Celebrating Our Ancestral Roots:

Abenaki participate in traditional Sun Dance practice

photo courtesy Dr. Fred Wiseman
Abenaki participate in traditional Sun Dance practice

“Kwon do day, kwon do day, kwon do day…”

On November 13, 2018, a group of people gathered in Montpelier’s Vermont Historical Society chanting these words, accompanied by the rhythmic beat of hide-covered drum. “Congratulations – you just sang your first Abenaki tune, a welcome song that we use to greet guests when they arrive,” said Chief Don Stevens. Stevens presides over the Nulhegan Abenaki, one of the four native tribes that received official recognition from the state of Vermont in 2011 and 2012.

Chief Stevens, Dr. Fred Wiseman, Chief Roger Longtoe Sheehan and Melody Walker Brook were invited to share song and stories of their Abenaki history as part of the Northeast Organic Farming Association of Vermont’s eighth annual Agricultural Literacy Week. Jointly sponsored by NOFA-VT, the Vermont Department of Libraries, and the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets, this annual weeklong celebration enlightens people about the economic and cultural importance of agriculture in Vermont communities.

2018’s Agricultural Literacy Week, entitled “Celebrating Our Ancestral Roots,” focused on native agriculture in Vermont. Events at libraries around the state featured renowned Abenaki storytellers sharing aspects of their ancestral agricultural heritage and current practices.

By day, the guest speakers are professors, historians, technology experts, and artisans. Yet they are also revered tribal chiefs and respected leaders among the Abenaki community, dedicated to keeping a rich cultural heritage alive.

Chief Don Stevens of the Nulhegan Abenaki manages information technology and logistics for companies and institutions. An engaging spokesperson, Stevens helped lead the fight for state recognition for the Abenaki people of Vermont. Chief Roger Longtoe Sheehan of the Elnu Abenaki is a native artisan, musician, and educator. In his southern Vermont home, Sheehan creates museum-quality 17th and 18th century arts and crafts (including soapstone and wood pipes, stone tools and knives) representing the Eastern Woodland tribes. Melody Walker Brook is an Elnu Abenaki historian, professor, activist, and artisan who also specializes in beadwork, traditional finger weaving, ribbon work, and interpretation of wampum belts.

Dr. Fred Wiseman, a Missisquoi Abenaki, is an ethnobotanist, retired professor and former department chair of Humanities at Johnson State College. Wiseman has lived in Swanton, a town in northwestern Vermont, since 1987 and led the fight for recognition from 1993 until it was achieved in 2011 and 2012. He teaches Abenaki decorative arts, ceremonial oratory, historical native song and dance adapted for modern venues and audiences. Wiseman serves as director of the Seeds of Renewal project.

Corn Mother and Three Sisters

These four leaders shared various songs and stories specifically related to Abenaki agricultural traditions and techniques. Each person shared two stories central to their heritage: Corn Mother and the Three Sisters. All acknowledge there are slight differences among the versions but the essence remains the same. Here is how Chief Roger Longtoe related the story of Corn Mother, when he spoke at the Brattleboro Library:

“It is said that the Abenaki descended from the ash tree. Tabulmak (the Creator) carved the First Man and First Woman from two fine ash trees and blew the breath of life into them. He loved how they spoke and sang.

After Tabulmak created the First Man and First Woman, he made six more women and six more men. The First Woman, known as Corn Mother, was different from the rest; she had white-blond hair whereas the others had dark. After she and First Man had children, they made a home on a hillside above the Connecticut River and covered it with wildflowers. Life was good until the weather and environment changed. It became harder to find game and food, especially in winter. Their children and relatives began to go hungry. Corn Mother would burn tobacco and pray to the Creator for help.

The Creator came to Corn Mother in a dream and said he would help the people but it would require a sacrifice. (Roger paused to explain that in Abenaki culture, you have to give to receive.) She then spoke to her husband and explained that to feed their family and not starve in the winter, the Creator had asked them to make a sacrifice. In order to save the people, the First Man would have to kill his wife and sacrifice her body and blood to grow the food that would save their people. He was not happy about the proposal but she kept working on him through the winter. As spring came on, Corn Mother convinced First Man.

