kind words. Similar soothing expressions would later be spoken at Iroquois council meetings to encourage friendship and open minds. The Peacemaker’s wisdom combined with Hiawatha’s flair for speechmaking. They crossed the length and breath of Iroquois territory, built partnerships and told of the Great Law and the Tree of Peace. The Five Nations that came into the League maintained control of their own affairs. Issues of common concern were discussed by a Grand Council. Each tribe’s elder women chose the fifty chiefs to attend the first Grand Council, which took place under a giant evergreen on a hill at Onondaga. An eagle perched on the tree top. Later only 49 clan representatives would play a part in the Grand Council, as it was believed that no one was worthy of filling Hiawatha’s original seat. Unanimous decisions were always reached by consensus after lengthy discussion. Each tribe had one vote. A similar practice existed within the tribes down to the village level. Families and their kin lived together in durable wooden longhouses. Some longhouses were up to 400 feet long. More than a dozen families might share a single long house. Families lived in areas on either side of a central aisle, sharing a central hearth with the family opposite them. The Haudenosaunee envisioned their league as a vast longhouse. In it the five tribes surrounded the five fires. The Mohawks watched the eastern side; to their west were the Oneida; then the Onondaga, who cared for the central hearth; next were the Cayuga, and then the mighty Seneca, keepers of the western door. Over time, the league extended to shelter other peoples, including the Tuscarora refugees from the Carolinas in 1722. Within each of the six nations of the Haudenosaunee, the people are separated into matrilineal clans. The number of clans varies by nation, each named for the animal considered to be the clan member’s original ancestor. The eight Seneca clans are: Wolf, Bear, Turtle, Snipe, Deer, Beaver, Heron, and Hawk.
More Native American food is consumed in America than food from any other continent. Native food differs according to the geographic region, availability, climate and customs of the local people. For instance, in the Northeast of what is now the United States, early Native Americans used salmon and other fish, seafood, mushrooms, berries and meats such as venison, duck and rabbit. Besides deer, early Native Americans across the Americas frequently ate such varied meats as rabbit, prairie dog, beaver, lamb, buffalo, guinea pig (South America) and pork. In the last century, the use of wild game was largely replaced by domesticated animals for food.
Commonplace in the Native American diet were wild grains and vegetables. Depending on the area where people lived, squash, sage, wild onions, cabbage, pumpkins and cactus were consumed. Native American cooking tended to be simple. Most Native Americans preferred to eat their food very fresh, without many spices. However, In Mexico and Central America, Native peoples were apt to use less fresh meat and more spices in their dishes, including hot peppers, cumin, and chocolate seasonings. The Taino of the Greater Antilles were the first New World people to encounter Columbus. Prior to European contact, the Taino foraged, hunted, fished, and cultivated cassava, sweet potato, maize, beans, squash, pineapple, peanut, and peppers. Only a handful of the descendents from native groups like the Taino still remain, but their culinary legacy lives on. Other Native American peoples continue a living tradition, carrying on a legacy that reaches back to time immemorial.
Native American food and food practices have contributed to cuisines all over the globe. Native foods such as corn, tomato, potato, squash, beans, nuts, roots and berries translate into many varieties and contemporary meals.
For instance, without Native American foods, Irish potatoes, Italian tomato sauce, the peanuts and chili peppers found in Thai cooking, and chocolate in French cooking, would not exist. In addition to this, many of the earliest forms of medicine were derived from food sources. Native Americans are masters at making poultices, teas and herbal remedies. Herbs and plants such as peppermint, rose hips, clover and sage were used to make teas and other foods. Modern-day native peoples retain a rich body of traditional foods. Fry-bread is a contemporary and delicious treat popular at powwows. For some Native people the use of fry-bread is controversial, not only because it is blamed for contributing to diabetes and obesity on reservations, but also because it has associations with a painful history. In the mid-1800’s the United States forced certain Indians to make the 300-mile journey known as the “Long Walk” and relocate onto land that couldn’t easily support their traditional staples of vegetables and beans. To prevent the indigenous populations from starving, the government gave those canned goods as well as white flour, processed sugar and lard—the makings of fry-bread. Despite this, many powwows host fry-bread competitions, and long lines at fry-bread stands are typical. As proud expressions of Indian identity, today’s powwows are partly a reaction against that past suppression, and fry-bread is considered by many to be iconic of those celebrations.
