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Research & Essays on Shaping Canadian Foodways and Food Decisions

'Our Strength comes from the Land' [1]:  the Hybrid Culinary Traditions of the Six Nations of Grand River in the Early Twentieth Century

  • Alison Norman

Corps de l’article

At a banquet held in February 1926 by the Ohsweken Women’s Institute, the Six Nations women members provided the catering, and the menu was as follows: “cold ham, salads, jellies, bread and butter, cheese, pickles, celery, ice cream and cake and coffee.” They charged 50 cents a person. [2] This menu describes dishes that were very different from the “traditional” foods the Six Nations had eaten for centuries. For instance, three hundred years earlier, a Haudenosaunee menu might have consisted of corn soup, corn bread, wild rice, roast venison or moose, squash, baked apples and strawberry juice to drink. [3] What might account for such a shift in food choices and foodways?

The focus of this paper is the evolution of culinary traditions among the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) in southern Ontario into the mid-twentieth century, and particularly the diets of the Christian community in the early twentieth century. Elsewhere I have described how there was an exchange of culinary customs between British settlers and First Nations people in Upper Canada in the early nineteenth century, but by the early twentieth century, when it came to cooking, the balance had tipped in favour of the dominant culture. [4] By the 1920s, while some traditional foods were still prepared, especially by traditionalists or Longhouse people, the Christian women on the reserve were preparing foods quite similar to their non-Indigenous neighbours. In particular, my research looks at the impact of the schools (especially the Mohawk Institute residential school) and churches on the reserve, and how two organizations, the Women’s Institutes and the Six Nations Agricultural Society, were at the forefront of promoting an Anglo-Canadian diet in the community, and were encouraged and supported by the Department of Indian Affairs (DIA). Consequently, the food choices referenced in the banquet menu of 1926 reflect, in some ways, the success of government efforts to assimilate the Haudenosaunee community, and make them a Christian and agrarian people. It also represented a dilution or loss of some aspects of Haudenosaunee culture, heritage and identity, and in a way, the creation of a new Anglo-Indigenous identity on the reserve. [5] According to Jan Vansina’s pioneering work in ethnohistory, traditions have fundamental characteristics grounded in basic principles, but they are processes that can change, and Haudenosusaunee culinary traditions are an example of such mutable traditions. [6] In particular, this article will consider the role that food and cooking played in the lives of Christian Six Nations women in the early decades of the twentieth century, and suggest that despite the oppressive conditions under which the Six Nations (and all Indigenous people in Canada) were forced to survive, these women continued to use food as a way to care for their families and their community.

Historical Background

The Haudenosaunee were farmers, fishers, hunters and gatherers. Women were responsible for the planting and harvesting of maize, or Indian corn, the central crop of the Haudenosaunee that played an important part in Iroquois culture and history. [7] Because corn was cultivated on a large scale, which necessitated permanent settlement, Haudenosaunee traditionally lived in heavily fortified villages containing longhouses where extended families resided. In Haudenosaunee society, there was a gendered division of labour in which men were responsible for hunting and warring, and women took care of the crops and gardens. [8] Throughout the nineteenth century, as the need for waging war decreased, men had more time to participate in field labour, although it was still primarily the women’s domain, with clan matrons responsible for ordering the planting, cultivation, and harvesting. [9] Corn was typically grown with beans and squash, or pumpkin, in a tradition called the three sisters. Land and labour were saved by this method, and the plants benefited from each other: the corn provided a structure for the beans to climb, the beans provided nitrogen that enriched the soil in which the squash and the corn were planted, and the squash spread out over the ground, preventing weeds and creating a microclimate to retain moisture in the soil. [10] But the Haudenosaunee also believed that these three vegetables were guarded by three inseparable sister spirits, and that the plants would not thrive if planted separately. [11] Corn was eaten in many different ways, but one common method was to pound the corn into meal or flour to be baked into breads or cakes. [12] Iroquois women and children also gathered wild roots, berries, nuts and herbs, and developed methods of making maple sugar out of sap. [13] Men fished using nets in the summer and went ice fishing in the winter and also hunted deer, wild turkey, muskrat and beaver.

