An Early Abenaki Harvest: The Green Corn Celebration

Corn dancers
Corn dancers

Written By

Fred Wiseman

Written on

August 24 , 2015

Traditionally, summer was a time of constant and existential worry for Abenaki farmers. Vermont’s notoriously fickle weather inundates the fields in June and parches them in July. I doubt that this perverse weather has changed much since the Medieval Warming Period (circa 1000 AD), when agriculture began in Vermont, or since the Little Ice Age (circa 1650 AD), when Europeans arrived on the scene. Careful and precise seeding and tending of fields, combined with Sun and Rain ceremonies, can only go so far to guarantee a harvest in challenging weather.

And so one of the most important—no, the most important—Abenaki ritual is the Green Corn Ceremony, which marks the time in early autumn when the waiting and anxiety are over, when it finally seems that the crops will come in.

Reviving the Green Corn Ceremonies

One of the Vermont state-recognized bands, the Koaseks of the Upper Connecticut River Valley (Newbury, VT/Haverhill, NH), have worked with the Seeds of Renewal Project, which I run, since 2012 to bring back the Green Corn Ceremony in all of its complexity and splendor. They do not wish to recreate an authentic 17th-century experience—that is for reenactors—but they want a politically, culturally, and spiritually meaningful community event based as much as possible on authentic historical antecedent. We are basing our work on a handful of source material that we have gathered. First, the Abenaki Corn and Knife Dances are performed at summer pow-wows, and even though they are entertainment for Euroamerican audiences rather than ceremony, these residual, secular performances preserve ancient ceremonial choreography and music. Second, political and ceremonial protocols for traditional Abenaki harvest gatherings have been documented in northwest Vermont for more than 35 years, as I note in my book Voice of the Dawn. Third, grainy, low-resolution archival imagery and film of agriculture-themed dance give a sense of what the ceremonial regalia looked like. Fourth, a mid-20th century Abenaki dictionary gives us correct names for some of the rites performed at this time. Fifth, late-19th-century stories about the coming of corn, recorded in Maine, give a glimpse of the spirituality behind the Corn Ceremonies. Sixth, oral history from one of the Vermont Abenaki bands recalls that the Corn Dance is actually the GREEN Corn Ceremony, locking it into our calendar.

The Koasek Abenaki Band more or less plans their Green Corn Ceremony to coincide with the Fall Equinox. Lots of food preparation is required: crops harvested from the Koas Community Garden in Piermont (NH) or from individual gardens must be prepared for the feast that will follow the ceremony. As more and more Koas and Abenaki Rose corn, Skunk and Jacobs’ Cattle beans, East Montpelier squash, Penobscot pumpkins, and Hardwick Ground cherries are made available, the Koaseks use these heirloom Abenaki seeds in place of previously used commercial varieties. If available, deer, moose, and/or bear meat are provided by hunting families, while fishermen add local fish to the planned cornucopia. I am pushing for the addition of heirloom New England turkey breeds to the mix of Koas harvest foods, partly because two heirloom breeds sport the mottled black and dark-brown feathers that are dead ringers for now-prohibited bald eagle plumage!

As the bounty of the Upper Connecticut River Valley is being gathered, stored and prepared, the ceremonial preparations begin at Pike Hall, a beautiful 19th-century community gathering space that centers the tiny hamlet of Pike, NH, nestled in the western foothills of the White Mountains. There is singing and dancing practice, the development of a ceremonial program, and the securing of speakers, dignitaries, and spiritualists who conduct the program. As the day approaches, the organizers make sure the performers, regalia, and food/utensils are in place. And the tables are arranged in Pike Hall to allow everyone to eat and visit with each other, yet also watch the dances and ceremonies.

The Green Corn Celebration

The Gathering traditionally begins with guests entering in line through a cordon of Koas tribal leaders. The gathering moves to the drum beat and music of the Wabanaki “Greetings” and “Welcome” songs performed by the Voices of the Koas Woman’s singing group. This grand entry reinforces the honor bestowed on the Tribe’s esteemed guests, who then take their places at large, eight-person tables as the Chiefs come to the front of the hall to welcome everyone. Often the seating is followed by a short prayer by the tribal medicine person.

The Green Corn festivities may begin with “wampum readings” by the tribal historian/wampum keeper that give the ancient history of the Wabanaki people and their ancient alliance to which the Koaseks belong. These mnemonic histories are woven into long panels of quahog-shell beads held aloft by the keeper as their story unfolds. Drumming and rattling or a song may punctuate the Wampum Reading. To keep Koasek citizens and guests engaged, a quick and lively Round Dance then brings members of the audience into the front and into the ceremony itself. Following the dance, special events take place; the year before last, the family of the farmer who preserved the Koasek Corn was honored by a special thanks-giving ceremony. Of course there is also “down time” between song, dance, and oratory for celebrants and guests to mingle and see the Koasek agricultural and cultural displays scattered here and there in Pike Hall.