Navite Food in Ceremony & Culture
Food is widely used as a gift between native peoples and is the center of many celebrations. For example, the ceremonies of the Kaniekahageh (Mohawk people of the east) includes the Maple Syrup ceremony (late spring), Strawberry Ceremony (early summer) Planting Ceremony (early summer), Bean Dance (midsummer) Green Corn Dance (midsummer) and Harvest Dance (end of summer). Tradition bearers, certain people by virtue of their good memories, long lives, skills or community role, may be especially adept or identified by others as being able to transmit the “lore” sought by others. Lore is knowledge from teaching or experience that is usually hand down by word of mouth.
In Native American society, the lore of food sharing is intertwined with traditional storytelling and rituals of giving thanks through prayer, song and dance. These and other ways pay homage to nature and the Great Spirit. Social, physiological and psychological benefits of these traditions and practices abound. A way of life expresses itself in rhythmic patterns that span across thousands of years. Native celebrations center on the gifts of nature. People gathering together helps heal and fortify individuals, families and the larger community through hard times and trauma. The get-togethers are opportunities for community engagement, intergenerational sharing and nurturing for all generations.
A case in point is a ceremony known as “gathering corn bread,” traditionally held at the end of the planting season, when the corn is ready to be stored. Thanks must be given for the food, just as it is at the beginning of the planting season. Nearly every family prepares by baking a batch of old fashioned corn bread to be brought to the Longhouse. At this gathering, a speaker congratulates the people on the success of their crop. Thanks are given to the Great Spirit that the people have been well supplied. Two men perform the Great Feather Dance. Everyone then takes part in the Trotting Dance. A third dance is by females only (to thank the Great Mother and the Three Sisters). After these dances, everyone, including children, participate in a fourth dance by joining their hands. The women and men have the privilege of joining hands together. This is said to be like the mixing or joining of the seeds in the hills of corn. When corn is planted in the traditional way, kernels of corn are planted in little mounds along with bean seeds and squash seeds. Sometimes sunflower seeds are added to the mix. Corn, beans and squash are referred to as the Three Sisters. When planted this way, the Three Sisters are thought to be working together to feed the people. It is an ingenious agricultural system. Corn provides a stalk for the bean vines to grow up around. Beans provide nitrogen to nourish the soil, helping the corn and squash to grow. Leaves of the squash provide a ground cover preventing weeds from crowding out the crop. When all the dances are done, the speaker thanks the people and the Creator that the people have gotten done with their duty. The speaker then reminds the people of the Midwinter Festival, which comes on the fifth day of the new season.
Another type of traditional gathering is the husking bee. These may be held in individual homes where corn soup is generously served. The occasion is enlivened with dancing and storytelling. Games may be played such as one in which short pieces of corn stalk are piled up into a house-like structure. Individuals try to flip away single pieces one at a time without knocking down the others.
Workers at a husking bee were always on the look-out for abnormal ears of corn. These have different meanings. A fascinating corn with branches resembling fingers is called “hand corn.” A multiple ear is a large ear with several smaller ones springing from it. It indicates that a girl will have many children. The rest of the huskers say “lots of young ones.” A red ear entitled the finder to one ear from each of the other huskers. The Onön:dowa’ga (Senecas, or “people of the hills) have enjoyed corn (onëö) for food and other uses. Ononya’ (corn husk) has been twisted, coiled, braided or wrapped to make masks, bottles, padding, mats, baskets and moccasins for generations. Ononya’ gaya’da (husk dolls) are made as play things, and also as a way valuable lessons could be shared with youngsters. Traditional ononya’ gaya’da do not have faces. One legend involves a lesson about an Indian maiden who was troubled with vanity. She could no longer see her reflection in a lake, until years later when she was old and wise and had learned the lesson of kindness.
The delicious corn soup and other treats offered at the husking bee and other gatherings are an integral part of the festivities. Being fed by another person and being able to accept food from another is one of the most basic nurturing and trusting experiences, according to Anne Jernberg, founder of the Theraplay Institute. Because of this and other customs, many of the celebrations and Native traditions reflect what may be considered by some, as best practices for children in their communities and families. Jernberg and others emphasize that parents and children build better relationships through attachment-based play. It may well attest to the survival of many Native customs through the centuries, that healthy human development for all humans depends on being nurtured and developing trust. Native people integrate eons of trust-building activities including intergenerational sharing, nurture through food sharing, playfulness, fun, storytelling, prayer, games, dance and song, in their daily life and annual traditions.
