By Sheila Mulrooney Eldred
Cora Baker, a Potawatomi Native American from Wisconsin, spent a lifetime collecting heirloom seeds; some of her stock are believed to link back to plants that grew more than 800 years ago.
“I had prayed and prayed that someone would take this gardening up again,” she wrote, with the help of her great-granddaughter, shortly before her death in 2000 at the age of 94. “I feel that the Great Creator has answered my humble prayers.”
The answer came in the form of Dream of Wild Health, a garden-based education program in St. Paul, Minnesota, the group to whom Baker sent her collection.
Now, Baker’s life savings of seeds are flourishing into black turtle beans, Mandan blue flint corn, colorful Arikara squash and Potawatomi lima beans.
“We’re growing things we’ve never seen,” says Sally Auger, executive director of the project. “It’s an awesome responsibility to carry this on.”
Auger founded the project in 1999 in the hopes that a revitalized indigenous food supply might help curtail the spread of diet-related diseases among Native Americans.
And there’s some reason to hope that Auger’s plan is well-founded; after conducting tests on the seeds, University of Minnesota scientists were stunned to discover that the antioxidants in Auger’s beans outnumbered grocery store beans by about 20 to 1. One variety of squash contained over twice the calcium and magnesium of grocery store squash. Hominy corn contained half the calories.
Auger hopes the project will help native Americans return to the healthier lifestyle of their heritage, when "we hunted and fished and trapped and grew what we needed."
Another bonus is connecting children and teens with their heritage.
“We’re re-establishing a connection with the earth,” says Jewell Arcoren, the project’s cultural and youth coordinator, recalling a time when people used to nourish the plants with song in addition to water and dirt. “We’re calling up genetic memories. And the kids like the idea that they have their own food. It’s real Indian food. It gets them excited.” Plus, she says, the taste of the vegetables is “just unbelievable.”
“The tomatoes have a rich texture,” Auger says. “They’re almost purple, they’re so red. They taste meaty. When you eat it, you know they’re different. They’re more intense.”
Last summer, the project—the only program of its kind in the Midwest—finally found a permanent home on a 10-acre farm close to the Twin Cities.
Last year’s harvest produced lots of squash, mint and lettuce. This summer, a new project will help a women’s co-operative learn how to transform beans and vegetables into traditional foods and medicines.
Other plans abound: Auger hopes to create a marketable, signature bean soup to help support the farm. And Auger and Arcoren are hoping to get some expert advice on planting some of the most delicate seeds in their collection, varieties with only a handful of seeds remaining—including Cora Baker’s Winnebago Indian squash that looks like a loofah sponge.
Although Native Americans “from all over” responded to Auger’s call for seeds—sending them wrapped in old socks, tattered envelopes, even bits of toilet paper—it was Baker’s contribution that turned the gardening project into a reality.
“I became a sort of depository of seeds,” Baker wrote. “Some Indian people felt that I should have the seeds from their family. They must have felt I could hold on to them.”
Now Auger and her project are holding on. “We have a lifetime commitment to carrying on this dream of having healthy people who can eat healthy food,” she says.