The sacrifice involved several stages. First they would have to burn the beautiful wildflower meadow. The resulting charcoal would provide nutrients to feed the soil. Next First Man would fashion a blade from flint to kill Corn Mother. Finally, he would have to cut her throat and let the blood flow freely while he dragged her body by the feet up and around the field to spread her blood.

When the day finally came, Corn Mother leaned into the stone blade and her husband finished the sacrifice. He then built a mound in the center of the field where he buried his wife. As he wept, she consoled him. ‘Don’t worry, I will be back and will speak to you. The grass will grow as tall as a woman and that will be me. This will be the grass that will feed our people. And you will see my hair and know it is me.’

In the mound where he buried his wife, the tallest and most beautiful corn grew, thus fulfilling her prophecy that their children never go hungry. And that is why we still plant our corn in a mound, in respect to Corn Mother.”

Meanwhile back in Montpelier, Chief Stevens had shared the Three Sisters story, a corollary to Corn Mother. “After she died, Corn Mother’s sisters went up each year and tended their sister. When one of them died, she was buried alongside her sister. As she grew, she hugged and climbed up her corn sister and became beans. The third sister died and was buried alongside her two other sisters. She was always scrappy and protective of her sisters. She came back as squash and spread around her sisters as a defense barrier. And that’s the origin of why we still plant the Three Sisters –corn, beans, and squash – together. Each provides support and balance for the others.”

“We’re still here; we never left!”

Through involvement in cultural and educational events like Agricultural Literacy Week and other conferences, Abenaki tribal leaders want to make it clear to the general population that the Abenaki people are present and thriving. As Roger Longtoe says, “We never left! The Abenaki have lived continuously in Vermont for more than 10,000 years.” Chief Stevens and Dr. Fred Wiseman dedicated years of tremendous energy and political activism to help four tribes (Nulhegan, Missisquoi, Koasek, and Elnu) achieve official recognition from the state of Vermont in 2011 and 2012. Part of the recognition process required documentation and evidence to prove that their people had lived continuously in Vermont. And that’s where the life work of Dr. Wiseman rose to the fore.

“Abenaki people are probably the least recognized, least understood, and have the least amount of advocacy among any of the protected classes of peoples in the state of Vermont,” Wiseman emphasized. “Having state recognition is a good start. But we have a long way to go.”

One of the most effective ways to teach the persistence of the Abenaki is through agriculture. Wiseman and his fellow tribal leaders strove to revive traditional songs, rituals, and dances associated with the seasonal indigenous agricultural ceremonies, such as the Green Corn ceremony and a variety of planting rituals and harvest festivals. They also study and reintroduce Abenaki growing practices such as companion planting and mound systems.

Wiseman began working with Vermont’s Native American communities in 1993 to record their cultural, geographic, and historical information. As an ethnobotanist, he discovered ancient agricultural engineering and horticultural techniques still being practiced by Abenaki farmers in northern Vermont and the Connecticut River Valley. Visits with farmers revealed rare and supposedly ‘lost’ indigenous crops still growing on hill farms or spreading wild along valley river banks. Wiseman began to collect these rare seeds and deposit them safely in one place.

Saving Seed, Preserving Heritage

That effort evolved into the Seeds of Renewal project in 2012. The goal is to share knowledge of native seeds, cultivation techniques, and ritual ceremonies related to agriculture. Seeds of Renewal is a grassroots coalition of partners throughout Vermont, New Hampshire, Maine, New Brunswick, Quebec and Nova Scotia. 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. According to Wiseman, “Seeds of Renewal is a technique, a technology, and a consortium, a way of understanding indigenous agriculture. Our partners all over the Northeast grow and save seeds to preserve these heritage crops.”

By 2013, Wiseman had gathered 14 crop varieties with possible ancient native origins in northern New England and adjacent Canada. He has amassed more than 55 cultivars by 2019. An experienced gardener himself, Wiseman knew the seeds had to be planted or properly conserved, or else their genetic lineage would be lost forever. That necessitated finding partnering organizations with sufficient land, agricultural knowledge, and commitment to care for the precious seeds.

Wiseman recalls, “One Koas 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 were prepared using these ancient crops.”

Fifty-five to sixty crops are now on the Seeds of Renewal Preservation Priorities list. “We try to get critically endangered crops safely planted, such as the Morrisville sunflower and Koas corn,” Wiseman explained. “All of these Seeds of Renewal crops can tolerate both heat and cold and are able to grow from Georgia to Labrador, which is crucial as the climate changes.”

