Life in the Longhouse

Haudenosaunee Primer Video #3

Digging In

Digging In: Facilitating Dialogue and Action
Key Themes and Terms
Catalyzing Connections

  • Description: What do you see/hear/feel watching the video?
  • Personal Connection: How do the stories told connect to your personal experience?
  • Common Themes: What are the social issues/themes that emerge from our personal stories? Is there a common issue that is shared among us?
  • Social Analysis: How did this come to be? What are the historical and social processes that created this situation?
  • Planning for Action: What can be done? What can we do?

  • How does the longhouse reflect the values and way of living of the Haudenosaunee?
  • What understanding of nature and human-animal relations is reflected in the clan system?
  • Why does Rick say that the Haudenosaunee had the first sustainable villages? How did moving around contribute to their sustainability?
  • How does mound agriculture, or the ‘three sisters’, represent both sound agriculture and a model for social relations?
  • What was the basis of food security for the Haudenosaunee pre-contact? How did the early colonizers threaten that security?
  • Rick suggests that animals were ‘a virtual hardware store’ of useful items. What are some of the uses he names? Investigate other animals and name how they could be harvested and transformed for multiple purposes.
  • The passenger pigeon was one of many beings that became extinct through processes of colonization. Research the story of the passenger pigeon. What other extinctions can you identify?

Hands-On Activities

Rick describes the process of nixtamalizing corn to bring out its greatest nutritional value. Have one person or the group try this process with either limestone or wood ash.

Rick recalls the songs sung while pounding corn. Ceremonies, songs and stories accompanied all aspects of the food cycle – whether for growing, gathering, hunting or fishing. Do group research on songs that relate to food activities in your area, and practice it together.

In the hunting practices of the Haudenosaunee, nothing of the animal was wasted. If your group includes carnivores, prepare a meal (or two or three) from a whole chicken (or other animal). See how many different kinds of dishes you can make from one animal. Talk about how the modern supermarket robs us of this knowledge and experience.

Continuing the Conversation

Continuing the Conversation
Kiera (Kaia’tanó:ron) Brant-Birioukov

Kiera (Kaia’tanó:ron) Brant-Birioukov (Wolf Clan) is a Haudenosaunee educator, academic, and lifelong student. From Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory, she is a PhD Candidate in the Faculty of Education at the University of British Columbia.


Our First Teacher: Kanenhstóhare (Corn Soup)

When it comes to education, the most important principle I stress with my students who are studying to become teachers is that land is our first teacher. Everything we need to know is in the land.  In turn, we have a responsibility to honour the life that sustains us, such as our mothers and the foods that provide nourishment.

In Haudenosaunee society, our worldview is derived from the natural world around us. One of the most sacred properties in the natural world is corn – the eldest of the Three Sisters (corn, beans, squash). Corn is a central teacher for both traditional and contemporary Haudenosaunee identities. Growing up in my ancestral community of Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory, I grew up learning from and alongside the land with my father and grandfather who were avid gardeners. My first teacher was corn – she taught me patience, hard work, sacrifice, and reciprocity.

Food, as it is for many cultures around the world, is also an important Haudenosaunee symbol of bringing community together. Hence, the process of making lyed corn soup, kanenhstóhare, embodies the sacred, symbiotic relationship between corn-as-teacher and corn-as-sustenance. It is what nourishes our bodies and our spirits.

When we make kanenhstóhare, we recognize the time it takes to patiently grow the corn, harvest the crop, braid the corn so it can be hung to dry, and finally transform the dried corn into lyed corn (also called hominy) through a process called “lying.” When done correctly, the corrosive lye transforms the corn into a nutritious and delicious ingredient that has sustained Haudenosaunee peoples for generations. The heart of “good” corn soup is in this lying process – trusting the transformation which unfolds without guarantees. Lying corn is dangerous but necessary; just like education. Discomfort is necessitated if meaningful growth is sought. When we lean into discomfort, we lean into an education system that can be transformative. 

Our language learners best embody the possibilities of kanenhstóhare as an educational framework. Indigenous language learners make immense sacrifices as they study to revitalize their ancestral languages. Just like the vigorous boil with lye when making corn soup, our language learners are confronted with discomfort, disconcertment, and disorientation. The demands of (re)learning our languages pose not only linguistic challenges that all Second Language Learners face, but they are also faced with shifting ontological perspectives. Relearning our ancestral languages invites opportunities to reconsider our relationships with the land, our communities, and ourselves. But this transformative way of seeing the world requires a trust of faith in the disorienting processes of transformation.

Corn continues to be a teacher – and the teachings of corn are rearticulated every time I have a bowl (or two!) of corn soup.

As a curriculum theorist, Kiera is committed to theorizing the possibilities of land-based pedagogies based on Haudenosaunee teachings. When not writing, she can most likely be found in the garden. She lives in her great-grandfather’s cabin in Tyendinaga, with her husband, Anton, and kitty cat, Hemingway.

Digging Deeper

Digging Deeper: Resources for Further Research and Action
Books & Articles
  • National Museum of the American Indian. (2009). Haudenosaunee guide for educators. Washington, DC: Smithsonian.
  • Kimmerer, R. W. (2015). Braiding sweetgrass: Indigenous wisdom, scientific knowledge and the teachings of plants. Milkweed Editions.

The Earth to Tables Legacies collaborator Rick Hill has created three videos of his power point presentations introduce us to the history, philosophy and food legacies of the Haudenosaunee, also known as the Iroquois Confederacy (French) or (in English) the Six Nations (Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, Seneca, and Tuscarora). Watch the third video here:

The Haudenosaunee are “people of the Longhouse”, a way of living under one roof, a metaphor for life. Rick suggests the longhouse reflects the characteristics of the culture: its clan-based system, matrilineal descent, cooperation, respectfulness, and peacefulness.

Haudenosaunee villages remained sustainable by moving every few years in an economy based on hunting, gathering and cultivating through mound agriculture (exemplified by the three sisters). Rick shows us evidence of a tremendous biodiversity of corn, of beans, of squash, a diversity that has been lost in the industrial food system and in our diets.

This video offers very practical information about the planting, harvesting, and cooking of traditional Haudenosaunee food. We also see the centrality of gathering nutritious foods such as mushrooms, berries, nuts (and their essential oils).

Ultimately these tasks were shared, so that different families would bring different skills and foods to a cooperative living within the longhouse. Rick concludes that this should not be seen as a thing of the past, but rather as a way of life in the future.