The Seven Sisters of Abenaki Indigenous Agriculture

One of the recurring themes during my first season gardening in Vermont has been seeds – where seeds originally come from and how to honor the sacredness of life within a seed when seeds are so abundant and readily available in Vermont.  Last month I went to a workshop on northeastern indigenous crops hosted by the Vermont Center for Integrative Herbalism, and the theme of the sacredness of seeds resurfaced.  Professor Fred Wiseman, an ethnobotanist and Abenaki tribe member who researches the crops, agriculture and cuisine of the Wabanaki region, presented the workshop.  Through his Seeds of Renewal project, Professor Wiseman is on a mission 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 learned that the Abenaki people cultivated gardens that were much more complex than the “Three Sisters Garden” we typically hear about.  In addition to the corn, beans and squash, there were 4 other indigenous crops that Professor Wiseman presented as the Abenaki’s “Seven Sisters.”  He referenced the famous seven sister star cluster known as the Pleiades that has been known to cultures all around the world.  The Abenaki in North America likely observed the Pleiades rising with the sun in the spring to signal the time to plant and appearing in the night sky in early winter when it was time to harvest.

Professor Wiseman talked extensively about each of the seven sisters.  This is a brief summary of his presentation, along with a few comments of mine:

  • Sister corn (skamon) – flint corn varieties such as Vermont’s native Calais and popping corn varieties such as Tom Thumb. Professor Wiseman shared images and dry plant samples of Koas and Gaspe miniature corn varieties that surprisingly mature in 60 days.
  • Calypso beansSister bean (adebakwal) – varieties such as Vermont True Cranberry, Marfax, and Jacob’s Cattle beans (which date back to the 1790’s and you can actually buy at Hannafords!). Calypso beans were also mentioned; those I am familiar with as I just recently harvested two handfuls of dry Calypso beans from my garden.
  • Sister squash (wassawa) – including East Montpelier (a hubbard-like variety), Long Pie pumpkin, and White Scallop squash. Several students at the Ethan Allen Community Teaching Garden harvested gorgeous White Scallop squash, and now we know that those indigenous seeds date back to at least 1591.
  • Sister sunflower (gizos kogan) – particularly a variety with pure white seeds.
  • Sister jerusalem artichoke – who Professor Wiseman called a “living fossil” after identifying a grove of underground tubers in Vermont dating back 400 years.
  • Sister ground cherry (kiiadebimen) – often considered a weed because of its ability to self-sow. Now considered a “superfood,” you can find them at farmer’s markets by the basketful.
  • Sister tobacco (odamo) – a variety native to the Northeast Kingdom. Tobacco was cultivated for ceremonial use.  As Professor Wiseman said, “you can’t separate the seed from the ceremony or you destroy culture.”  He also shared a short video demonstrating a recreation of the Green Corn Dance as an example of how Abenaki ceremony is intimately woven into agricultural calendars.

For further reading about Professor Wiseman’s work, take a look at these articles:

The Seeds of Renewal Project

Seeds of Renewal, Lisa Masé, Edible Green Mountains, September 2015.

Also check out this great printout for a self-guided tour of the Abenaki Heritage Garden at the Intervale Center.  Most of the seven sisters presented by Professor Wiseman were included in the original design for this garden.

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