Gardens and Farming

In regions where the growing season was long enough, Native people relied to some extent on agricultural crops, including corn, beans, and squash.

Since corn generally has a growing season of 120 days, Great Lakes Indians in northern areas could not grow much corn and could not depend on agricultural products. Those who lived where corn could be grown moved between different areas during their seasonal round, choosing lands with good soils for their gardens.

After the people had gathered their maple sugar and moved to the part of their territory they usually occupied in summer, they built their summer houses and planted small gardens nearby. The seasons were not long, but the people were able to augment their rice, meat, fish, nut, and berry diet with these garden foods. Because corn could be dried and stored through the winter, it provided a valuable supplement to winter hunting in the food supply.

Corn was generally cultivated in hills placed rather far apart. Short wooden hoes were used. Ordinary maize was grown, but included two kinds: An early blue form and a white form that ripened a bit later. There was also popcorn, which the Menominee called "mouse corn." Corn was boiled, roasted, and dried to be ground later and put into stews. The Ho-Chunk steamed corn in an underground pit, putting in a layer of red-hot stones, a layer of husks, a layer of ripe corn, another layer of husks, and, finally, a layer of earth. Water was then poured in to help the steaming process.

The Menominee did not have corn and squash until after their animal ancestors became human. Once, a holy man had a vision in which he was told to go to war. He gathered the young men and they set out as they were directed in his dream. The leader had another dream, which told of a gift intended for them. In the morning, after he had eaten, he cut up some tobacco and told his men to fill their pipes and smoke. After they had smoked, he told the other warriors of his dream that they would travel through the day and find a gift at noon.

They set out, wondering what they could find. When the sun was directly overhead, they looked about but did not know what they were looking for. At last, the leader saw something standing on the plains. He and his men hurried to the spot and found something unlike anything they had ever seen before. "This is corn," said the leader. "We will call it 'Wapi'min (white kernel).'" The others agreed that they had heard of it and that it was good to eat, and they all tasted it.

It was good, and they brought home some seed. When they got home, they waited until spring and planted the corn so it could grow. This is how the Menominee got corn.

(Adapted from Dorothy Moulding Brown, 1940, "Wisconsin Indian Corn Origin Myths,"Wisconsin Archeologist 21[1]:19-27.)