It was early August, a fresh summer afternoon in Jackson County, Ohio at the Leo Petroglyph, which is a huge rock carved with images of animals and humans. The sounds of insects in the dense woods combined with the sounds of a nearby creek.
“These pawpaws are on the edge of the forest,” Chris Chmiel said as he motioned to a group of trees nearby. “There’s a clump of them about 15 or so feet away, you know, they grow in a patch.”
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Chris Chmiel is the founder of the Ohio Pawpaw Festival and is showing me the numerous pawpaw trees in the area of the Leo Petroglyph. This sacred and historic site is the work of Indigenous Americans who visited this site over 1,000 years ago. What we were searching for isn’t made of stone, but like the petroglyph, it has survived here for thousands of years.
The pawpaw represents a cultural connection between displaced Native American tribes like the Shawnee and their ancestral lands in what we now call Appalachia. Removal robbed them of access to the food, but the pawpaw lingers like a ghost in their language and memory. Now, almost 200 years later, people are trying to bring it back in the flesh.
Chmiel is an expert in all things pawpaw running the festival for many years along with co-owning Integration Acres, the world’s largest processor of pawpaws. Over the years, he’s noticed something about where pawpaws grow.
“It just seems like every one of these ancient sites I hear about or talk about with someone, they mention there’s pawpaws everywhere,” he said. “At places like Shawnee Lookout, the Serpent Mound, there’s pawpaws there.”
And they were at the Leo Petroglyph, too. All around us.
The mounds that Chmiel referred to are earthworks that functioned as graves and ceremonial sites for the Hopewell, Adena, and later the Fort Ancient people – a Native American cultural group that had flourished in the Ohio River Valley from about 1000 to 1600 AD. Some scholars believe the Fort Ancient people who made the Leo Petroglyph were ancestors of the Shawnee, who by the 17th century would call this part of the Ohio home.
“These are ancient native plants, they’re well adapted to our soils and the region,” Chmiel told me as we looked out at a patch of pawpaw trees on the trail leading to the creek and gorge. “I’d say these things have been here for a long time.”
We know that the pawpaw was an important resource for the Shawnee because it left an imprint on their culture even after the Shawnee were forcibly removed from this region by the U.S. government in the early 19th century.
Pawpaws in Shawnee Culture
Joel Barnes is one of the major guardians of Shawnee culture and language in the present day. Barnes lives in Miami, Oklahoma, and is the language and archives director for the Shawnee Tribe and is a tribal member.
Barnes said that the Shawnee marked time by phases of the moon, they used the fruit to mark one of those phases.
“The word for pawpaw is ha’siminikiisfwa. That means pawpaw month. It’s the month of September,” Barnes said. “That literally means pawpaw moon. That moon would indicate that was the time the pawpaws were ripe and it was time to go pick them and probably also indicated, ‘Hey, we’re getting close to winter.'”
Barnes’ ancestors were forcibly moved from their Ohio Valley home in Appalachia by the Indian Removal Act of 1830. The Shawnee were sent first to Kansas, and then after the Civil War, they were pushed into Oklahoma.
For the Shawnee, the pawpaw is a direct tie to Appalachia and their uprooted past. Pawpaws are hard to find in Oklahoma because the state is at the edge of the tree’s climate zone.
“Some tribal members have planted them out in their yards, just to get them to grow,” Barnes said. “They’re not quite that abundant in this part of Oklahoma. Once you start moving east you start seeing more and more of them pawpaw trees.”
He does remember eating the fruit when he was growing up. It was rare, but it existed.
“We never did get really fancy with it,” he said. “We would just cut it open and peel it and eat it. It was pretty good, and I’ve eaten some off and on throughout my life, but it’s been a while since I’ve had any.”
Cut off from their ancestral homeland and the plants that grow there, the Shawnee have seen some of the pawpaw’s cultural relevance fade with time, according to Barnes.
“Some of these old folk, they all had them, they’ve all ate them,” Barnes said, but no ceremonies or dances connected to the pawpaw remain. “If there ever was, nobody knows.”
