North-South-East-West: American Indians and the Natural World

The Three Sisters: Sustainers of Life

cornhusk dollsSister Corn
For centuries, corn was the staple grain of the Americas, and it has sustained generations of Iroquois people. Iroquois women raised several colors and varieties of corn, including flint, flour, pod, pop, and sweet.

Every part of the ear of corn was used. Women braided the husks for rope and twine and coiled them into containers and mats. Shredded husks made good kindling and filling for pillows and mattresses. The corncobs served as bottle stoppers, scrubbing brushes, and fuel for smoking meat. Corn silk made hair for cornhusk dolls.

Today corn continues to be an important part of Iroquois life. Many families have small gardens where they cultivate enough white corn for their needs, and some raise surplus corn for ceremonial use. For many Iroquois people, corn remains a sustainer of life.

Corn in the Americas
When Europeans arrived in 1492, fields of corn grew throughout the Americas. Corn had been an agricultural staple for more than 8,000 years and represented one of the most remarkable plant breeding accomplishments of all time. In the cold regions of Canada and South America, American Indians developed rapidly maturing varieties. Inca farmers of Peru grew it on the terraced hillsides of the Andes, and Hopi farmers irrigated extensive fields in the dry heat of the Southwest. Corn, in its many varieties, was the foundation upon which the great civilizations of the Americas were built.

Archaeologists believe that corn traveled north from Mesoamerica, where it was first domesticated. The first ears of corn, descended from a wild grass called teosinte, were very tiny. However, over the centuries, the Native peoples of the Americas developed varieties of corn that could sustain them.

As varieties of corn adapted to different environments were developed, corn spread across the continents, becoming the staple of the majority of American Indian people and transforming life in the Americas.

Cornhusk Dolls
Iroquois women have a lengthy tradition of creating dolls from cornhusks. In the past, they made the dolls for girls to play with or for use in rituals. Today women also make them for sale to non-Native collectors.

The dolls generally have no facial features. An old story tells that once the cornhusk people had beautiful faces. However, they spent so much time admiring their own reflections in pools of water that they forgot they should be entertaining the children. As a consequence, the Creator took away the cornhusk people's faces and turned them into dolls.

Image: Cornhusk Dolls
Iroquois, ca. 1950s
Cornhusk (Zea mays), commercial cotton and wool, glass, Ring-necked Pheasant (Phasianus colchicus) feathers, commercial leather, plastic, male Red-winged Blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus) feather; female, L 4.3 x W 10.5 x H 25.0 cm; male, L 4.3 x W 12.0 x H 31.5 cm; 34606-12 & 13, gift of Dr. Betty J. Meggers

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