Native American Technology and Art

Cornhusk Bottles and Baskets
Twined cornhusk salt or
tobacco bottle ~ Seneca
[Turnbaugh & Turnbaugh 1986]

Read the Story of the Seven Thunders

See the Instructions for Making Twined Cornhusk Bottles

Twined cornhusk, wool and basswood
basket ~ Narragansett. [Turnbaugh &
Turnbaugh 1986].

In the fall, the Iroquois and other Native American women harvested corn from their gardens. To prepare the corn for storage, the husks were folded back from the ears and braiding, forming long ropes of husk with dangling ears of corn. The corn could be hung by these ropes to dry and later prepared for storage in baskets or earthen pits. The cornhusks were then used for many purposes, for cordage, for wrappers to cook food, for fire tinder, for stuffing mattresses or cushions, and for many woven items including mats, masks, shoes and baskets. Braiding, coiling, sewing and twining were some of the methods used to weave objects from cornhusks.

Twined cornhusk baskets are made by many eastern Woodland Native Americans, including the Iroquois. One such basket, called 'Ga­nose­ha', was made to contain coarse corn meal. This basket is constructed of cornhusks and blue flag leaves. Cornhusks are used for the warp, or ribs, of the basket, the bottom of the basket is made using cornhusk weft, and the top uses weft of blue flag. Although blue flag leaves are not as durable as cornhusks, they are longer and don't require as much splicing together when the basket is formed.

Cornhusk bottles for salt
~ Iroquois. [Tooker 1994].
Cornhusk bottle reproduction
[by Prindle 1999].

Another type of twined cornhusk basket was water tight. This basket was used historically to store salt. The Iroquois word for this basket is 'Gus­ha­da', which translates as into English as 'bottle'. These twined bottles sometimes combined flag leaves in the weaving. A stopper made from a corn cob was used to keep these bottles sealed.

Traditionally, one type of Cayuga cornhusk basket is meant to contain tobacco. The basket and the tobacco kept inside are used for an offering during the Thunder Rite and Ball Game, one of the ceremonies performed by the Cayuga unrestricted societies. This one day ceremony is performed during the summer to honor the Seven Thunders, or Grandfathers. The Cayuga are thankful for what the Thunders do as envoys of the Great Spirit. The Thunder rite is performed to ask these Grandfathers to continue to carry out the desires of the Great Spirit which benefit people.

Cornhusk basket for burn tobacco
offering ~ Iroquois. [Speck 1949].

The main part of this ceremony consists of the Ball Game. This traditional Ball Game, also called Lacrosse, has survived the centuries and is still played, both in ceremony, and as a 'modern' sport, by both Native and non­Natives. The game is called 'Gatci­kwae' (beating the mush) and is played between the younger and older men, often from opposing clans. The playing course consists of a large space between two sets of goals (posts set 7 feet apart), and the team to first score seven points wins the game.

Before the Ball Game is played, the players and participants gather at the edge of the course where they ingest a medicine, an emetic, which purifies their bodies. A fire is also built outside the Long House for the ceremony, where the leader offers prayers to the Seven Thunders. It is accompanying these prayers to the Thunders that the cornhusk basket containing tobacco is placed in the fire and consumed by flames. A Cayuga explained that the cornhusk basket is given to the Grandfather Thunder to keep his tobacco while he travels. The players of the game are instructed to play fairly and to compete in good faith.

Cornhusk basket ~ Iroquois.
[Lyford 1945}.

It is really of no consequence to the players or to the spectator who wins the game. Following the game, the players sing the Thunder song and dance their way back to the Long House, where additional songs and thanks are offered, and tobacco and corn mush are given to the Ball Game players. Often other people bring gifts to the Long House, and these gifts are also distributed amongst the players, accompanied by prayers for the players and for those that brought the gifts. The ceremony, including episodes of songs and dancing, and then gift giving, continues until all the offerings have been given away.

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