Somehow, through all that upheaval and across all those miles, the Shawnees’ connection to the pawpaw tree has endured. Even though the food is largely absent from their physical surroundings, traces of it persist in memory. And in the Shawnee language itself. Barnes closes our conversation by teaching me a Shawnee phrase that translates to “I’m hungry for pawpaws.”
Strengthening Cultural Ties with Pawpaw
And some Indigenous people are working to strengthen their cultural connections with the pawpaw. Dr. Devon Mihesuah is a professor at the University of Kansas, a citizen of the Choctaw Nation, and also a Chickasaw descendent. She has devoted her life to recovering lost knowledge of indigenous foods.
“I have spent decades taking a look at travelers’ reports, people who observed back in the 1700s, coming through,” she said. “Nobody ever mentioned pawpaw. They just say this strange fruit. They didn’t know what to call it.”
She has not found any traditional pawpaw recipes among the Choctaw, who called the Mississippi Valley and Southern Appalachia home before they were forced West. She says there’s a reason for that. Like a banana, the pawpaw has a short window of ripeness. That meant it was probably consumed right on the spot–a convenient, fast food.
“They would just wait until the time to eat it because they don’t store well,” she said. “Maybe they dried it and it could be that they mixed with other things, which is what I like to do.”
Despite the difficulty of obtaining written records, Devon has her own special ways of preparing the pawpaw that extends its use. She mashes it, mixes it with berries, cooks it down into a flavorful sauce, and freezes it. Occasionally, she adds it to cornbread.
Even though they had to forage to find pawpaws, Mihesuah’s Choctaw grandparents introduced her to the fruit when she was a child at their home in Muskogee, Oklahoma.
“They had a massive garden,” she said. “It was a model of my grandmother’s ancestors when they lived in Mississippi. They had all kinds of trees. But they didn’t have pawpaws. But they knew where they were.”
Just like Joel Barnes, Mihesuah has childhood memories of the pawpaw, even though it was scarce. Mihesuah reminisces about that first taste in her grandmother’s kitchen.
“It was delicious,” she said. “Just the most amazing flavor. It was sort of like a banana mango combo with a hint of a little strawberry.”
Mihesuah runs a popular Facebook group on indigenous foodways. There’s a lot of interest among American Indian people in getting reacquainted with the foods their ancestors ate, she said. But many of those traditional foods are disappearing or not available where Indigenous people live, like the pawpaw. She worries that it’s a food that some people “will never get a chance to taste.”
There are a few pawpaw trees in Kansas where she currently lives, but the fruit tends to be on private property and inaccessible.
“I just wish more people who had them on their property recognized and appreciated what they have,” Mihesuah said, “There’s a yard in Lawrence and you can just smell it because there’s hundreds of them laying there.”
Three years ago, Mihesuah decided to try and grow pawpaws herself. She is propagating about 50 seeds in containers and eventually hopes to transplant them. She said it was a long process.
“I ate the fruit and then I packed the seeds away and I put them in the refrigerator,” she said. “They overwinter. I took them out at the end of February and planted them. They each had their own little container. And nothing happened for months and months. It wasn’t until the end of July that finally, one sprouted.”
Healing Historical Trauma
It will be years until they are ready to transplant, and even longer until they bear fruit. So why is she going to all this trouble? Mihesuah believes that not having access to where your ancestors lived, and the foods they ate, is a form of historical trauma that needs to be healed.
“It’s very important that people who are interested in learning their culture and being reconnected to their culture understand what it was that sustained their ancestors,” she said. “Food teaches us all of these different lessons that expand into every aspect of your life.”
By bringing these foods and their lessons back into circulation, Mihesuah hopes to address some of the losses her people have sustained.
In the hills of Appalachia, it’s easy to take the abundance of pawpaw for granted. But far away, on the plains of Oklahoma, it’s a piece of precious history for those who once called Appalachia home.
This story was first published on October 9, 2020, as part of the Inside Appalachia Folkways Reporting Project, a partnership with West Virginia Public Broadcasting’s Inside Appalachia podcast and the Folklife Program of the West Virginia Humanities Council. The Folkways Reporting Project is made possible in part with support from Margaret A. Cargill Philanthropies to the West Virginia Public Broadcasting Foundation. Subscribe to the podcast to hear more stories of Appalachian folklife, arts, and culture.