The Seeds of Renewal Project
Renewing Abenaki agriculture, one seed at a time
Written onFebruary 12 , 2015
Back in the 1950s and 60s, I often visited my grandparents in northwestern Vermont during the summers. I remember children and teenagers enthusiastically riding their bikes with bucket and spinning rod, heading down to the Missisquoi River to fish. I remember Abenaki families, who were often very poor, living off the waters and lands by hunting and fishing. I remember children and adults gathering edible plants: marsh marigolds, wild onions, and fiddleheads in the spring, wild herbs, roots, and nuts in the summer and fall.
Today I live in Swanton, and it’s clear that this rigorous but ultimately healthy outdoor lifestyle has largely been replaced by the intake of commodity food, which is heavily reliant on refined carbohydrates, fats, and processed items. This fundamental change from a land-based to an industrial food system is most certainly contributing to our region’s childhood obesity problem, and I have found that Vermont’s indigenous Abenaki communities have been particularly hard hit by this cultural transformation.
This is in large part why, after more than 30 years of getting to know Vermont’s Abenaki tribes from Lake Champlain to the Connecticut River Valley I launched a new project, called Seeds of Renewal. Its mission is to assist and encourage the Abenaki tradition of seed saving and indigenous gardening by helping to track down rare or long-lost seeds native to northern New England. I am proud to share the story of this project with the greater Vermont local food community, which may not be aware of all that is taking place within Abenaki agriculture.
Seeds of Renewal took root while I was working with Vermont’s Native American communities in 2006 to record their cultural, geographic, and historical information in preparation for their applications for Vermont state recognition. Success was finally achieved in 2011 to 2012, when four bands were acknowledged by the Vermont Legislature. As part of this work, I discovered that agricultural engineering and horticultural techniques recorded by early explorers such as Samuel de Champlain were still being practiced by Abenaki farmers in Franklin County, the Northeast Kingdom, and the Connecticut River Valley. When I visited these farmers, I found rare and supposedly “lost” aboriginal crops still growing on hill farms or escaped and spreading along valley river banks.
I quickly discovered, in talking to Abenaki farmers, that there were a few distinctive native-origin crop varieties still being grown locally, some of which were extremely endangered. Also, discussions with indigenous food activists such as Steve McComber of Kahnawake (a Native American reserve outside Montréal) led me to other ancient crops used by Vermont’s indigenous people. So in 2011, I began an intellectual quest: to gather these rare seeds and other agricultural information and deposit them in one place.
At first, it seemed impossible to track down the crops that I had learned had ancient roots in Vermont, Maine, and New Hampshire. People had heard of this bean or that squash, but by the summer of 2012, it seemed there was little hope of obtaining acknowledged aboriginal seed, except for one variety of corn and a couple of minor crops.
But after talking with indigenous seed savers and food activists in late 2012, I eventually tracked down Native American sources for some crops as far away as Manitoba and Colorado, while others were fortuitously discovered in rural farm stands and food co-ops, or discovered growing wild in their original habitats. The seed hunt, with its extraordinary cast of characters and the exotic places that served as refuges for the crops, was as captivating to me as the seeds and data themselves. I was also able to re-locate the seed of crops that had been collected by a defunct Native American organization in central Vermont that had had a seed-saving program in the 1990s. By the 2013 spring planting season, I had tracked down 14 crop varieties that had a possibility of ancient Native origin in northern New England and adjacent Canada, and had leads to many more.
Of course this labor could not be merely an academic exercise: the seeds had to be planted or properly conserved, or else their genetic lineage would be lost forever. But I did not have a large enough garden to even experiment with the crops, so I had to find partners with both land and the appropriate knowledge and commitment to care for the precious germ plasm. From my work in ethnobotany years ago, I knew that many of the seeds in my care, especially those of corn and the cucurbits (squash, pumpkins, and gourds) had to be planted in such ways that they could be properly pollinated by plants of the same cultivated variety, but not by others. This botanical mandate would require a lot of land, and I had to find a solution to this challenge quickly.
I first went to the four Vermont state-recognized Abenaki bands in the fall of 2012 and offered them the seeds in my care, with the caveat that they needed to be planted in such a way as to preserve their genetic purity. The tribal response was varied, ranging from eager to nonexistent, so I realized I needed additional collaboration. Shelburne Farms in Shelburne and the Abenaki Heritage Garden at the Intervale Center in Burlington offered to “grow out” the seeds. However, I soon learned that the seeds could not be grown in conditions that would preclude cross-pollination a major problem for the preservation of genetically uncontaminated corn and squash varieties. But the organizations helped immensely with growing out the seed of self-pollinated or single-cultivar types, and this yielded large stock of usable sunflower, ground cherry, Jerusalem artichoke, and several bean varieties in the 2013 harvest.
