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Labor of Love: How corn brings culture and community together in Oneida

Posted at 8:26 PM, Nov 15, 2022
and last updated 2022-11-16 11:01:19-05

ONEIDA — Corn is more than a side dish for the Oneida Nation members. It cultivates a culture and community identity.

That's why Laura Manthe and Lea Zeise started a white corn co-op, Ohelaku. The meaning of Ohelaku is "among the corn stalks," and the goal is to keep cultural traditions alive and bellies full.

"We're growing food to feed our community, but we're also reconnecting with our culture," Manthe said.

The co-op started in 2016 and has grown over 20,000 pounds of corn since.

"That first year we went from growing small little plots, maybe a few cobs harvested, to 1500 pounds of corn," Zeise said.

Now, there are 15 families a part of the co-op and an abundance of volunteers, from Oneida residents to university students, in all stages of the process.

Part of the process is picking the corn, and volunteers spend two hours every day doing so. The corn that's picked is Tuscarora white corn, and it has been growing continuously in Oneida for 200 years.

After picking the corn, the rest of the day is spent husking, braiding and hanging the crop in the traditional ways.

The corn is then traded, donated to the Oneida food pantry or shared among family and friends in the community. Traditional dishes like bread, mush and soup are also made with the corn.

Manthe said it's essential they make and eat the traditional foods because it connects them to their ancestors.

The co-op's next big project is setting up a commercial kitchen to prepare and cook with the hundreds of pounds of corn they have available.

Zeise said she looks forward to continuing to see the growth in the co-op and teach the community about the importance of food sovereignty and culture.

"We're not doing anything that hasn't been thought of before," Zeise said. "We're just stepping into those responsibilities and making ourselves responsible to carry those on for the next generation. We're kind of restrengthening that link between the generations."

"It's a labor of love," Manthe added.

Manthe and Zeise said whether you want to do some hands-on labor with corn or just stop by to learn about the the Oneida culture, anyone is welcome. Anyone interested in learning more about Ohelaku can check out their Facebook page here.