Along with corns and beans, squash is among what the Passamaquoddy refer to as the “Three Sisters.” Courtesy of the Seeds of Renewal Program and the Haven Project

Maine’s Passamaquoddy people are once again growing and eating ancestral crops and saving the often rare seeds. These simple yet significant acts are tied to new research that sheds light on the sophisticated agriculture and accompanying plant-centric diet of the early Wabanaki people of northeastern North America, who lived and farmed in what we call Maine for 12,000 years before the European migration and colonization.

Faced with plagues, massacres and U.S. government efforts to suppress cultural heritage, including food traditions, the Wabanaki people have survived and carried with them vital links to a rich agricultural past.

“It is important to bring these seeds back because those were the indigenous crops that the ancestors had been consuming for thousands of years,” said Donald G. Soctomah, tribal historic preservation director for the Passamaquoddy Tribe at Motahkokmikuk (Indian Township) and a former tribal representative in the Maine House of Representatives. “It’s something that our DNA and our digestive systems are calibrated for.”

The seeds being grown at Motahkokmikuk include heirloom varieties of corn, beans and squash – the well-known Three Sisters, which are traditionally planted together in mounds. In addition, tribe members are growing ancestral sunflowers, sunchokes and ground cherries, which together with gourds used as vessels, form the culturally significant Seven Sisters.

Planting these heirloom seeds is part of a wider effort by the Passamaquoddy to increase the amount of food produced on tribal land.  All the ancestral seeds have been linked to tribes of the Wabanaki Confederacy, which includes the Passamaquoddy, Penobscot, Maliseet, Micmac and Abenaki.

In 2014, Koasek Abenakis, the Seeds of Renewal Program and retired Johnson State College humanities professor Frederick M. Wiseman, who is Abenaki, gave these ancestral seeds to the Passamaquoddy tribe at Motahkokmikuk. The following spring, the seeds returned to Passamaquoddy soil and flourished.

“I started growing them at the garden at our museum,” Soctomah said. “I had a good seed crop, and I distributed them to people who have gardens.”

Wiseman said among early Wabanaki people, whose territory stretched from the Canadian Maritimes to the edge of upstate New York, “the large amount of agriculture means it is probable that it would be a mostly vegetable diet.”

The author of the 2018 book “Seven Sisters: Ancient Seeds and Food Systems of the Wabanaki People and the Chesapeake Bay Region,” Wiseman spent years tracking down the seeds he writes about in the book and that were gifted to the Passamaquoddy.

Among the seeds gifted to the tribe at Motahkokmikuk was the Jacob’s Cattle bean, which in “Seven Sisters” Wiseman describes as “long-known to have been given to European settlers in the 1790s by the Passamaquoddy people.”

Soctomah said, in addition to reclaiming Passamaquoddy heritage and increasing self-sufficiency, he hopes the ancestral crops will help heal community members living with diabetes.

“What I’ve learned about diabetes is one reason for it is sugar, but another is from not consuming traditional foods,” Soctomah said.

American Indians and Alaskan Natives have the highest levels of diabetes when compared to other American groups according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control. Diabetes among tribal members is linked to the drastic dietary changes caused by colonization.

For decades, medical evidence connecting Type 2 diabetes with the consumption of both processed foods (such as sugar and white bread) and animal products (such as meat and cheese) has piled up and called into question the wisdom of Western diets for tribal members.

While Wiseman’s work points to the Wabanaki’s plant-based history, that doesn’t mean early Wabanaki people ate strictly vegetarian meals. The traditional plant-based diets of indigenous populations are often omnivorous, even though they can seem vegetarian in comparison to Western-style diets where animal foods take center stage. People whose traditional food ways are plant-based prepare animal products as seasonings or side dishes.

In Maine, early European explorers recorded evidence of large crop farming operations visible along the coast and rivers. Wiseman shares evidence of intensive agricultural engineering in “Seven Sisters,” where he writes about agricultural platforms and designs for flood plain farming.

Writing in “Seven Sisters,” Wiseman notes, “corn was found at the Ossipee site in the Saco Valley of Maine dating … to approximately 1010 CE …” where … “Ethnobotanist Nancy Asch Sidell estimated that maize provided about two-thirds of an ancient village’s nutrition.”

Wiseman said southern and western Maine is filled with remnants of ancient Wabanaki farm fields. He has yet to find historical evidence of large-scale agriculture “farther east than Norridgewock,” an important Wabanaki village on the Kennebec that was attacked and burned by the British in the early 1700s. The Abenaki Rose heirloom flour corn variety traces its roots to the Norridgewock area.

“Most of the tribal farmers were in southern Maine, where the big fields were,” Soctomah said. “There were crops grown up this way, but not as much.”

Motahkokmikuk and the nearby Passamaquoddy tribe at Sipiyak (Pleasant Point) are located in far eastern Maine near the Canadian border. However, that doesn’t mean ancestral tribe members living on those lands were limited to what they could grow themselves.

Soctomah said growing the ancestral seeds has strengthened another tradition – trade among tribes. Soctomah said, “Abenaki farmers from Western Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont” now visit the Passamaquoddy each year and bring seed stock to trade.

“It’s the old traditional way,” Soctomah said. “Traveling and trading. When the Abenaki come up here and exchange the seeds, we give them gifts. That keeps the tradition going.”

Avery Yale Kamila is a food writer who lives in Portland. She can be reached at:

[email protected] 

Twitter: AveryYaleKamila

Comments are not available on this story.

filed under:

Augusta and Waterville news

Get news and events from your towns in your inbox every Friday.
  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.