A number of these traditions began to change for the Haudenosaunee who turned to Christianity, and who learned new farming methods, especially in the 18th century. In 1784, thousands of Loyalist Six Nations people migrated from Iroquoia in upstate New York to Upper Canada after the American Revolution, when they were granted tracts of land in return for their loyalty to the British Crown. Some settled along the Grand River in the Haldimand Tract, and a smaller group settled at Tyendinaga, near Deseronto in eastern Ontario. [14] They brought with them their culinary customs, including the three sisters method of planting corn, beans and squash. Many Six Nations people were already converts to Christianity after centuries of contact with Anglo-American missionaries in the United States. Some were also successful farmers whose methods resembled their non- Indigenous neighbours. [15] They grew corn, oats, wheat, and barley, and kept cattle. Subsistence gardening was more common among the traditional Longhouse families than among the Christian farmers. [16] Consequently, two competing farming methods existed amongst the Haudenosaunee at Grand River, as people adapted new farming methods and maintained some of the older traditions.

In the mid nineteenth century, changes were made to the land belonging to the Six Nations that had an impact on people’s diets. Despite being initially granted a large tract of land, over the first few decades of the nineteenth century so much of the land was sold, surrendered, stolen, and squatted upon, that in 1847, the community consolidated their land into what we know today as the Grand River reserve. It was a loss of about 95% of their original holdings in Upper Canada, and this loss meant that traditional subsistence methods like hunting were less and less feasible. [17] So while the Haudenosaunee in Upper Canada retained some of their culinary customs, they also adopted new farming practices that led to changes in their diets.

In the nineteenth century, missionaries and British colonial officials, and later, Canadian government officials attempted to assimilate the First Nations. Part of that assimilationist agenda involved promoting Western agricultural techniques and education, both targeting changes in eating habits. [18] The Grand River Reserve became the showpiece for the Department of Indian Affairs (DIA) because its members were seen as a successful example of Indigenous adjustment to Canadian society. [19] Despite the pride that the DIA felt regarding the “progress” of the community, the community had in fact lost much of its traditional way of life. Nevertheless, many of the core values remained, and remain still among Longhouse and Christian people in varying ways, including maintaining a duty to their family and community, being thankful to the Creator for their sustenance, sharing labour, and taking future generations into consideration. As my research explains, another core value retained by the community was women's key role in caring for their families and community by feeding them from the produce of the land.

Schools and Food

Schools, especially residential schools, were sites where the state and the churches (Anglican, Baptist, Methodist) enacted their assimilation agenda upon Indigenous children in the kitchens, classrooms and dining halls. While we know much about the residential school system, we know less about the day schools on reserves like Grand River, even though the majority of Indigenous children attended them. [20] By the end of the 19th Century, there were twelve day schools on the reserve and one residential school, the Mohawk Institute, located just over the border of the reserve, which numerous Six Nations children attended every year, along with children from other parts of the province. While food was not part of the curriculum, students had no choice but to consume what they were served and in the quantities provided. In addition, students and former students also worked in the school kitchen, so cooking was both part of their training and the free labour they were forced to provide to the school. [21] In the early twentieth century, the menu at the Mohawk Institute, like most other residential schools in Canada, consisted of Anglo-Canadian fare, and in very spare quantities. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission paid special attention to the importance of food, and notes that “in their home communities, many students had been raised on food that their parents had hunted, fished, or harvested. These meals were very different from the European diets served at the schools. This change in diet added to the students’ sense of disorientation.” [22] Not only was the menu a part of the colonizing process, but food, and the withholding of food, was used as punishment.

