The Importance of Agriculture

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The Importance of Agriculture


Three Sisters. Corn or maize, beans, and squash were the most important food resources for nearly all Indians residing in the present-day United States. Called the three sisters by the Iroquois because they naturally grew well together, corn, beans, and squash provided the nutritional base and chief source of subsistence for most Indians until the twentieth century. Cornstalks supplied the climbing surface for bean vines, while beans and squash restored nitrogen to the soil depleted by mineral-hungry corn. By 1000 a.d., Indians living in the Southwest, along the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers, and in eastern North America grew all three crops. Many varieties of corn were utilized by different Indian groups, depending on the particular climate in their area. Corn that needed comparatively little water flourished in the semiarid Southwest, whereas quick-growing corn varieties suited the short growing season of the Canadian border area.

The Uses of Corn at Hochelaga

In September 1535 Frenchman Jacques Cartier sailed up the St. Lawrence River until reaching the Huron town of Hochelaga. While there he commented on the many uses of corn:

There are lofts in the upper part of their houses, where they store the corn of which they make their bread. This they call carraconny, and they make it in the following manner. They have wooden mortars, like those used in France for braying hemp, and in these wooden pestles they pound the corn into flour. This they knead into dough, of which they make small loaves, which they set on a broad hot stone and then cover them with hot pebbles. In this way they bake their bread for want of an oven. They also make many kinds of soup with this corn, as well as with beans and pease [sic], of which they have a considerable supply.

Source: David Beers Quinn, New American World: A Documentary History of North America to 1612, 5 volumes (New York: Arno, 1979), I: 315.

Origins. Maize formed such an important part of the diet among some tribes that they credited its origin to supernatural forces or people. Almost everywhere in native America, the creative powers of women became associated with the abilities to grow corn. Women found the original maize or were shown the secrets of its cultivation by supernatural powers according to many native societies, particularly those in the Southeast, where corn constituted the primary foodstuff. In Cherokee oral traditions

the wife of Kanati (the Lucky Hunter) was named Selu (which means Corn), and she introduced the Cherokees to maize, which she generated by rubbing her stomach or through her blood. After her death cornstalks sprouted wherever her blood hit the ground. In Creek mythology a woman first produced corn by washing her feet and rubbing them; she then instructed other Creek women how to grow corn and process it into bread and other dishes. These traditions helped to explain why women were responsible for agricultural production, as well as why women possessed inherent supernatural powers of creation.

Seasonal Ceremonies. Public events revolving around the first seasonal harvest of corn supplied the most important part of the ceremonial calendar for Indians east of the Mississippi River. In the Southeast the Green Corn Ceremony occurred among all groups in August or September. The Creek term for the ceremony, poskita, or busk, means to fast. By denying themselves food for the duration of the ritual, lasting several days, and drinking emetics (concoctions that induced vomiting), they sought purity through ridding their bodies of pollutants. Similarly, southeastern Indians threw away their old belongings and clothing and sometimes tore down and built new homes and other structures as part of the Green Corn Ceremony. They extinguished old cooking and sacred fires and replaced them with new ones started by elders and religious officials. They also forgave all offenses except murder committed during the prior year. Such purging meant that a new year could begin without the burdens of the prior one being carried over into the next. The Green Corn Ceremony provided a time of renewal and community solidarity, as well as a time for Indians to offer thanks to nature for giving them food and life.


Charles Hudson, The Southeastern Indians (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1976);

John R. Swanton, ed., Myths and Tales of the Southeastern Indians (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1995).