Eventually, one of the original state-recognized Native American tribes slowly became the focus of the Seeds of Renewal revitalization program. The Koas (or Koasek) community is relatively small and is still located in its old homeland in the Connecticut River Valley, in the Newbury, Vermont/Haverhill, New Hampshire area. In 2006, the community had been given an ancient strain of Abenaki corn that was originally given by their ancestors to Anglo farmers in the 1700s. This seminal cultural event led the Koasek community to focus on agriculture and to rally around “their” corn as an integral component of their native identity.
When I offered the Koaseks the seeds that I had collected in early 2013, they eagerly accepted all but one variety of corn (which they could not grow, because of the cross pollination problems alluded to above). One farmer, Peggy Fullerton of Piermont, New Hampshire, planted the crops in gardens heavily fertilized with manure from her cattle, and they grew extraordinarily well in the New Hampshire summer sun, producing huge sunflowers, squash, and pumpkins an exciting sight to behold! A community harvest supper organized for the fall equinox of 2013 saw the first fruits of the Seeds of Renewal project prepared as three sisters soup, Koasek corn-on-the-cob, squash muffins, and a host of other special heirloom recipes using these ancient crops. The meal, held at a church in Piermont, New Hampshire, was attended by numerous of members of the Koas community.
Of course, most of the seed crops, such as sunflower, beans, and corn, did not yet produce enough for anything more than display or experimental dishes. That fall, the Koaseks indicated they wanted to create a specialized field, away from other gardens, specifically to grow the Seeds of Renewal crops. They needed a little financial help, which I provided, and they were able to open a large garden in a former hayfield, ready to plow in early 2014. The saved seed, augmented by 10 new varieties that I had tracked down over the summer and fall of 2013, was planted, and once again the crops grew luxuriantly. The September 2014 Harvest Supper finally had enough indigenous produce to put on a spectacular feast. Once again, neglected recipes that had faded over the years were being dusted off, ready to influence the re-emergence of an Abenaki cuisine.
For me, one of the highlights of the dinner was a performance of the songs, ritual, and dance of Green Corn Ceremony, rites that had languished or become mere theater for paying Euroamerican audiences. This re-emergence of agricultural ceremony was the last piece of the puzzle for the Seeds of Renewal project, for out of 30 or so Native American seed-saving programs in the United States, none seems to have interest in reviving agricultural ceremony and the ritual calendar that organizes it. In talking with tribal elders, I quickly came to the conclusion that an agricultural calendar integrating ritual with agricultural technology was the keystone to the whole program.
So the Seeds of Renewal project began working with historical documents, archival film, and the memory of tribal elders to develop appropriate music, protocol, and choreography for the reviving of the dances and rituals. Historically appropriate ceremonial clothing and ceremonial objects were also made available. Few bands were interested in the hard work of learning and perfecting the musical and dance performance required for the proper execution of revived ceremony, but the Koaseks were interested in the whole system and considered a ritual calendar important for the community. By 2013 they had begun to re-arrange their ceremonies away from a typical summer pow-wow format to performing the proper agricultural ceremonies at the appropriate times of the year. So today, seeds, cropping technique, and ceremony are once again functioning together in the upper Connecticut River Valley, as they were centuries ago.
I am amazed by how far Vermont’s and New Hampshire’s Native American community has come in the last four years in re-invigorating its food system. They are doing it in their own way, not by relying on any fashionable outside food trends. They treat the indigenous food system holistically from seed, to gardening technique, to ceremony, to cuisine. This is unique in North America and has become a prototype for other native communities in New England.
Last October, some Koaseks journeyed to the Maine towns of Pleasant Point and Princeton to give the Passamaquoddy Indians the Seeds of Renewal seed. In addition, the two Passamaquoddy museums sponsored Seeds of Renewal training seminars on proper planting, ceremony, and cuisine. Other Native American nations have asked to be included in 2015, and so the program is moving out of its cradle and has a bright future.
Seeds of Renewal cultivars as of Spring 2015
(year) = Year of first planting of noncommercial varieties
(C) = Commonly available commercial varieties
Calais Corn (C)
Koas Corn (2007)
Gaspé Corn (2013)
Abenaki Rose Corn (2014)
Tom Thumb Popcorn (seed in hand)
Jacob’s Cattle Bean (C)
Vermont Cranberry Bean (2013)
Skunk Bean (2012)
True Cranberry Bean (2013)
Dolloff Bean (2014)
Marfax Bean (2014)
Low’s Champion Bean (2014)
Norridgewock Bean (2014)
Connecticut field pumpkin (C)
White Scallop Squash(C)
Curtis/Penobscot Pumpkin (2013)
Algonquin Squash (2013)
East Montpelier Squash (2014)
East Montpelier Turk’s Cap Squash (2014)
Boston Marrow Squash (seed in hand)
Worcester Pumpkin (seed in hand)
Cambridge Jerusalem Artichoke (2012)
Hardwick Ground Cherry (2012)
Morrisville Sunflower (2013)
Note: Some semi-commercial cultivars such as Vermont Cranberry and Marfax Beans are sold in farmers’ markets or by specialist seed companies. When possible, we selected varieties preserved by Indigenous or Métis people.