The food on offer at the Mohawk Institute throughout the early decades of the twentieth century was heavy on carbohydrates including bread, potatoes, and porridge, and occasionally included foods such as Irish stew, liver and gravy, bean and vegetable stew, or cold roasted meat at the midday meal, served with water or milk. [23] Cornmeal porridge, a traditional Haudenosaunee meal, [24] was often served for supper at the school as the evening meal. Indeed, students at the Mohawk Institute were so frequently served porridge or “mush” that the school became known as the “Mush Hole.” Interviews with numerous survivors lament the monotony of the food, the worminess of the porridge, and the lack of salt, butter, and milk. Peter Smith remembered how in the 1920s, “you’d get a bowl of porridge and a slice of bread in the morning, then at noon you’d get bread and soup, and at night biscuits and potatoes. It was a treat if you got meat…we were hungry all the time.” [25] Survivors also explain how food could be used as a punishment, especially when they were caught stealing food. Lorna Hill recalled stealing turnips with a group of girls, and being forced to eat them for several days after, causing them all to be sick. She also said that she couldn’t eat apple pie anymore, as the stress over stealing apples for older girls, and the fear of being caught, caused negative associations in her mind that had lasted decades. [26]

Further, while the school often ran a farm, the children gained little benefit. Raymond Hill, a student in the 1930s, recalled that, “in the fall they would take all the apples to market, like all the rest of our vegetables. Onions and tomatoes, carrots, all that stuff went to Brantford market.” [27] At times the Mohawk Institute had cows and a dairy, and the butter and cream produced was only for the staff, the rest was sold for profit to support the school, while the children were served water or skim milk. [28] That seems to have changed in 1929 with the arrival of a new Principal, as students began to be served whole milk, but it is not clear how long that lasted. [29] In the post-war period, the director of the newly formed Indian health services for the Department of Indian Affairs, Dr. Percy Moore, grew concerned that the milk being served was not pasteurized and therefore was potentially unsafe. Records suggest that it was still not pasteurized seven years later.  [30] Numerous students recall that the milk was often undrinkable: “We used to take skimmed milk from the cow stable up to the kitchen. I don’t know what they done to it, but by the time we got our porridge and tried to put some milk on it you couldn’t eat it, they had spoiled the milk. I don’t know how they done it, but it was no good any way – you couldn’t eat it.” [31] A post-war inspection of the food service at the school by the Department of Indian Affairs found that the school spent twenty cents per day on food for each student, that the meals lacked whole grains, meat, fruit and vegetables, and that they “lacked quality and variety because standard methods of preparation and cookery were not in use. Recipes were not in use.” In short, it seems that the staff had neither formal training in cookery nor nutrition, and that the school had little inclination to focus attention on bettering the food quality. [32]

Ian Mosby has examined how Moore’s work for the health service was more focused on nutritional research among Indigenous peoples, and less on providing immediate economic and nutritional relief in communities and schools where food and resources were lacking. As Mosby argues, nutrition research “was actually blocking reforms of the very land, natural resource, and welfare policies that had led to hunger and malnutrition in the first place.” [33] Officials and researchers created several large-scale experiments in the North and in residential schools in Canada, although as far as I can tell, not at the Mohawk Institute. Government officials did in fact consider using the Mohawk Institute as a site for their now infamous nutrition study in 1948, but it is unclear in the historical record why the school was not ultimately chosen. [34] By not being chosen for the study, the Mohawk Institute children avoided being subjected to those particularly cruel experiments. And yet, at the very least, the school was operating in a system wherein the health of the children they were supposed to be caring for was not a priority. In one comment on Canada's treatment of the First Nations children, Phil Fontaine and Bernie Farber went so far as to characterize is as "genocidal," voicing a sentiment shared by other Indigenous leaders, activists and scholars. [35]

“‘We were always hungry,’ could serve as the slogan for any organization of former residential school students,” according to residential school historian J.R. Miller. [36] An interview with Harrison Burning who was a student at the Mohawk Institute from 1920-28 explains:

We was hungry all the time we was there. I’ve seen the time I was at the breakfast table or any table I was so determined that I’m going to eat it I don’t care what it tastes like. Even with that I couldn’t eat it – you had to starve. The food – the whole supper or three meals anyway – you couldn’t eat it - don’t care how hungry you were – how determined you were to eat it – the taste greets you – you couldn’t – you couldn’t eat it. [37]

