The Green Corn Ceremony
Reproduction of Totem in John White's painting
Possibly the earliest European recording of the Green Corn Dance was in a painting by John White in the late 1500s when he was governor of Sir Walter Raleigh’s colony on Roanoke Island, located on the coast of today’s North Carolina. He titled it “Indians Dancing Around a Circle of Posts.”
The Green Corn Ceremony, also known as Busk (meaning to fast), was one of several ceremonies important to the spiritual and social lives of many eastern Native American people. Some form of the ceremony took place in both the northern and eastern tribes. It was held in the late summer after the ripe corn was harvested. The festival took place over several days time, varying from tribe to tribe, usually lasting four to eight days.
The ceremony was one of renewal. It started by the people thoroughly cleaning their houses and the other buildings in the village. Then the people fasted and purged by drinking large quantities of a black tea made from the yaupon plant, which is in the holly family and grows in the coastal regions of the southeast. This was believed to purify the individual, purging him of all evil and falsehood.
To further symbolize the new beginning all fires in the village were extinguished. The high priest then kindled a new central fire. After that sacred fire was lit each family took a flame from the central fire to start their new fires at their own home. Leaves of tobacco were put into the fire-pit so that the smoke from the tobacco would lift their prayers of thanksgiving to the Great Spirit.
This was also a time of forgiveness. With the exception of murder, the people were absolved of all their pass transgressions. Any grudges between neighbors were set aside. It was a time to wipe the slate clean and have a new beginning.
A great feast broke the fasting. Corn was prepared in many ways, along with other vegetables and meats. The priest gathered the elders around the sacred fire to begin the corn dance. John Whites painting shows a circle marked with seven poles with carved faces at the top and men and women dancing in the circle. A small group of women are in the center of the circle.
Some writings report the people danced until they collapsed from exhaustion. After they rested and ate they returned to the dance. Games were also played during this celebration of a new beginning. The tradition of the Green Corn Ceremony is still practiced today.
An Algonquian Year: The Year According to the Full Moon by Michael McCurdy
A New Voyage to Carolina by John Lawson
The American Indian in North Carolina by Douglas L. Rights
The Powhatan Indians of Virginia: Their Traditions and Culture by Helen C. Roundtree