Efforts to track down Abenaki seeds opens a door to ancient food customs

Special to the Union Leader
October 07. 2014 8:20PM
A braid of Koasek (Cowasuck) corn, a variety commonly grown by the Abenakis. (COURTESY)

If you walk by a field in Piermont and you hear singing, it’s likely Peggy Fullerton. It’s not that it makes the plants grow faster or better, although who knows, it might. It’s just more of a happy coincidence that the Voices of the Cowass can practice their native songs while planting their traditional crops — think of it as a sort of multitasking of preservation.

“Well, it’s to preserve our culture,” said Fullerton, who along with the rest of her Abenaki tribe have been collecting what remains of the seeds of their ancestors. “To have these seeds is just so exciting.”After all, these seeds opens a door to the past: masala squash, rose corn, Cowasuck corn, Jerusalem artichokes. The same crops sown, harvested and cooked for generations are now able to be enjoyed by a new generation of Abenaki.

A sampling of traditional Abenaki fare including strawberry frybread, buffalo, Indian Tacos and Rezsteak sandwiches, will be on hand this weekend (Oct. 11-12) at the 18th annual Abenaki Nation of N.H. Heritage Weekend at Mi-Te-Jo Campground Milton.

“You’re eating your own history,” said Fred Wiseman, a retired Native American Studies professor at Johnson College in Vermont and citizen of the Missisquoi Abenaki tribe. He’s been active in tracking down and collecting the Abenaki heirloom seeds. “A lot of Indian people believe that food is medicine. If you’re eating your own crops ... you’re connecting with the ancestors, and so this gives a lot more pride to the people.”

Wiseman said another benefit to the project is changing the way Abenaki people eat by getting them back to the natural foods of their ancestors.“People are eating junk,” he said.Traditionally, the Abenaki diet was fueled by what the men could hunt and the women could gather, according to the tribe’s food history on the Cowasuck Band of the Penacook Abenaki website, www.cowasuck.org. The women spent their days picking a variety of berries and nuts, gathering lily roots, wild rice, onions, chives, wild garlic, mushrooms, mint and swamp —also known as skunk cabbage— among many other wild plants, according to the Cowasuck band. They would also gather herbs for medicines and garnishes, such as yarrow, burdock, foxglove, catnip, licorice and many others, they said.

The women were also responsible for planting the tribe’s crops, which included snow peas, cucumbers, and gourds along with the “Three Sister” crops.

“They used a method called ‘companion farming,’” according to the Cowasuck Band site. “The Three Sister crops were planted together on a big mound. The corn grew upwards and provided natural poles for the beans. The squash or pumpkins spread all around the base of the mound providing a cover to keep in the moisture. All three were harvested at the same time. They were also dried to be used during the winter.”

Meanwhile, the men went into the woods to trap wild game like moose, deer, rabbit, and turkey—all of which were used for food as well as clothing—and to the water for fresh- and salt-water fish.

With the hard labor done, the Abenaki would put together a sumptuous and varied menu that included everything from venison, wild turkey, salmon and trout to clam chowder—made with sunflower oil and nut butters— and corn on the cob. Then there was the corn bread, corn fritters, squash, succotash, mushroom or turtle soups and even maple candy lollipops, according to the Cowasuck Band.And as was their tradition, “Whenever the hunter or fisherman returned from a successful expedition, his children were sent forth to distribute the catch to people in the village. The bounty was shared by all. The hunter kept only a basic supply for his family,” according to the website.

These days, the modern Abenaki are practicing many of the same traditions. In fact, many of the seeds salvaged from across the country are grown out. The seeds from those plants are then distributed to the members of the tribe to be grown in their own gardens and passed down.

Fullerton said they also regularly host dinners replete with traditional Abenaki dishes. Among the highlights is the Three Sisters Soup, made with beans, corn and squash.

“The beans soak overnight and cook for eight or 10 hours,” Fullerton said. “So it’s very hearty. The beans are cooked in the ground. You dig a hole in the ground, line the ground with rocks, add your fire, the pot goes in there and the beans cook all day.”

She said she likes to use the Algonquin and masala squash they grow and a little Connecticut Valley pumpkin for good measure.“They were raised in that valley,” she said. “They should go in the soup.”

Here are some recipes gathered from a variety of Native American websites.

Abenaki Savory Venison Stew

1/2 cup corn oil2 pounds trimmed venison, cubed into bite-sized pieces1 medium onion, coarsely chopped1 large cloves garlic, finely diced10 small red potatoes, quartered2 celery stalks, diced3 carrots, cut into 1/2 inch rounds2 bay leaves1 cup wild mushrooms, cut into bite-sized pieces1/4 teaspoon dried, finely crumbled sage1/4 teaspoon dried parsely, chopped1/4 teaspoon coarse saltground pepper to taste1/4 teaspoon tobasco2 cups water, vegetable, or meat stock4 ounces salsa, mild or medium

In a large cast-iron skillet or pot, heat oil over medium-high heat. Add venison and quickly brown on all sides, stirring frequently. Add onion, garlic, and potatoes, stirring well. Add remaining ingredients, blending and stirring well. Cover and cook for 30 minutes or until the venison and potatoes are tender. Balance the seasonings to your taste.

American Indian Society of Delaware (udaisd.proboards.com/)

Fry Bread

4 cups flour2 tbsp. baking powder1 tsp. salt1/2 cup shortening1 cup warm water

Mix flour, baking powder and salt. Gradually add in the shortening and water. Add only enough water to make dough stick together. Knead dough until smooth, make into fist-sized balls. Cover them with a towel for 10 minutes then pat them out into circles about the size of a pancake. Fry in hot cooking oil in cast iron skillet until brown on both sides. Drain on paper towels, serve with jam. A variation on this adds ground beef, lettuce and tomatoes to the fry bread and is known as an Indian Taco.


Calabacitas (Skillet Squash)

5 cubed small summer squash1 diced large onion2 roasted peeled green chilesor1 small can diced green chile1 tablespoon shortening or oil3/4 cup shredded longhorn cheese

Saute onion in shortening or oil until soft. Add squash and stir until almost tender. Add chiles; simmer briefly. Sprinkle on cheese and stir until melted. From: DoveYield: 5 servings


Abenaki Squash Soup

4 strips smoked bacon, sliced very thin2 medium carrots, peeled and diced2 medium onions, peeled and diced3 quarts chicken stock (homemade)4 big potatoes, peeled and cubed4 acorn squash, peeled and cubed1 tbs. sugarpinch saltpinch hot pepper1/2 oz. fresh lime juicechopped parsley (if you have it on; hand)

In large saucepan, slowly render bacon until crisp. Add carrots, onions. Cook until vegetables are soft. Add chicken stock and simmer for 90minutes. Add potatoes, squash, salt, and pepper. Simmer 40 minutes, then mush or puree. Add lime juice. Check seasonings and adjust to taste. Serve withchopped parsley, if you have it on hand.



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