In addition, through many Native rituals and patterns of life, community and family experience interdependence with each other and the Great Spirit. Because of this, the giver trusts that food and other forms of nurture and care are sufficient, abundant, and available from external sources (nurturing adults, clan members, Great Spirit) and internal sources (self comforting, self nourishing, etc.)
The husking bee and other such gatherings meet the needs of young and old alike. There exists a “built-in” structure which supports the whole community in their sensitivity and ability to be responsive to each other. Respect is an essential part of the teaching. Respect is paid to each other, the Great Spirit, and nature through soothing, hands-on, rhythmic activities. Individuals are provided ample opportunity to interact and engage with one another. Various challenges add to the fun. No one really loses, as everybody wins in the end with laughter enhanced closeness, an atmosphere of respect, and delicious food to share.
The Three Sisters as recorded by Lois Thomas of Cornwall Island, Canada
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. There was only one way in which the three sisters were alike. They loved one another very dearly, and they were never separated. They were sure that they would not be able to live apart. After awhile a stranger came to the field of the three sisters, a little Indian boy. He was as straight as an arrow and as fearless as the eagle that circled the sky above his head. He knew the way of talking to the birds and the small brothers of the earth, the shrew, the chipmunk, and the young foxes. And the three sisters, the one who was just able to crawl, the one in the yellow frock, and the one with the flowing hair, were very much interested in the little Indian boy. They watched him fit his arrow in his bow, saw him carve a bowl with his stone knife, and wondered where he went at night. Late in the summer of the first coming of the Indian boy to their field, one of the three sisters disappeared. This was the youngest sister in green, the sister who could only creep. She was scarcely able to stand alone in the field unless she had a stick to which she clung. Her sisters mourned for her until the fall, but she did not return. Once more the Indian boy came to the field of the three sisters. He came to gather reeds at the edge of a stream nearby to make arrow shafts. The two sisters who were left watched him and gazed with wonder at the prints of his moccasins in the earth that marked his trail. That night the second of the sisters left, the one who was dressed in yellow and who always wanted to run away. She left no mark of her going, but it may have been that she set her feet in the moccasin tracks of the little Indian boy. Now there was but one of the sisters left. Tall and straight she stood in the field not once bowing her head with sorrow, but it seemed to her that she could not live there alone. The days grew shorter and the nights were colder. Her green shawl faded and grew thin and old. Her hair, once long and golden, was tangled by the wind. Day and night she sighed for her sisters to return to her, but they did not hear her. Her voice when she tried to call to them was low and plaintive like the wind. But one day when it was the season of the harvest, the little Indian boy heard the crying of the third sister who had been left to mourn there in the field. He felt sorry for her, and he took her in his arms and carried her to the lodge of his father and mother. Oh what a surprise awaited here there! Her two lost sisters were there in the lodge of the little Indian boy, safe and very glad to see her. They had been curious about the Indian boy, and they had gone home with him to see how and where he lived. They had liked his warm cave so well that they had decided now that winter was coming on to stay with him. And they were doing all they could to be useful. The little sister in green, now quite grown up, was helping to keep the dinner pot full. The sister in yellow sat on the shelf drying herself, for she planned to fill the dinner pot later. The third sister joined them, ready to grind meal for the Indian boy. And the three were never separated again.
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Allegany River Indian Dancers
Allegany River Indian Dancers began in the 1980’s as a way to share with the public some of the traditional and ceremonial dances and music of the Seneca Indian people. According to Bill Crouse, A member of the Seneca and Hawk Clans, the Seneca have many dances that are called “Social Dances” which can be shared and viewed by the outside world. A “social” is a native gathering where the Ganonyogk (Giving Thanks Prayer) is the first speech to be said, with many songs and dances to follow.
Dunkirk Historical Society Project Coordinator, Folklorist: Valerie Walawender
The Dunkirk Historical Society is proud to embrace the Free Community Project. The Free Community Project is an arts-based initiative aimed at creating a community free of child abuse and neglect, where children are free to grow to their full potential. The Free Community Project is sponsored by the Dunkirk Cultural District, a collaboration between the Dunkirk Historical Society, Adams Art Gallery, and the Dunkirk Historic Lighthouse and Veterans Park Museum.