Seeds of Renewal has expanded its range of supporting partners in 2019. According to Wiseman, “The New Indigenous Heritage Center located on the Ethan Allen Homestead will be the institutional home of the Seeds of Renewal Project. They are already helping with agricultural ceremony and will be planting a traditional Abenaki demonstration garden. Burlington’s Intervale Center, our longest term partner, is helping us grow large quantities of Seeds of Renewal produce for ceremonies. Peggy Fullerton and Sagakwa Farm, in Piermont, New Hampshire, is our oldest Indigenous partner. Sterling College, located in Craftsbury, Vermont, focuses on growing out seeds without cross-pollination to preserve their integrity. Burlington’s ECHO Lake Aquarium and Science Center sponsors Harvest celebrations and other conferences. Alnôbaiwi, an intertribal Abenaki organization, partners with Seeds to do agricultural ceremony. The Indian Island Penobscots, the Indian Township and Sipayik Passamaquoddies are growing Seeds of Renewal crops. Earth Haven Learning Centre (Ontario) publishes the Seven Sisters book.”

Seven Sisters – The Original Companion Plants

“People have been growing corn in the Connecticut Valley and northwestern Vermont for more than 1,000 years,’ Chief Roger Longtoe reminded the group in Brattleboro. “Remnants of squash, beans and tobacco have been found. Jerusalem artichokes, ground cherries, sunflowers are evidence of a large settlement. That’s a clear sign that the Abenaki were growing the Seven Sisters at that time and probably earlier.”

A passage from Wiseman’s excellent book Seven Sisters: Ancient Seeds and Food Systems of the Wabanaki People and the Chesapeake Bay Region (Earth Haven Learning Centre, 2018) captures the essential wisdom of Abenaki cultivation. “As with any family, each member helps the others in times of need. For example, while the Gaspe and Koas corn are too short and weak to support strong bean vines, the sunflower offers its sturdy stalk and leaves to the bean tendrils. Ground cherries have been observed in New Hampshire to have the amazing characteristic of repelling Japanese beetles when planted beside the very susceptible Norridgewock bean variety. Also, as in any family, there are greedy and or pushy siblings. The sunchoke quickly tries to dominate the land so she needs to be planted in very specific places so as not to crowd out her other sisters. It is up to the farmer or gardener to understand how this raucous family of squabbling but loving siblings can live and work together in order to produce an effective harvest.”

Corn is the most versatile plant in the world. By some estimates, corn provided up to two-thirds of an ancient village’s nutrition. Wiseman has tracked down five varieties of maize, or Indian corn: Roy’s Calais Flint, Abenaki Rose, Koas, Gaspe, and Tom Thumb popcorn. These are not the summer sweet corn most people consume. Most Abenaki varieties are flint corn which means they are best suited to grinding for cornmeal. Plants can be a diminutive two feet up to six or seven feet tall; ears range from two to ten inches depending on variety.

There exist five types of native pole beans (True Cranberry, Norridgewock, Dolloff, Skunk, Heritage Dore) and fifteen varieties of bush beans, each with its own fascinating history. Beans grow exponentially: three seeds grow to 20 grow to 250 to a roomful while offering amazing potential in terms of climate resiliency.

Squash was considered the feisty sister for her tendency to spread and take over. There’s only one native summer squash, known as white scallop, a patty pan variety. White scallop is actually the oldest known squash dating back to 1594. All the rest are winter squash with names that reveal their origins such as Algonquin, East Montpelier Turban, Canada Crookneck, Worcester Pumpkin, Wesley Sugar Pumpkin, and Curtis Penobscot Pumpkin. “East Montpelier Squash has a glorious history,” Wiseman notes. “This cultivar was said to be big enough to feed a whole village because the vines were so long, so prolific, and the squash so large.”

Wiseman saw a grainy black and white photograph from the 1890s of a Koas woman, Aunt Sarah, standing next to enormous sunflowers with huge leaves. He traveled all over Vermont measuring sunflower leaves in pursuit of the sunflowers he’d seen in the Aunt Sarah slide. From that pursuit he discovered the Morrisville Sunflower, the most famous – and critically endangered – sunflower which stands nine to twelve feet tall.

