Abenaki partner with Sterling College to cultivate long-lost crops

Abenaki seeds
Three generations of Abenakis, including Chef Jessee Lawyer, his son John, and woodcarver Pat Lamphere harvesting "Seeds of Renewal" Abenaki Crops with a handmade Harvest knife by Lamphere and ash splint Harvest basket by Abenaki basketmaker Kerry Wood. Photo courtesy of Fred Wiseman

When Don Stevens asks students at Sterling College what they see in a seed, they tell him food, or life.

“But when I look at a seed — at some point that was given by the Creator to one of our people,” said Stevens, chief of the Nulhegan Band of the Abenaki Nation. “When I’m holding a seed, I’m not just touching creation itself, but all of the ancestors who cared for it.”

That explains some of the significance behind a partnership between members of his indigenous tribe and the Craftsbury college.

Sterling — an environmentally focused school with its own farmland — has been raising traditional Abenaki crops using rare seeds since the summer of 2018. Growers build surpluses, stockpile seeds for preservation and give finished crops and extra seeds to Abenaki tribespeople.

Part of the idea is to boost biodiversity in the modern world. But just as much of the project has centered on restoring Abenaki traditions fractured by colonialism and marginalization.

“There’s been so much cultural genocide — all of these seeds have been taken, dispersed all over the landscape,” said Fred Wiseman, an Abenaki ethnobotanist involved in the effort.

“Our Abenaki food system has been busted into a thousand pieces,” he said.

Stevens, Wiseman and others want to put those fragments back together. So far, almost two years in, they say the project’s been successful.

‘They’re enriching their lives, but it’s also helping us’

In late 2017, Sterling professor Tony VanWinkle listened to a speech by Abenaki activist Melody Brook, who mentioned seeds. 

That piqued his interest. Before VanWinkle came to Vermont that year, he had been working in Oklahoma on indigenous seed preservation and rematriation — returning seeds once commonly used by natives to their descendants. 

So he approached Brook afterward to discuss the idea of starting a project at Sterling. Wiseman and Stevens soon joined the planning.

Stevens’ band of the Abenaki Nation is served by a social nonprofit, Abenaki Helping Abenaki. The group used to grow food on tribal land for its citizens, he said, and the partnership with Sterling could facilitate some of the same goals.

The Nulhegan Band is based in the Northeast Kingdom, where Stevens said many citizens suffer from health and dietary problems or can’t afford regular meals yearlong.

By growing food for them — and teaching them, as well  — the chief believed people would save money, be healthier and grow more resilient.

But “it’s not just, you go and you pick these things,” he said, explaining the cultural value. “There’s a whole celebration, a reminder to people of how those things came to us, to feed us, to be good stewards.”

The tribe had also been getting requests for more educational efforts, and he saw the partnership with Sterling as a two-way win.

Abenaki seeds
The Hunting Dance at the 2019 Harvest Celebration, Indigenous Heritage Center & Ethan Allen Homestead, Oct. 12, 2019. Photo courtesy of Fred Wiseman

“The students are getting their hands involved ... and learning about agriculture — not just traditional ways, but native ways,” he said. “They’re enriching their lives, but it’s also helping us be able to feed our people.”

Wiseman, a retired Johnson State College professor and former Abenaki council member, had founded his own seed project in 2012, Seeds of Renewal.

That year, Vermont officially recognized the Abenaki tribes within its borders. While working on the push for recognition, Wiseman had started noticing bits of buried culinary history and wanted to help reclaim it.

The collection he tracked down and gathered over the years provided the first seeds for Sterling’s garden in 2018: the Calais and Gaspé flint corns; Canada Crookneck and East Montpelier squashes; Ponobscot pumpkin; and several varieties of beans.

Saved seeds help cultural revitalization

According to VanWinkle, the first year’s harvest didn’t produce a surplus of seeds. 

It was a step toward a stockpile. But 2019’s harvest proved better. The farm yielded a surplus of Calais flint corn seeds and some extra Gaspé flint corn seeds.

Stevens has been happy with the effort so far and how they’ve aided in giving Abenaki people a taste of their heritage.

“With Sterling, they’ve continuously increased their crop size,” the chief said.

He and other tribe members have visited the college to talk with students about the crops, and he appreciates how they’ve been able to learn more about Abenaki history.

For Wiseman, the seeds from Sterling have helped his broader work to reestablish the traditional Abenaki calendar, a cycle of ceremonies that centers on crops.

It begins with the Forgiveness Moon after the Winter Solstice, then a maple syrup event in March, the Planting Moon in the spring and the Hoeing Moon around June. A Summer Solstice event is followed by the Green Corn Ceremony around September. Then comes a harvest celebration after the last crops are brought in around October.

For those festivities, “we need those seeds,” Wiseman said.

In recent times, he’s seen greater and greater turnout at each event he helps host. The events have unlocked a greater connection to traditions disrupted by colonizers, he said, and the seed efforts have helped facilitate that too.

“As we discover about the seeds, we discover about the cooking and all these things,” he said.

As Stevens put it: “That has helped us regain a lot of our knowledge. There’s still pieces out there missing; you always have pieces missing.”

Abenaki seeds
Shucking Abenaki Corn, Harvest Celebration. Photo courtesy of Fred Wiseman

‘It’s not going to be able to be destroyed again’

Stevens is confident his work in cultural restoration can continue, in part because of two recent developments at Sterling College.

The college developed two distribution hubs for seeds last year, VanWinkle said.

One is a seed library, generally open for anyone to donate to or borrow from. The other hub is for rematriation — it stores seeds primarily to give back to Abenaki citizens. VanWinkle said both efforts grew out of work done by 2019 graduate Maia Usher-Rasmussen.

The professor said Sterling is fully invested in continuing the project. By the third, fourth or fifth year of growing, “we’ll really start having significant surpluses for redistribution,” he said.

And the movement isn’t stopping with Sterling. “We’re one of many sites in this larger effort to build indigenous seed sovereignty in Vermont,” VanWinkle said.

Stevens said his tribe began working on a seed reclamation project at Middlebury College this past year too, growing beans and corn.

“We’re trying to expand it to other schools because it’s a win-win situation,” he said. “They learn about who we are, and we get the extra seeds.”

He wants to host more ceremonial events and open them to the public, with the goal not only to bolster a sense of tribal identity but to also introduce non-natives to different cuisines. 

“It’s really rewarding when you can grow the food and then reap the benefits of that hard work at the end of the year by doing a harvest festival,” he said. “The public can join in and get to taste foods that are indigenous to our area but also be able to be inspired.”

Wiseman said his individual project, Seeds of Renewal, has received a donation to build a series of demonstration gardens. They’d feature living-history performances, with Abenaki people in traditional garb tending crops.

He also plans this spring  to start growing an agroforest, which would combine indigenous crops with other flora to create a full ecosystem.

It’s all part of a broader mission, he said.

“That’s my hope — that’s my legacy — is to have this up and running in so many different tribes and so many different places, it’s not going to be able to be destroyed again.”

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Justin Trombly

About Justin

Justin Trombly covers the Northeast Kingdom for VTDigger. Before coming to Vermont, he handled breaking news, wrote features and worked on investigations at the Tampa Bay Times, the largest newspaper in Florida. He grew up across Lake Champlain in upstate New York, where he worked for The Buffalo News, the Glens Falls Post-Star and the Plattsburgh Press Republican. He studied English and political science at the University of Rochester.


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