This story was originally published on June 10, 2016.
An ancient variety of squash thought to be lost to history has been rediscovered. It is one that had been cultivated by Native Americans in the Great Lakes region for centuries, and now tribes are sharing the seeds with each other and small farmers to bring the plant back.
Eighth Day Farm in west Michigan is one of the farms that acquired some seeds from this mystery squash. And the farm’s Sarah Hofman-Graham says they didn’t know what to expect when they planted it last year.
“I definitely didn’t have a firm idea of what kind of squash it was going to grow—or even what the plant was going to look like,” she says. “It was just a fantastic surprise.”
The seeds grew into a massive, bright-orange squash. It was more than two feet long.
LISTEN: “Reviving Native Foods in the Great Lakes Region”
The seeds passed through a couple of pairs of hands before they got to the farm. But they started with Paul DeMain, a member of the Oneida Nation of Wisconsin and the editor of News from Indian Country. DeMain says his seeds originally came from the Miami tribe in Indiana and are thought to be from a line that’s somewhere between 1,000 to 2,000 years old.
DeMain says several stories have circulated about the seeds’ origins and that it’s possible several stories have morphed together over time. According to one story, the seeds were found in a clay vessel that was unearthed during a construction project in Wisconsin.
“The seeds in it were regrown,” Demain says. “And allegedly these seeds were dated [to] about 850 to 900 years ago.”
Some say the story of the clay vessel is an urban myth. But regardless, DeMain says people are excited to have these seeds back in circulation.
“As communities begin healing after a hundred years of decline—of displacement—it comes along with a revival of the language, the revival of songs and ceremonies,” he says.
One tribe in Michigan wants to make sure these seeds stay around a lot longer. Kevin Finney, the executive director of the Jijak Foundation—a nonprofit group that’s part of the Gun Lake Band of Pottawatomi in Hopkins, Michigan—saves dozens of varieties of traditional crops in the band’s “seed library.”
Down in a small basement room in the Jijak office, there are dozens of glass jars on wooden shelves with native varieties of corn, beans, tobacco, watermelon and ancient squash.
Finney opens a jar of the seeds of the ancient squash, which is called Gete Okosman. “Gete” means “ancient” or “something from a long time ago”; “Okosman” is the word for squash.
“They’re big—just like the squash,” Finney says. “They’re really fat—and that’s a good thing for a seed.”
To him, the ancient squash is “heroic.”
“It’s an ancient, lost and forgotten thing,” he says. “It’s a champion for all of these seeds. They were forgotten and all of them are making their re-emergence again.”
Finney says the seed library allows native farmers around the region to “borrow” seeds.
“Like a library, they check out seeds and they will grow a certain variety of corn or beans or tobacco or squash,” he says. “And at the end of the year, they send us back a return on those seeds—as well as keeping some.”
When a person checks out a seed, they also get a copy of the oral history that comes along with the seed. It describes where the seed comes from, stories from families about the seeds and information about how it grows best.
Finney says he wants people outside the tribes to know about these foods too.
“Maybe success is, if you live here in west Michigan, everyone’s aware of what Anishinaabe food is and these foods become very accessible for people. This is sustainability for everyone and local food for everyone,” he says.
Others at Jijak are also working to revive traditional farming methods. While working on a greenhouse on the group’s 200-acre farm, Yebishawn Old Shield says she thinks about how long the ancient squash seeds have lasted.
“There is spirit within those seeds,” she says. “So that’s why we want to keep revitalizing things like this, and keep building things like this, to provide for those next seven generations. And also thinking about those ones that were in the past seven generations, that because of them, we’re here—because of them those seeds are still here as well.”
She calls the work they’re doing “food sovereignty”—growing their own food in traditional ways, on tribal land.
This story comes from our partners at Michigan Radio's Environment Report, a program exploring the relationship between the natural world and the everyday lives of people in Michigan.