In partnership with the non-profit organization Abenaki Helping Abenaki and the Seeds of Renewal Project, the Rian Fried Center established in 2018 a heritage garden on the Sterling College campus. The garden features traditional and endangered Abenaki vegetable varieties and agricultural techniques toward the end of achieving three primary goals:
- The preservation and dissemination of Abenaki seed diversity and associated cultural knowledge and histories;
- The reproduction of traditional agricultural methods, including multi-cropping, mound, and agroforestry systems, as well as ritual calendar observances;
- The enrichment of agricultural education opportunities for both Abenaki tribal members and Sterling College students.
Since 2018, the achievement of these goals have progressed through participatory collaboration with Abenaki consultants as well as through coursework at Sterling. Interpretive signage developed for specific crop varieties and overall project orientation, a seed guidebook, a recipe book, primary school curricular materials, and a Seeds of Renewal website were developed by Sterling students in Spring 2018 for a class project focused on indigenous seed sovereignty efforts. Mound preparation, direct seeding, and ceremonial observation took place during the 2018 Integrated Farming Practicum and was guided by community partners from the Nulhegan Band of the Abenaki Tribe. Through additional partnering with faculty in UVM’s Department of Plant and Soil Science, the project will also contribute to statewide research on soil microbial communities associated with landrace crop varieties.
This project is reflective of the Rian Fried Center’s commitment to community outreach and collaboration, as well as our support for local, regional, and global agrobiodiversity and seed sovereignty efforts. In larger context, as reported by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, since 1900, around 75% of crop genetic diversity has been lost globally. Erosion of agro-biodiversity has been accompanied by a loss of cultural and culinary knowledge associated with particular locally available varieties. In this way, traditional foods and diets have been displaced by processed and commodity foods. In some instances, this transition has resulted in the onset of diet-related illness, a trend that is especially acute among Native American populations, who are almost 2.5 times more likely to be diagnosed with diabetes than their white counterparts.
Despite this erosion of plant genetic resources and associated cultural knowledge, local landrace varieties have managed to survive as a result of individual and/ or cultural dedication to their preservation. Through the Abenaki-Dawnland Garden Project, the Rian Fried Center serves as a node in a revitalized network of seed savers, traditional culinary revivalists and food sovereignty advocates working toward local resilience and dietary decolonization. Thus the project seeks not only to preserve rare and often highly endangered crop varieties indigenous to the Northeast, but to get them in the gardens and on the plates of tribal members and more generally, to educate the broader public about their historical and contemporary importance.
In 2019, several major milestones contributed to the continued growth and maturity of Sterling’s interrelated seed system projects. Many of these were the results of graduating senior Maia Usher-Rasmussen’s Senior Year Research Project (SYRP) and an independent study in grant writing. Two successful grant applications authored by Maia helped to build critical infrastructure for our seed systems work, including several equipment acquisitions that have made possible the launch of the Black River Seed Library and the Dawnland Seed Hub. The Black River Seed Library is a free community seed library open to any member of the larger community. As a lending library, participants “check out” seeds, grow them out at home and promise to save some seed to contribute back to the library for others to grow out.
The Dawnland Seed Hub is a restricted repository for the conservation and rematriation of Abenaki heritage seeds. As described by Mohawk seed saver and advocate Rowan White, “In the seed movement, we have begun to use the word ‘rematriation’ as it relates to bringing these seeds home again. In many communities . . . the responsibility of caring for the seeds over the generations is ultimately within the women’s realm. Both men and women farm and plant seeds, but their care and stewardship are part of the women’s bundle of responsibility. So the word ‘rematriation’ reflects the restoration of the feminine seeds back into the communities of origin. The Indigenous concept of ‘rematriation’ refers to reclaiming of ancestral remains, spirituality, culture, knowledge and resources, instead of the more patriarchally-associated ‘repatriation’.”