Project Revives Abenaki Crops, One Seed At A Time

Nov 30, 2015

Almost a decade ago, Abenaki scholar and paleoethnobotanist Fred Wiseman started working with Abenaki communities as part of the documentation process for federal tribal recognition. While he was in these communities, Wiseman noticed crops that had long been thought to have disappeared growing on the hillsides. It led him to start the Seeds of Renewal Project.

As part of the project, he has painstakingly tracked down native seeds and worked to get them preserved and back into agricultural production.

“It's a very large variety of different types of crops,” explained Wiseman. “The main of course is corn. Corn was domesticated in the New World. We now have four – maybe five, this year – distinct varieties of corn. But we also have about eight to maybe 10 varieties of beans, [and] several squash. We also have sunflowers, as well as ground cherries, pumpkins, gourds, a lot of other things.”

Since these are all varieties that were thought to have long-since disappeared, identifying these rare or endangered plants was difficult. Says Wiseman, “The first one that I saw was the Jerusalem artichoke. There was a quarter-mile long clone at the Wrong Way Bridge in Cambridge that was growing. And I thought, 'Well, that's amazing. Somebody must have sown a lot of Jerusalem artichokes through there.'

“But Jerusalem artichokes aren't a very popular crop right now. So I figure that these might be an ancient clone. What I did in 1995, I guess, was put a stake at the leading edge of the clone. And then I was able to record over the last few years that it actually has been spreading about more or less a foot a year. Which takes us back to 400 to 600 years ago is when it got started.”          

Wiseman says cross-pollination of these vegetables with other varieties is a major concern. “The big problem is the corn will cross-pollinate and various squashes and pumpkins will cross-pollinate. And so the Seeds of Renewal Project has been very careful in making sure that the people that grow it out only raise one specific type. And they have to make the choices to where they're going to plant them, how they're going to plant them. There's other techniques, like you can plant them at different times so they'll flower at different times. You can actually even close up the pollinative flowers of squash and things.”

Wiseman found that the Koasek community was particularly interested in pursuing the work of planting these seeds. “One of the bands that recently achieved state recognition was the Koas band. They're over in the Connecticut River Valley in the Haverhill, New Hampshire, and Newbury, Vermont area and I asked them about their crops they had received back from some old hill farmers in the area. The original Koas corn. And that got them really excited and started thinking about their identity as woven into their crops and their agriculture. I was able to go over and give lectures and talk about my work. I gave them the seeds. And they started growing them and so it's been a wonderful success.”    

Two Passamaquoddy reservations in Maine have also been growing vegetables from the seeds Wiseman has provided.

Just as crucial as growing the crops has been reinvigorating the connection to traditional cultural rituals that are tied to agriculture.

“Another part of the work that I did with the tribes was recording their ceremonies,” Wiseman said. “I've been doing that for the last three-and-a-half to four years, working with especially the Koas but other bands, and also with the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum in creating programming that will teach the old dances such as the green corn dance or the sundance and the rain dance.”

Wiseman is excited about the future of the project. “I have been working and will continue to work with the Archeological Heritage Center in Barre. Last year I gave several talks on this. I'm going to do it again this year. Seeds of Renewal has partnered with the Center for Integrative Herbalism in Montpelier. We're going to be teaching an actual class in indigenous food systems and food as medicine, which is another important theme. I'm working with ECHO, with the Maritime Museum. So things are popping.”