While occasional discrepancies exist in the historical record, such as a Principal’s report that describes a wealth of food, or particular students relating that they were satisfied with the food, the majority of former students describe hunger as a constant. While dishonesty on the part of those officials reporting is certainly a possibility, other potential explanations may be that varying amounts and quality of food was the result of the efforts of different principals, different cooks and kitchen staff, changes in funding, and weather conditions that might affect farm produce. In 1924, the Principal reported: “The garden has kept the school very well supplied with all kinds of vegetables and fruits and we have our larders filled with preserves and pickles. The poultry produced eggs so plentifully that we were able to feed the pupils eggs on more than one occasion each week.” [38] While the Principal seems proud of providing students with a single egg each week, it is clear that they should have been served far more, especially considering that the school was selling eggs produced by the school's chickens by the thousand. Marguerite Beaver, a student in the 1940s, recalls that “I never forget when Mr. Snell was there and my brothers – one of them used to work in the chicken house, and they used to get, my heavens, I don’t know – 1700 eggs a day, and we got one at Easter. Can you imagine that? One egg, and all them eggs that they got a day, and we’d have to candle them and everything, and they sold them.” [39] Some students in the post-war period during Principal Zimmerman’s leadership suggest that things improved upon his arrival. [40] But on the whole, the Mohawk Institute students were not served enough nutritious food, despite the fact that their own farm, gardens, dairy and chicken coop produced enough to feed them well. The under-financing of the school by the Department of Indian Affairs certainly did not help the situation.

Nevertheless, some survivors point out that while the food was not to their liking, the poverty of their home situation meant that the three meals a day served at the school, the uniforms on their back, and a bed in a heated building could possibly be preferable to life at home. Poverty was the reason that numerous students, perhaps the majority, attended the Mohawk Institute rather than the day schools. [41] The reserve system, the Indian Act, and the refusal of the Canadian state to honour treaties and agreements with Indigenous peoples resulted in much poverty on reserves. Harrison Burning began attending the school in 1926 after his father died and his mother could not afford to care for him and his siblings. He recalled, “we ended up at the Mohawk. After I thought about it for a while I thought: Well, at least I had three meals a day, I’ve a bed to sleep in, clean clothes, hot water, baths and everything else – all the conveniences. We got three meals a day – maybe not the greatest, but they kept us alive.” [42] While most students lamented the state of the food that was served, some recall positive culinary memories. Among them, Martha Hill, a student from 1912-1918 noted in an interview: “The food was good. Between the cook and us, we done the cooking. I had to learn that when I was about this big - how to peel potatoes, how to peel carrots, how to do everything. That’s why I say, one thing I was thankful for that school, when I came out of there wasn’t a thing I didn’t know how to do.” [43] Martha’s account reveals that girls working in the kitchen learned to cook carrots and potatoes, typical Anglo-Canadian foods. Certainly they took these same cooking skills and recipes with them when they made their own homes. It’s likely that some children who entered the Mohawk Institute were familiar with an Anglo-Canadian diet already, whereas for others, the menu would have been very unfamiliar.

With only one residential school and twelve day schools, the majority of Six Nations children from the reserve attended the local day schools, bringing their own lunches from home. While it is nearly impossible to know what was in their lunch bags, it is likely that their mothers or guardians provided them with familiar food from their kitchens, leftovers, and the like. By the first decades of the twentieth century, my research suggests that the Christian majority of the population on the reserve was cooking an Anglo-Canadian diet by choice.


While the officials of the Mohawk Institute had control over the diet of the couple of hundred students at the school, Six Nations women cooked for the majority of the community, and had much control over their menus. Women were able to display their culinary prowess and traditions, through both church functions and through voluntary associations. The largest Christian church on the reserve was the Anglican Church, funded in part by the New England Company. The Baptists were the second largest group, and the Methodists the third. [44] The activities of the Christian churches were very similar to what was going on in non-Indigenous rural communities at the same time. Women cooked for various fundraising activities including “teas, suppers, strawberry socials, garden parties, and picnics.” [45] For instance, the St. Paul’s Anglican Church Ladies Guild, a group made up of Six Nations women, noted in a commemorative booklet that the ladies “have no difficulty recalling efforts to raise funds by catering plowing matches and other events, often in a sea of mud, and with elementary equipment.” [46] The women of St. Luke’s Delaware Church generally held four to six Tea Meetings, Socials, and other events to raise sums of money for their small parish. [47] These events “provided the necessary funds for new furnishings, organs, and books. The women prepared the food and brought it to the church hall or, occasionally, to the council house, where larger crowds could be fed.” [48] In this way, the Six Nations women continued in their tradition of being the community members to prepare and cook food, to feed and nurture the people of their community. However, the food they prepared were no longer traditional dishes, but rather “Anglo-Canadian” foods of the sort listed in the menu given at the beginning of this article. While centuries of contact with missionaries and colonial officials who pushed Western ways of farming and cooking had altered many of the foods and recipes they cooked, it did not change the fact that women cared for their family and community with food.