Jerusalem artichokes, now known as sunchokes, have been around for centuries. These underground tubers still grow wild along one-quarter of all the riparian riverbanks in Vermont. Full of starch, they are prepared and eaten like a potato. Abenaki would plant them where they camped for the summer, which explains their prevalence along so many riverbanks.

Ground cherries, also known as husk tomatoes, are the sweet tasting relatives of the tomatillo. Two varieties exist, Hardwick and Johnson. Tobacco is considered a “brother” and must be planted by men and away from the sisters. The sticky tobacco residue keeps rodents at bay which in turn helps to protect the sisters. “We’re trying to reintroduce this crop so our ceremonial tobacco is truly Abenaki,” says Wiseman. Other “cousins” of the Seven Sisters include Eastern wild rice, groundnuts, and wild leeks, or ramps.

Chief Longtoe made the connection of crops to cultivation methods.

Map of the tribes and land of the Wabanaki Confederacy

photo of map courtesy Dr. Fred Wiseman
Areas occupied by
traditional Abenaki tribes

“To get officially recognized, we had to compile a history and document our Abenaki traditions as proof of our culture. We needed our people to write down anything they remembered or were taught as kids. Although each tribe has its own stories and traditions, everyone remembers planting in mounds and using fish. One of the many traditional practices we did and still do, and with good reason. Heads, tails, guts – any parts of the fish we wouldn’t eat, white sucker fish in particular. Fred Wiseman learned that sucker fish in Abenaki means garden fish! We put the fish in the mound two weeks before we planted the corn seeds.”

Chief Stevens added further insight. “As our ancestors moved around, they planted their fields and then came back. In the winter we camped in the pines which is why we’re known as ‘People of the Pines.’ After the rivers flooded in the spring and left fertile soils on the banks, we would build wigwams that would last three or four months on the banks, use the fish to fertilize, plant seeds and grow our crops, harvest and store them and move back to the pines for the winter. Every family would have a section along a major river and that would be their section. Fred’s family had a two and a half mile section along the right-hand side of the Mississiquoi River just above where 89 crosses in Swanton.”

Still Applicable Centuries Later

Seed saving. Companion planting. Platform mound systems. Are these ancient Abenaki agricultural practices of corn hills and mound systems applicable on a larger scale in Vermont? Wiseman says that’s an interesting puzzle. “Some of these seeds have endured for centuries. I’ve seen platform mounds of 5 to 65 acres each. Prehistoric terrace systems have been discovered in Northeast. These agricultural systems probably supported tens if not hundreds of thousands of people. The mound systems could potentially produce 600 pounds of squash per every three mounds with fish fertilizer. I think there’s a lot of unexplored potential for these systems. But Don and I and our colleagues are doing what we can and we welcome assistance. Unfortunately, we’re not able to access the grants that serve other ethnic groups. We’re hoping to put a small crack in the obsidian ceiling as our Abenaki culture gains more recognition.”

Chief Don Stevens offered this poignant reflection. “When I hold a seed in my hand, or soil from my preserved ancestral land in Barton, I touch creation itself and am connected to the thousands of my ancestors who guarded it and took care of it in order for me to hold it now. If you lose caring about the seeds and the soil, then you lose your food sovereignty.”

Wiseman feels it is important to share these stories with the greater New England local food community, which may not be aware of all that is taking place within Abenaki agriculture. As Chief Stevens says with justifiable pride, “We have a rich and thriving culture and want to share it with others.”

For further exploration:

VISIT: The “Seeds of Renewal” exhibit, curated by Dr. Fred Wiseman, will be on display through early May 2019 at the Vermont Historical Society in Montpelier. The exhibit explores Wabanaki agricultural history, cuisine, and ceremony.

READ: Seven Sisters: Ancient Seeds and Food Systems of the Wabanaki People and the Chesapeake Bay Region. Dr. Frederick M. Wiseman, published by Earth Haven Learning Centre, Ontario. 2018

Wiseman’s immediate goal is to get the agricultural ceremonies up and running again on a calendar cycle basis, not as a performance basis. “We plan to apply all the research into ceremony to revive a vigorous ceremonial calendar. We already completed the Biligizos Alamikosowôgan ceremony kicking off the agricultural year on January 6, the first new moon after the winter solstice. On the horizon is an Abenaki cookbook. We are discussing partnering with Shelburne Farms to have them test the recipes for proper cooking times, ingredients, and taste and then photograph the plated product.”