The high point of the Green Corn Ceremony begins with the re-telling of ancient stories about the Sun-Being and its beneficent power over the growing things on Earth; and of First Woman, who gave her life so that her children and their descendants could eat, and who is now revered as Corn Mother. The storytelling is followed by the Abenaki Knife Dance, to highlight the devotion of First Man, who was commanded by First Woman to slay her with a stone knife and drag her lifeless body over bare infertile ground. The dance portrays First Man’s consternation and confusion about this impossible request—to find a knife in the woods to kill his beloved so that his children and all people following may eat. It ends with him seizing the knife from the ground, with a yell of anguish, to let all attending know that he will do what he must for all people following.

At this point, two young girls bearing wooden boxes of cornmeal, accompanied by two young men with long staffs capped by ears of corn, emerge and lay a ring of cornmeal around the dance area to sanctify the area by recalling corn mother’s sacrifice. This stately ritual is accompanied by the Wabanaki Death Song. The dance area is cleared, and the Corn Dance begins with the Corn Song “Ho-wa-ta-gay” and four “Corn Dancers,” each holding an ear of corn, taking their place to the right of the dance area. The Sun Dancer, clad in red traditional regalia, holds two large red-and-orange feather “Sun Discs,” and appears and circles each Corn Dancer, to represent the beneficence of the Sun in nurturing the crops. After each corn dancer has been visited, a Koasek elder is brought on stage by a child, then presented with ears of corn by each Corn Dancer in turn. The elder rejects each ear, to indicate the uncertainty of the harvest. But at the last moment, the last proffered ear is held aloft by the elder with a “whoop!” and the music turns into the lively Wabanaki Victory Song, signifying that the harvest is good and the feast may begin!

While the dances and ceremonies engage the audience, the Green Corn Buffet is quietly set on the tables in front of the kitchen to be ready to serve at the conclusion of the Green Corn Dance. Of course, elders and esteemed guests are traditionally asked to proceed to the head of the serving line. In 2013, I gave the old Wabanaki invitation to feast with the call, “Your plates!” The well-laid cornucopia focuses on “three sisters” soups and stews (made with corn, beans, and squash), wild game and fish, and pumpkin rolls, muffins, and breads. And of course, everyone in the community expects to see each Koasek core family’s “famous dish.” Nobody is left to go hungry. I remember that two years ago, the Koaseks had finally grown enough of their ancient Koas variety of corn to prepare a sample of corn on the cob. I was given the honor of tasting it before the buffet line was opened. This little ritual was a reminder of an old green-corn taboo that seems to pop up here and there in the Northeast—that nobody can eat corn until the Green Corn Ceremony is complete.

Soon Pike Hall is quiet except for the sounds of eating, but as time passes, more and more people begin talking between courses and trips to replenish the plate. This is when old ties of friendship are augmented by the meeting of new people, and the Koasek Community becomes the stronger for it. The anthropologist in me would call this a “rite of community affirmation.”

New Directions in Local Feasting

With the growing list of “Seeds of Renewal” crops that are being brought into production, the Koasek band is striving to swap generic foods for ancient local ones. As alluded to earlier, this requires being able to grow enough ancient foods to be able to serve as well as save. These ancient, local-origin Native American crops are not the same as commercially available varieties; they require a lot of testing and tasting in the kitchen. Current “Seeds of Renewal” work in Green Corn Ceremony development lies in finding commercially available sources for indigenous domesticated crops, prepared foods, beverages and condiments that can substitute for much more common, but geographically inappropriate supermarket commodities. This has required me to make frequent trips to local supermarkets, farmers’ markets, and co-ops, searching the stalls and isles for sources. Interestingly, the hunt has indeed revealed indigenous foodstuffs, ranging from the easily available Jacob’s Cattle beans to the exotic “dulse” seaweed-based flavoring from the Gulf of Maine. For the Green Corn Dinners I have also found reliable sources for cranberry, blueberry, raspberry, and black cherry juices, and even a drink that is part old-fashioned spruce beer, buffered by other juice so as to be more tolerable to the modern palate!

And so the Abenaki Green Corn Ceremony is alive, well, and evolving, able to rely more increasingly on the ancient indigenous produce of Vermont’s ancient soil.

About the Author

Fred Wiseman

Fred Wiseman

Fred Wiseman, a retired professor and former department chair of Humanities at Johnson State College, is a paleo-ethnobotanist who has studied the Maya people of Mexico and Central America and the modern ethnobiology of the Sonoran Desert. His interest in the Abenakis began in 1985, after he learned that he had Abenaki ancestry. To learn more about Seeds of Renewal,
contact Fred at wisem@vtlink.net.

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