By Emily Wanzer, Community Food Access Intern at the Vermont Sustainable Jobs Fund
The Abenaki Land Link Project, a partnership to grow food for Abenaki citizens between the Nulhegan Band of the Coosuk Abenaki Nation, Rooted in Vermont, a project of the Vermont Farm to Plate Network and Northeast Organic Farming Association of Vermont (NOFA-VT) wrapped up its pilot year this fall.
Beginning in spring 2020, fifteen growers from around Vermont planted traditional Abenaki crops with seeds provided by the Nulhegan Band of the Coosuk. Many of these seeds were originally sourced by Dr. Fred Wiseman and the Seeds of Renewal project.
The growers sowed, tended and harvested Koasek/Calais mix and Calais flint corn, true cranberry, skunk, and Mohawk beans, and Algonquin squash, yielding over 520 lbs of squash, 30 lbs of beans, and 30 lbs of cornmeal. All of the food is being returned to Abenaki citizens this winter with priority being given to elders, those with disabilities, and those who are food insecure.
According to Don Stevens, Chief of the Nulhegan Band of the Coosuk, the question being answered by the project is, "how do we help our citizens gain access to natural foods, but also to live in the means that our ancestors did?”
The seeds being shared with growers, which are at the core of the Abenaki Land Link Project and have been passed down for generations, are the key. In Vermont and across the country, native people are disproportionately affected by poverty and health issues. This leaves many without access to nourishing foods and more susceptible to diabetes and heart disease.
"There are specific crops that we have that we want to keep control of or be stewards of because they were given to our ancestors to feed us and we can process them," says Stevens. "They're unique to our bodies.”
However, the project is about much more than just the nutrition provided by the food being grown. The Abenaki people in Vermont today are survivors of hundreds of years of a ruling culture that aimed to drive them to extinction though war, disease, familial separation, and the eugenics movement. For Stevens, this project is also about working within the system so that “our kids can be proud of who they are and stay involved with the tribe. Without our kids, our culture and traditions could become extinct.”
It also offers an opportunity for non-native Vermonters to give back to First Nations People who helped and provided for European settlers. For many of the growers that opportunity in and of itself is a gift, but through the seeds, the growing process, and working with the native crops, participants in the project were able to learn different ways of connecting to the food source they were stewarding.
"You are but one strand in the web of life and not dominion over it. We must acknowledge and work with all of the various strands to uplift our people and be in harmony with our place in the world," reminds Stevens.
One of the main tenets of the Abenaki Land Link Project was that it was never mandated or prescribed by external institutions; it was centered upon what Stevens was looking to do for his tribal citizens. According to Shane Rogers, the Farm to Plate communications manager at Vermont Sustainable Jobs Fund and Livy Bulger, education and engagement manager at NOFA-VT, the Abenaki Land Link Project is not about charity nor showing off social justice projects.
"It's about building resiliency into the Vermont food system and not letting people fall through the cracks," Rogers says. "And for the white-led organizations and growers that are involved, part of this work is also about recognizing the horrific relationship between European colonists, the United States government, and Native people, examining the ways in which that relationship is perpetuated today, and taking a small first step in repairing and healing those relationships here in Vermont."
"Food provides connective tissue between people," says Bulger. "And hopefully fosters empowerment."
For anyone who wants to support these efforts can donate to the Nulhegan Band of the Coosuk - Abenaki Nation by following this link, scrolling down to the "Donate" button and making a note about the project in their donation.
For more information about the project contact Shane Rogers, Farm to Plate Communications Manager, at firstname.lastname@example.org or Livy Bulger, Education and Engagement Manager at NOFA-VT, email@example.com. If interested in participating as a grower for the 2021 season, please fill out this form and we will be in contact with you soon.