Ohe·Láku Among the Cornstalks: A Legacy of White Corn

The corn season is an exciting time; it tells of coming autumn breezes, corn mazes, and pumpkin picking. For Laura Manthe and other members of the Oneida Nation, the corn harvest is an important cultural tradition and a symbol of community resilience.

The Oneida Nation are a part of the Haudenosaunee or Iroquois Confederacy. They’re originally from the State of New York in the Finger Lake Region, but were removed from New York and resettled on Menominee land in what is now Green Bay in 1822.

PC: John Oates Photography

Due to this forced relocation, the Oneida people had to re-establish agriculture to be able to feed their community. They had to make the hard decision whether to use their seeds immediately for food or plant them in the spring. They planted them in the spring, and the non-profit cooperative, Ohe·Láku Among the Cornstalks, still plants that White Corn today.

The Beginnings of Ohe·Láku

Laura Manthe is the co-founder of Ohe·Láku Among the Cornstalks, and her journey with the non-profit started in 2015. It began with just a few Oneida growers planting White Corn on a shared plot of land. Reflecting on that first season, Manthe says, “We didn’t know what we were doing and our crop failed miserably because we didn’t have the right implements for the tractors that were available.”

Still, it was important for Ohe·Láku to persist. Manthe reflected that her community has “…a responsibility to care for [the White Corn] as she cares [for] us.” Over the years, White Corn and traditional hand harvesting had become scarce in the community. White Corn is an heirloom variety that’s impossible to harvest with conventional farm equipment. It’s of great nutritional value, but of even greater cultural importance. White Corn is mentioned in the Oneida Creation Story, the Great Law, the Code of Handsome Lake, and the Thanksgiving address. The Oneida people also have songs and ceremonies that honor the corn and the way it serves them.

PC: John Oates Photography

So, Manthe and the other members of Ohe·Láku continued to advocate for their vision. A true grassroots project, through the help of Oneida Falling Leaves 4H and NWTC, Ohe·Láku was able to secure more land to grow on, and expanded to more than fifteen families. While Manthe’s original vision was to grow corn in garden plots separated by family, a friend interceded, “No, we are going to plant the corn together, harvest the corn together, and eat this corn together!” Manthe notes, “At that moment I had to decolonize my mind and think about ownership in a different way. Historically, our people grew all of our crops collectively, and we’re returning to our original instructions.”

A Labor of Love

Now, the same White Corn seeds have been planted in Wisconsin for over 200 years, but the process can be tedious. Ohe·Láku husks, braids, shells, sorts, and winnows the White Corn by hand. Still, the process is a source of sustenance, but also connects the Oneida people to their ancestors. Speaking on the topic, Manthe said,

“My granddaughter and I were braiding corn in the barn [one] day and she asked me ‘How long have our people been braiding corn?’ I stopped working and thought about that for a minute and replied, “We have been braiding corn since before we were humans. The seeds were brought here by Sky Woman.” There are so many lessons that are taught when we [are] sitting in a circle and husking corn for the Braiders. We are building capacity in our community by teaching others the old ways.”

PC: John Oates Photography

The Future of Ohe·Láku

Ohe·Láku also works in the community to process White Corn for the Feeding America Tribal Elder Food Box Program. Manthe says, “Ohe·Láku started as an idea. It was a plan to grow more corn for our families and the larger community.”

As the organization expands, they continue to make decisions by consensus, and welcome new families each year with their Under the Wing Program. Each family is referred by a current member, and works with the cooperative for one season. If the group agrees, they are allowed to stay as full members of the group. After one full year, they are able to invite another family to join Under the Wing.

PC: John Oates Photography

Manthe says, “Each person brings unique skills and experience to the group. We are stronger together.”

This season, the Garden is happy to partner with Ohe·Láku for a farm tour and harvesting workshop this month – on August 29, depending on when the corn is ready! In the program, you’ll be able to learn more about Ohe·Láku, White Corn, and harvesting – and even how they husk and braid later in the fall.

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