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Bruce Museum Presents Three Sisters & Corn Maidens: Native American Maize Cultivation & Customs

The Bruce Museum presents Three Sisters & Corn Maidens: Native American Maize Cultivation & Customs on view through June 26, 2011.

Utilizing the outstanding collection of Native American art and objects in the Bruce Museum collection, this exhibition explores the role of corn in the Native American cultures of the Northeast and the Southwest. Featured objects include textiles, paintings, pottery, baskets, as well as prehistoric artifacts including agricultural and food processing tools, all related to the use and celebration of Zea mays, Indian corn.

Survival for Native American tribes depended heavily on a reliable food source. Originally, small groups of families travelled in seasonal circuits, gathering plants and hunting animals favored in the different environmental regions. Then, the introduction of plant domestication offered a new-found stability, and no plant had a greater impact on the social, cultural and economic systems of the pre-contact Americas than corn.

The exhibition Three Sisters & Corn Maidens: Native American Maize Cultivation & Customs focuses on the objects created for the different ways in which corn was cultivated, prepared, stored, utilized and celebrated to insure that families, villages and entire tribes survived successfully into the next year. The exhibition presents objects from the collections of the Bruce Museum, supplemented by loans from the Logan Museum of Anthropology, Beloit College and the private collection of Drs. Seymour and Harriet Koenig. The exhibition is supported by the Charles M and Deborah G Royce Exhibition Fund.

Evidence suggests that corn, Zea mays, was developed deliberately in Mexico about 8,700 years ago. By first cross pollinating gamagrass to yield teosinte and then systematically collecting and cultivating those plants best suited for consumption, humans encouraged the formation of cobs with edible kernels. Meso-America was the locus of early horticulture where over 150 botanicals were domesticated and hybridized, including corn, beans, squash, gourds, pumpkins and numerous other crops. Corn travelled both north and south along trade routes and was systematically adapted to a wide variety of ecological zones. By the time Columbus arrived in the New World, over 150 varieties of corn were being harvested from Canada to Peru. Corn had become the most completely domesticated and widespread field crop in the Americas.

The geographic and environmental differences between the American Northeast and Southwest regions created cultural responses to the introduction of corn that presented themselves in varied agricultural, economic and ceremonial practices. The exhibition Three Sisters & Corn Maidens examines these regional differences in the material culture related to the practice of corn horticulture.

In the Northeast, for example, the Iroquois believe corn, beans and squash are precious gifts from the Great Spirit. The plants are protected by one of three sister spirits, called the De-o-ha-ko, or “Our Sustainers” and the annual planting season opens with a ceremony to honor them.

The Hopi of the Southwest believe they were offered corn by Masao, guardian of the fourth world. They knew life would be difficult and chose to adopt growing corn, with its associated themes of humility, cooperation, respect and universal earth stewardship as their way of life.

Both tribes developed specific cultural traits, predominantly associated with the realm of women, related to their association with corn.

Image: Navan the Velvet Shirt Kachina. Hopi, c. 1930-1940.Painted cottonwood, velvet shirt,satin ribbons, red moccasins. Gift of Veva Wood, Bruce Museum Collection 88.21.02

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