The Six Nations Agricultural Society

With the support and encouragement of the Department of Indian Affairs, several popular voluntary organizations were formed by the Christian Six Nations people at Grand River in the mid to late nineteenth century, with the goal of improving and enhancing the community. In 1867, the Six Nations Agricultural Society (SNAS) was formed by several Anglican Mohawk farmers, and in 1883 they held their first annual fall exhibition, a tradition which continues to this day. [49] The SNAS was the first Indigenous Agricultural Society in Canada. [50] Their activities were similar to other agricultural societies in rural communities in Ontario. [51] They held competitions at the annual agricultural fall fair that were only open to people from Six Nations, and agriculture and food were some of the most important competitions at the fair. [52] In the 1870s women competed in categories that reflected both traditional Iroquois skills, such as making cornbread, maple sugar, and beadwork, as well as newer traditions, such as making white bread, woollen socks and machine sewing. [53] Mohawk poet and performer Pauline Johnson commented on Six Nations women’s abilities in 1900, as evidenced at the SNAS exhibitions:

The Iroquois woman of to-day ... has already acquired the arts of cookery, of needlework, of house-wifeliness, and one has but to attend the annual Industrial exhibition on the Indian reserve, an institution that is open to all Indians in Canada, who desire to compete for prizes, to convince themselves by very material arguments that the Iroquois woman is behind her white sister in nothing pertaining to the larder, the dairy or the linen press. She bakes the loveliest, lightest wheaten bread, of which, by the way, her men folk complain loudly, declaring that she forces them to eat this new-fangled food to the absolute exclusion of their time-honored corn bread, to which the national palate ever clings; her rolls of yellow butter are faultlessly sweet and firm, her sealed fruits are a pleasure to see as well as taste, in fact, in this latter industry she excels herself, outdoing frequently her white competitors at the neighboring city of Brantford, where the “southern fair” of Ontario is held annually. [54]

Interestingly, Johnson's comment suggests that while Haudenosaunee women wished to cook "new-fangled" Anglo-Canadian foods, like wheat bread, their husbands preferred the “time-honoured corn bread.” While we cannot read too much into her comment, it does suggest that women were keen to cook new foods. Displays at the exhibition suggest that Six Nations farmwomen developed considerable expertise. Men competed as well, and it is important to note that aside for prizes for the best horses and cattle, men competed in categories for growing the best fruits and vegetables, horticultural work that had previously been the purview of women. Men also competed for the best axe handle and the best-dressed deerskin. [55] So it was not just Western farming skills that were being displayed at the annual Fair, but some traditional Haudenosaunee skills as well. This suggests a shift towards an Anglo-Canadian ways at Six Nations, but certainly not assimilation. The community had a hybrid culture that incorporated aspects of Western farming traditions and Anglo-Canadian recipes, but maintained valued aspects of Haudenosaunee culture.

The Women’s Institutes

The most popular organization on the reserve for women were the Women’s Institutes, and this was likely because through the Institutes women had the most autonomy and power to do the work they believed needed to be done in the community. [56] While the first Women’s Institute was founded on the reserve in 1912, it was not until the 1920s that the Women’s Institutes became very popular on the reserve, and a total of three branches were established by Indigenous women. [57] The goal of the organization was to improve the lives of farmwomen, and to educate them about running more efficient and healthy homes. Of course, cooking was a central part of this. Like the churchwomen, ladies of the Women's Institutes also cooked for numerous fundraisers and social events on the reserve. The women always cooked for their own events, and they catered the men’s events too, such as the dinners of the Plowmen’s Association and Farmers’ Institutes. Menus at these sorts of events were very similar to those of other non-Indigenous farming communities – roast chicken and beef dinners, for instance.

