Woman works to preserve indigenous foods, Native American culture

  • Recently harvested Buffalo Creek (winter) squash sit on a table at the Mt. Kearsarge Indian Museum. ELODIE REED—Monitor staff

  • Using a lamp to light up the shelf, Liz Charlebois shows the seeds she's been collecting and preserving in the Mt. Kearsarge Indian Museum last week. ELODIE REED—Monitor staff

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    Mt. Kearsarge Indian Museum education director Liz Charlebois holds open her "Bible" about seeds to a page showing how to hand-pollinate different plants. ELODIE REED—Monitor staff

  • Stalks of sunchokes, or Jerusalem Artichokes, grow outside the Mt. Kearsarge Indian Museum last week. ELODIE REED—Monitor staff

  • The Mt. Kearsarge Indian Museum garden, which has been harvested and will be replanted with seeds for indigenous food plants next spring. ELODIE REED—Monitor staff

  • Liz Charlebois points to the now-harvested garden behind the Mt. Kearsarge Indian Museum, where she is education director and is increasingly involving indigenous food into the museum's activities. ELODIE REED—Monitor staff

  • Liz Charlebois tests the softness of some winter squash she used to make her famous squash soup in her Warner apartment recently. ELODIE REED—Monitor staff

  • Liz Charlebois spoons in Buffalo Creek squash, an indigenous gourd to North America, into a mixture of onions and apples last week. Charlebois has an interest in reviving indigenous food traditions. ELODIE REED / Monitor staff

  • Liz Charlebois makes squash soup in her Warner apartment last week. Charlebois, who is Abenaki and the education director at the Mt. Kearsarge Indian Museum, is working on a project to revive indigenous food traditions. ELODIE REED—Monitor staff

Monitor staff
Published: 11/22/2016 11:00:22 PM

Liz Charlebois is bringing indigenous food traditions back to the community, one seed – dried on an old pizza box – at a time.

Seeds sat in one such container in Charlebois’ office at the Mt. Kearsarge Indian Museum last week, surrounded by their source: massive, orange, Buffalo Creek squash. They were grown and harvested last month on the grounds of the Warner museum, where Charlebois works as education director.

Charlebois, 41, grew up in Harrisville and is Missisquoi Abenaki. While she was raised in Native American culture, she said she’s taken a special interest in indigenous foods only recently.

She’s particularly concerned about preserving indigenous seed varieties in the era of big agriculture and access to healthful, nourishing foods for existing native communities.

Charlebois also treasures this remnant of indigenous life when so many other native cultural practices have been lost or taken and twisted by mainstream society – think Indian mascots, headdresses at concerts and overly-simplistic narratives about events like Thanksgiving.

“Food ways are really important,” Charlebois said. “Being able to feed your family indigenous foods – the foods our bodies are made to be eating – is super empowering.”

Growth at the museum

Planting and growing those foods, harvesting them, serving those ingredients in traditional dishes at events and then preserving the remaining seeds have all been part of Charlebois’ work during her three years at the museum.

“It’s now a major component of the education department,” she said.

Their garden has doubled in size (including a plot at Hopkinton Fairgrounds), planting methods are taught in the museum, indigenous foods are prepared for tasting, and Charlebois began a seed library of about 50 varieties.

“Everything we grow is heirloom, indigenous, non-GMO seed,” she said. Combined with the wild edible plants on the property, she added, “We have lots of food here.”

Charlebois goes to great length to preserve the purity of those foods. With her Buffalo Creek squash, for instance, she hand pollinates the plant in August, when its in danger of cross-pollination with other squash varieties.

She showed what the process looks like in Seed to Seed, a gardening book by author Suzanne Ashworth that Charlebois called her “Bible.”

Ashworth’s book has acted as a guide for Charlebois’ seed library, a shelf lined with glass jars full of seeds stowed in a dark hallway in the back of the Mt. Kearsarge Indian Museum.

Back there she has seeds from not just Buffalo Creek squash grown at the museum but the “extremely rare” Abenaki East Montpelier squash, Seneca and Morrisville sunflowers, sunchokes (also known as Jerusalem artichokes), corn, various beans, and more.

“I started to go out to different tribal communities and brought back different kinds of seeds,” Charlebois said. In return, she gives seed to people from around the world who ask for some of the rarer or pure varieties.

She doesn’t ask for payment, just some of the harvest in order to preserve more seeds.

Bigger purpose

Charlebois said this work is not only intended to be an educational exercise for the museum, but also as a way to create greater access to indigenous foods.

The seed library was Charlebois’ response to the difficulty in shopping for indigenous varieties as seed companies have consolidated over the years. She said farmers have gotten out of the habit of saving seeds.

“Many of the food varieties that were grown here no longer exist because of this shift in farming,” she said. “Seed companies will provide you with what they want you to grow. People aren’t getting the indigenous varieties but the hybridized varieties that don’t have the ability to reproduce.”

Now with her seed library, Charlebois said she hopes to see more of the Native American people living here raising and consuming those traditional foods. About 4,000 residents of New Hampshire currently identify as Native American according to census data.

“We suffer from a lot of diet-related diseases because of that interaction with non-native foods,” she said. “Diabetes is highly prevalent as is heart disease and hyper extension.”

Government reports show that some of the leading causes of death among indigenous people in the United States are heart disease, cancer, unintentional injuries, diabetes and stroke.

“A lot of these,” Charlebois said, “can be contributed to the diets of people. Once we didn’t really have access to our indigenous habits, we started seeing this prevalence of diet-related health disparities.”

Charlebois said she sees interest in bringing back traditional food ways not only for health reasons, but cultural ones.

Native Americans have no government-recognized tribes in New Hampshire, for instance. Currently, the Mt. Kearsarge Indian Museum acts as the meeting space for the New Hampshire Commission on Native American Affairs.

And while some native communities have programs in place to maintain food traditions, Charlebois would like to begin her own series of cooking classes at the Mt. Kearsarge Indian Museum. They would make things like sunflower seedcakes, squash soup, the cooked berry dish wojape, and others.

Personal nourishment

Right now, Charlebois keeps indigenous cooking limited to her own kitchen. And at this time of year, she said, it’s a special comfort, since her family doesn’t do Thanksgiving like most others.

“We don’t emulate Thanksgiving,” Charlebois said. “Native folks – we have feasts and thanksgivings at many different times of the year.”

Plus, she said, that historic 1621 thanksgiving meal now commemorated each year with images of Plymouth colonists and Wampanoag Indians coming together for a feast has a false narrative of joyful ease.

“The native folks didn’t bring their women and children to that,” Charlebois said. “That tells us they didn’t really trust the people they were eating with. A lot of native people now consider Thanksgiving a national day of mourning.”

She said her mother used to go to the annual protest that began in the 1970s to bring attention to the continued suffering of Native Americans.

Charlebois enumerated those struggles going on today: cultural misappropriation, health issues and lack of recognition.

“The big one is what’s going on with the Dakota access pipeline,” she said.

While her mother no longer protests and Charlebois plans on gathering with her relatives in Massachusetts Thursday, they don’t really celebrate Thanksgiving. Rather, it’s an opportunity for family and food.

“I try to eat as many indigenous foods as I can,” Charlebois said. “Besides the connection to my ancestors, it makes you feel better – it’s better food.”

(Elodie Reed can be reached at 369-3306, ereed@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @elodie_reed.)

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