Posted 03 August 2011, by Jaime Ferris, Housatonic Times (Journal-Register CT), housatonictimes.com
Corn, one of the first genetically modified plants in history, has transformed the ecology of the world. Today, corn is grown on every continent except Antarctica, covers 93 million acres of land in the United States alone each year, and is found in everything from margarine to antifreeze.
The story of this transformed grass began in the Andes some 6,000 years ago, when it was planted by Mesoamericans. In 1492, Spanish explorers Rodrigo de Jerez and Luis Torres were among the first Europeans to record the existence of a plant called corn when natives on the island that would eventually be called Cuba offered gifts of corn and tobacco.
Five major strains—flint, dent, sweet, flour and popcorn—were introduced to New England more than 1,000 years ago. Women were responsible for planting, tending and preparing the corn, and Eastern Woodland tribe women were so knowledgeable that they crossbred and improved the original five strains of corn, developing new varieties that now sustain people across the globe. By the 1600s, Colonists at Jamestown and Plymouth quickly joined the Indians in cultivating the crop, and corn’s supremacy began.
Corn has become somewhat controversial in recent years, as society devotes more and more of its resources to its cultivation. But the Institute for American Indian Studies in Washington will set those cavils aside Saturday when it celebrates its sixth annual Green Corn Festival from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. The family-friendly festival features drumming, dancing, storytelling, face painting, children’s crafts, and more.
“Not only do ceremonies reflect respect, but they are also part of the annual cycle,” wrote Trudie Lamb Richmond, a member of the Schaghticoke Tribal Nation, in “Out of the Earth I Sing: The Story of Corn.” “The ceremonies, songs and dances are an integral part of the seasonal changes, and assist in keeping the balance of these life-giving forces.”
The festival, a feature of Native American life for centuries, was first remarked on in 1643 by Puritan Roger Williams, who founded Providence, R.I., and lived with the Narragansett Indians. “As legend has it,” he wrote, “the crow brought them at first an Indian grain of corn in one ear, and an Indian bean in another, from the Great God Kautantowit’s field in the southwest, from whence … come all their corn and beans.”
Traditionally, Native Americans celebrated the arrival of the first corn and beans. Corn, in particular, had multiple benefits, as it could be enjoyed fresh from the garden, boiled, roasted, stewed, dried or ground into meal, and mixed with dried nuts, berries or meat. The outer husks could be braided into sleeping mats or made into children’s dolls, while the cobs were useful as scrubbers, pipes and for a warm winter fire.
“Green Corn Festivals are held all over Native America between May and October … [as] both a celebration and a religious ceremony,” said Dale Carson, a writer, author and master chef of Abenaki descent. “They celebrate the ripening of the first corn of the year … . The whole idea is to give thanks to the Creator, the Great Spirit, for the corn, the rain and sun that nurture it.
“The giving of thanks for food is sacred for Native American people of all nations,” she added. “The event is a time for feasting, dancing and celebrating life by visiting with friends and family.”
Throughout the afternoon, visitors in Washington can enjoy traditional Eastern Woodland song and dance with the Wampanoag Dancers and Singers, Ojibwa musician and artist Allan Madahbee, and singing and drumming by the Sint-Sink Singers. Young ones can listen to Native American folktales told by Janis Us (Mohawk-Shinnecock), or tempt their taste buds with a taste of traditional cooking in the outdoor Algonkian Village hosted by Ms. Carson. There will be a sale of arts and crafts by local Native American artisans, native inspired crafts for children of all ages, face painting and powwow-style food for sale, including fried bread, a festival favorite.
“People call all the time about powwows in the area, which have virtually disappeared in Connecticut,” said IAIS director Elizabeth McCormick. “… Our Green Corn Festival is an opportunity for people to get a glimpse of what it was like for native people [for centuries].”
“Maize is referred to in most native languages as ‘Mother’ or ‘Life,’ which indicates its extreme importance,” Ms. Carson said before last year’s festival. Today, she said, almost everything we purchase at the supermarket features corn in some form—from the corn-fed meat we buy and the cornstarch spray used to prevent it from drying, to alcoholic beverages, baby food and even makeup.
“Corn is the gift that nourishes not only the body but the spirit as well,” Ms. Carson said. “ Now, as the summer sun has reached its peak and harvesting of crops has begun, Native Americans of New England celebrate the ripening of corn with the Green Corn Festival and give thanks … to prevent disharmony and famine.”
“[This grain] is a wonder food. So much depends on this beautiful grain, and it is fitting and proper that we celebrate and honor [it],” she concluded. “I just wish more people knew about this festival and its significance.”
The Green Corn Festival will be held Aug. 6 from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. at the Institute for American Indian Studies, located at 38 Curtis Road, Washington. Adult admission is $10; children, $6. For more information, call 860-868-0518, or visit www.birdstone.org.
(Ed Note: Please visit the original site to view photographs associated with this article)