CORNHUSK WORK
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Most of the cornhusk work done today is made for sale rather than for personal use by the craftsperson. Cornhusk items created for a market have a fairly long history. The US Census (1892:50) notes the sale of cornhusk items was well established at Niagara Falls and Saratoga as early as 1890. Cornhusk work found today includes dolls, bottles, mats, moccasins, baskets (trays), glass-lined containers, masks, and special items such as flowers or wreaths.

Parker (1968) has fully documented the importance of corn for the Haudenosaunee in terms of the traditional culture. Corn itself was not only the staple crop but also a spiritual force, one of the basic life supporters said to have been given by the Mother Earth or the Creator himself. Just as deer were deeply meaningful to the males, corn was and is basically female in nature and is thought of as one of "Our Three Sisters", the other two being beans and squash. Women planted, cultivated, and prepared the corn, making it into bread, soup, or medicine. Women today predictably predominate in cornhusk work and, by and large, they have learned the craft from their mothers and grandmothers.

Theoretically any kind of cornhusk could be used, but over the years Iroquois women have preferred the husks of white corn. Such corn has long cobs and husks which are more pliable and have a texture and white coloring pleasing to the eye. The husks of regular garden or sweet corn do not have the suppleness or length that experienced craftswomen desire. Husk are always first soaked in water and then used when they are still damp. Today most of the cornhusk items made are formed from braided husks (three or four strands), the braids sewn together either the old way with thread made from the inner bark of basswood trees or with modern white cotton thread. Perfectionists sew the braids together so that the threads cannot be seen from the outside. The twining technique noted decades ago is rarely practiced today, although masks so constructed are still said to be in use.  Occasionally, a cornhusk worker who experiments with cornhusks as a fine art form will create woven masks to sell, although among some Haudenosaunee this practice is controversial.

Clearly the most popular cornhusk craft today is making dolls. Such dolls can be simple playthings made in a few minutes in a field, or museum pieces authentic in every last detail as models of Iroquois dress styles from a certain period of time. The types of dolls made can be grouped into a few rather natural categories. Most easily recognized are the "traditional" cornhusk dolls, with a body made of cornhusk, but dressed in cloth or leather clothing. Also quite common are "stand-up" dolls, often dressed in cloth, which have enough concentric circles of husk at their base to be able to stand alone in contrast to the traditional dolls which cannot. Of fairly recent vintage (1970s), but quite popular are "action" dolls which often have a wire core that can be bent so that the doll can be portrayed, for example, as dancing or playing lacrosse.

Also found are apple-faced dolls with a cornhusk body, whose heads are apples dried and shrunken after the features have been incised.

While dolls today are apparently only made for the commercial market rather than for religious purposes, in earlier days dolls had a greater spiritual meaning. Still important today, however, is the feeling among many cornhusk workers that dolls should not have facial features. The usual explanation is that only the Creator can cause a personality to be born and that the Creator and the child that has the doll will together decide the doll’s individuality. Another explanation given by one Oneida cornhusk worker is that a "pretty" face on the doll will cause conceit or excessive self—pride in the doll’s owner, who might identify too closely with her pretty husk version of herself. Still another viewpoint from Tuscarora is that you should not sell a doll you made with a face, for to do so would be like selling your own child. From Six Nations comes the idea that faces would thwart a child’s daydreams (Newman 1970:8). Jamieson (1942:7) wrote that no features were on the doll so that it could have "an imaginative expression as occasions arise". Clearly, there are varying explanations. Faces on older dolls are said to be certain evidence that they were made for the tourist trade. Makers of cornhusk dolls today report that, faceless as most dolls are, they are seldom purchased by the Iroquois themselves, but are sold to mainly non-Indian doll collectors.

The making of dolls dominates cornhusk work today, but, generally speaking, once people begin to work with dolls they also tend to experiment with other cornhusk items. Mats and cornhusk moccasins, sometimes termed "overshoes", have been made for centuries. The typical cornhusk bottle made today is coiled out of braids, sewn together with thread, and finished with a corn cob stopper, although braided or husk "corks" have also been used. Cornhusk baskets, bowls, and tray are also made today by braiding and sewing the braids together.

Cornhusk is a versatile material and can be used in a number of creative ways. It has been used to make cornhusk hats, turtle pin cushions, glass-lined vases, and a life-sized man. The versatility of cornhusk helps it survive. It also evokes the agricultural foundations of Iroquois society. A completely natural material, cornhusk is particularly popular with those seeking to retain identity through traditions.