The Women’s Institutes also focused some of their educational projects on culinary topics, including a monthly lecture series. In 1926, for instance, an Institute member from Toronto came to the reserve to give a course on “Food Values and Cooking.” Another meeting hosted a discussion of favourite pickle recipes. [58] The Institute was well aware of the comfort and pleasure that food provided, and so some of the Institute's funds were used to provide snacks for the school children on the reserve, including ice cream, and lemonade in the summer, and hot cocoa in the winter. While most of the foods cooked were Anglo-Canadian, they continued to make corn soup for many of the dinners and fairs that they catered. [59] So while the Women's Institute was certainly an Anglo-Canadian women’s organization, first founded by Adelaide Hoodless, the Six Nations women adapted it to suit their own purposes, and the foods that they cooked and served at their events reflect this hybrid culture.

Through their work in church groups, the Agricultural Society, and the Women’s Institutes, Christian Six Nations women worked to effect the change they wanted to see in their community in the first few decades of the twentieth century. Despite oppressive colonial systems working around them, women were able to maintain their traditional stature in the community in many ways. The Women’s Institutes and Agricultural Society were key institutions in the community, that is, and the women that were involved in running them constituted a “social elite.” [60] They used their power to effect change on the reserve. While their initiatives were community-based, they often aligned with Department of Indian Affairs policy and their hopes for Canada’s First Nations. Groups like the SNAS and the WI were founded to meet the demands and needs of their community.


The title of this paper comes from a 2009 conversation with Iowne A. Anderson, a Mohawk elder and an expert in traditional gardening. She founded the Horticultural Learning and Resource Centre where members are encouraged to grow their own food and to exchange seeds. Anderson encourages people to grow more food themselves and to eat wild edibles and promotes gardening and growing traditional foods with traditional methods. “Our strength comes from the land,” she says. “Wild animals and plants all get their food from the land. In turn we get our nourishment.” [61] Anderson explains, "I'm sure, that's the only way we're going to survive is to share what we know. That's the only way our culture can carry on is to learn from the old folks, or the Elders or from each other for that matter.....And not be ashamed of who you are." [62] In two recent articles on the history of Haudenosaunee planting and food, Rick Hill, the Senior Project Coordinator for the Deyohahá:ge: Indigenous Knowledge Centre writes about how “Diohe’ko (Our Sustainers) are integral to our culture and history.” He explains that “our sustainers” include “all of the cultivated foods that sustain our lives.” [63] And he suggests that it isn’t just the food that is important – it is the annual rhythm of life that is set by the agricultural traditions that is important: “as the ancient practices of preparing the fields, planting, nurturing the crops, harvesting and preparing foods continue to hold the clans together in activities that benefit the entire nation. Farming is a cultural activity that has kept much of the traditional philosophy intact. Gardening puts food on the table and builds a strong, cooperative society.” [64]

Prior to contact with Europeans, and the influence of Christianity and Western forms of agriculture, Haudenosaunee women had a great degree of power in their communities, especially as a result of the 'three sisters' method of farming. Women were responsible for the planting, maintaining, and harvesting of the crops, and it was understood that the food produced was theirs to distribute. Scholars have argued that this economic power was the core of the power that women held in the community. [65] In many ways, the impact of colonialism lessened that power, as communities lost land, were encouraged to farm Western crops with Western methods, and began to live in nuclear families rather than multi-generational matrilineal families. [66] But actually, Six Nations women at Grand River continued to derive strength from the land throughout the first half of the twentieth century, the period on which this paper is focuses. They found a voice in their communities through their churches, and through agricultural organizations such as the Women’s Institutes and the Agricultural Society, and they worked to improve their community through these associations. For many women, their power may not have come from the three sisters any longer, but in many ways, it still did come from the earth. Food was an important part of how women cared for their families and communities, something colonialism did not change. [67]

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