A new Abenaki garden, and a new era for Abenaki people

By: - August 18, 2022 5:37 am

Anne Jennison, an Abenaki storyteller and historian, is working with staff at the Strawbery Banke Museum to grow a garden featuring Abenaki crops, like corn, beans, and squash, at the museum. Pictured in the front row is ceremonial tobacco, with Abenaki rose flint corn growing behind it. (Amanda Gokee | New Hampshire Bulletin)

This story is the second installment of a series on seed saving. Click here to read part one, about seeds that can withstand a changing climate. 

Before Anne Jennison began publicly telling Abenaki stories rooted in her heritage, she went to her parents to ask permission.

Jennison knew that telling these stories would “out” her parents, revealing that at least one of them had Abenaki heritage. For hundreds of years since colonization, that has been a dangerous prospect bearing serious consequences – loss of life in the direct violence of early Indian wars, loss of homelands to make way for European colonization, the loss of children during the boarding school era beginning in the late 1800s.

“It was a matter of respect because the family had been under the radar forever,” Jennison said. Her parents agreed, and now Jennison shares her stories and history with pride, working as a museum interpreter at the Strawbery Banke Museum.

Also under the radar: Abenaki contributions to agriculture and indigenous seeds, topics to which Jennison is also turning her attention. For many of the same reasons Indigenous people went underground, so did their plants. But Jennison and other Abenaki leaders have worked with staff at the Strawbery Banke Museum so these plants can flourish above ground at a new Abenaki garden, where the museum is growing indigenous crops for the first time this year.

“That’s a victory because everything we can do there at Strawbery Banke to educate the public about the Indigenous people of New Hampshire and the Northeast is helping to bring people into the awareness that Indigenous people are still there,” Jennison said.

Of indigenous crops, “the three sisters” – corn, squash, and beans – are among the better-known varieties. The museum is growing a variety of corn called Abenaki rose that grows tall with deep red-and-cream-colored kernels. Tobacco is also grown in the garden, as are some of the lesser-known Abenaki crops, such as sunflower, Jerusalem artichokes, and ground cherries.

“The vision is to create a participatory garden, where people are eating the crops, and learning that agriculture is much older than the start of the country,” said Matt Kochka, a horticulturalist at Strawbery Banke.

These plants were historically important for Abenaki communities in New Hampshire, allowing them to establish more permanent residence in some of their summer camps, Jennison said. “There is still this misguided idea that the Abenaki people were always on the move and did not have set residence, and that’s so wrong,” she said.

Agriculture played an important role in affording Abenaki culture time to develop and flourish, Jennison said.

“It let people create villages and the villages created more opportunities for ideas to be exchanged, and more opportunities for culture, and intercultural interaction. That’s big,” she said. “This is why seed saving and seed banks and learning how to grow and eat the traditional foods again, to me that’s important because that reminds us of our cultures and the tremendous depth and richness of Indigenous cultures.”

Legal protections

For Jennison, reclaiming her indigenous identity and culture was possible because of a series of legal shifts that happened in her lifetime. It was only in 1978 that it became legal for Indigenous people to practice their religions with the passage of the federal American Indian Religious Freedom Act. Protections to keep Indigenous children from being removed from their families and tribes also became law in 1978. “People became less afraid to identify because there were some protections in the law,” Jennison said.  

And in 1980, Jennison saw the neighboring Penobscot tribes have success with land reclamation efforts and reparation awards for treaties that had been broken. But Western Abenaki tribes didn’t have that option. Because the Abenaki were mostly allied with the French, they hadn’t signed treaties with the British. Treaties are a legal framework for many tribes to seek federal recognition, which New Hampshire tribes lack.

“It’s why there are no federally recognized tribes in New Hampshire,” Jennison said.

Long before the site of the Strawbery Banke museum was colonized, it was the location of an Abenaki summer camp where Indigenous people came to hunt and fish. Archaeologist Alix Martin said Indigenous people would return to the site annually to cure fish and stock up on food. Martin works at the Strawbery Banke Museum and teaches Native American and Indigenous Studies at UNH.

It was a few thousand years ago that Indigenous people began having more sedentary encampments and were able to cultivate plants, according to Martin. “That’s when they became horticulturalists,” she said.

But after European colonizers arrived, things began to change dramatically for the Abenaki – as well as their agricultural practices – when they were pushed off their land to make way for European settlements. In the 1800s, the federal government tried to forcibly assimilate Indigenous people into American culture.

“They’re forcing them to farm American crops using American methods, so a lot of things were lost,” Martin said. “But a lot of things were also secretly preserved.”

Some Abenaki families preserved traditional crops by saving their seeds, but both the people and the plants were invisible to mainstream society.

“There was a long period of time where people thought there were no Indians in New England,” Martin said. By the 1800s, she said, “the idea of Native identity was already kind of lost.”

Land Back

The Strawbery Banke Abenaki garden is one step toward correcting some of the misperceptions around Indigenous people in New Hampshire. And Martin believes growing indigenous crops is a powerful gesture, one she links to the “Land Back” movement, which seeks to return lands that have been taken from Indigenous people back to their control.

Growing Abenaki plants isn’t the same thing as returning Indigenous land, but it could reintroduce Indigenous people’s land management practices, preserving and perpetuating ancient seeds while aiding pollinators.

These crops are a focus of many of the stories Jennison now tells, having received her mother’s blessing. Some parents would have balked at Jennison’s request, but her mother’s reaction was joyous.

“The more I’ve been able to learn and share with her – she’s 95 this year – and she’s so excited to know the kinds of things I’m doing that we’re able to do them publicly, that people actually want to know who we are and we’re still here,” Jennison said. “She’s very, very happy that we’re in this new place.”

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Amanda Gokee
Amanda Gokee

Amanda Gokee reported on energy and environment for New Hampshire Bulletin. She also previously reported on these issues at VTDigger. Amanda grew up in Vermont and is a graduate of Harvard University. She received her master’s degree in liberal studies, with a concentration in creative writing, from Dartmouth College. Her work has also appeared in the LA Review of Books and the Valley News.