Genealogy

Thanks to the growing interest in Indian country and the accessibility of genealogical records online, there has never been a better time to investigate old family rumors about Native ancestry. And as with all genealogy, though it’s entertaining to dig up the roots of one’s family tree, even positive verification of a Cherokee grandmother or Choctaw grandfather often leads to as many questions as answers.

The best thing a curious person can do is start tracing your ancestry back using something like Ancestry.com, Genealogy.com or FamilySearch.org. Or you can find a genealogist willing to help with the search—professionals are listed by specialty including Native American at ApGen.org. If that isn’t something you’d like to do, local libraries can often help as well with research into your genealogy. Either way, you have to start tracing your lineage back and creating a family tree. That’s the best way to get started. That often means interviewing friends and elders who may be able to identify key dates, towns and lineages.

Image of a giant squash has been floating around the Internet attached to a story about archaeologists uncovering a clay vessel with seeds in it, and dating those seeds to 800 years ago. But, there was no clay vessel. These giant squash are grown from seeds handed down from the Miami Nation of Indiana, who has been cultivating them for thousands of years.

Communities across the Midwest and Canada are growing a variety of squash that yields fruits topping 30 pounds.

But the seed that produces the “Gete-Okosomin” squash also comes with a story that is not quite rooted in fact. The story goes that the seeds were inside a clay ball or vessel found in an archaeological dig on the Menominee Nation in Wisconsin. The tale continues, suggesting that dating of the clay vessel indicated that the seeds were more than 800 years old and had been lying dormant since the 13th century.

It’s a great story, said Kenton Lobe, an environmental studies professor at Canadian Mennonite University in Winnipeg, Manitoba. And though Lobe can attest to the size of the squash as grown for the last three years by his students at the university’s farm, the rest of the story is untrue, he said.

“There was a story that came with the seed, handed down from one person to the next,” Lobe said. “A story about a giant squash that comes from a clay ball really captures the imagination.”

The university received the seeds from the White Earth Seed Library in Minnesota, Lobe said. It tried to verify the story, which has appeared in print and broadcast news in the United States and Canada, but the bottom line is that “there was no clay ball,” he said.

The giant squash story: Seeds being found in a clay vessel and dated to 800 years ago make for a captivating story, but there was no clay ball, and where this image came from is unknown.

Seeds being found in a clay vessel and dated to 800 years ago make for a captivating story, but there was no clay ball, and where this image came from is unknown.

The true story may be even more captivating, Lobe said. Although less theatrical, the real story of Gete-Okosomin (which means “big old squash”) reveals rich agricultural knowledge among Turtle Island’s original inhabitants.

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“This is not an abstract archaeological thing,” he said. “It’s a way to connect back to the first people and acknowledge their agricultural heritage.”

Further digging into the story reveals that the seeds came from elderly gardeners on the Miami Nation of Indiana, who gifted them in 1995 to David Wrone, an emeritus professor at the University of Wisconsin. The seeds had not lain dormant for centuries, Wrone said, but the Miami people had grown them for as long as 5,000 years.

The Miami were careful stewards of the seed, taking care to hand-pollinate them and maintain their purity. Wrone planted the seeds and grew several squash weighing 30 pounds or more.

“It’s a delicious variety,” said Wrone, who spent his academic career studying and teaching about indigenous people in the Great Lakes area. “And it doesn’t have the rind on it that many modern squash have. I would imagine the Miami people sliced it, dried it out and put it in the rafters of their homes. Then they could pull it down and use it in their cooking, throw it in with rabbit, corn or wild rice.”

Wrone said he shared second-generation seeds with his neighbors, including some from the Menominee Nation. Over time, as the seeds traveled across the Midwest, they rrned up at the American Indian Center of Chicago and the White Earth Seed Library.

Every time the seeds changed hands, the legend of their origin grew a little bit more exciting, said Zachary Paige, who helped form the White Earth Seed Library.

“This is where the game of telephone starts,” said Paige, who also serves as manager of the Indigenous Seed Keepers Network. “We have no idea where the idea of the clay ball comes from.”

White Earth hosts an annual indigenous farming conference, Paige said. One of the hot topics is finding seeds that are protected from modification. The Gete-Okosomin squash generated excitement among gardeners.

“If you look at the story from this perspective, it’s really framed in a way that’s exciting,” he said. “Instead of being neglected for 800 years, it was grown for thousands of years by the Miami. They stewarded the seed year after year, protecting it from cross-pollination and modification.”

The giant squash story: Kenton Lobe and Caroline Chartrand are seen here with Gete-Okosomin squash grown at the Canadian Mennonite University Farm. (media.cmu.ca)

media.cmu.ca

Kenton Lobe and Caroline Chartrand are seen here with Gete-Okosomin squash grown at the Canadian Mennonite University Farm.

Although the seeds did not come from an archaeological dig, they do shed light on the past, Lobe said.

“We’re talking about significant agricultural knowledge,” he said. “The Miami maintained a variety of squash that is prolific, it’s huge and it tastes incredible. Anytime you have something like this, it gives you a glimpse into what people ate and the agricultural knowledge they had.”

Lobe said he’s getting requests for the seeds from people across North America. Although the story of the clay ball is not true, Lobe said it’s part of the bigger narrative.

“Something great is happening from sharing the seed and the story,” he said. “There’s something that resonates culturally when we share a heritage seed that has been reclaimed.”

This story was originally published December 3, 2015.

American Indian heritage is a common perception among many Americans, and many people claim to be Native without truly basing their personal history on facts. Tribal nations such as the Creek, Choctaw, Cherokee, Seminole and Chickasaw have been heavily documented and can trace family lineages back to the 19th and 18th centuries through censuses and lists such as the Dawes Roll.

Be warned: Many Native Americans will roll their eyes at family tales of the mythical ‘Cherokee Princess’ in one’s background, or to be told upon greeting a non-Native that ‘I’m part Cherokee.’ (Cherokee, for a variety of reasons, is the tribe most often associated with families’ genealogy myth-making.)

Most important, contemporary Indian nations have active lists and Native citizenship requirements. They know who belongs to their tribe. ‘Where are you from?’ and ‘Who are your people?’ are the most common questions asked at events and pow wows, and there is often something akin to less than six degrees of separation among contemporary Natives. So, as a rule of thumb, ‘discovering’ you are Native or have Indian heritage somewhere in your genealogy bloodline is hardly enough to guarantee tribal enrollment or the benefits of social services (of which there are many myths and misunderstandings)—or, for that matter, the right to call yourself Indian. Tribal historians and enrollment officers can be contacted at individual nations if you need to learn more about a particular tribe’s requirements.

In the modern era, Native American history is rife with examples of families broken apart and separated as part of the boarding school era, the termination era (in which tribal nations were forcibly disbanded) and urban migration (forced off the land and into the cities). There are many stories about families who lost members during this historical trauma and have since sought out hidden branches of their family tree. Given the far-flung landing places for dispossessed people, family reunions are not uncommon in Indian country.

There are also many recovery and healing efforts involving the disproportionate number of children adopted out of Indian country due to misguided government policies. The search to find and heal such ‘Lost Birds’ is ongoing.

The intersection of African American and Native cultures, and the interactions between black Americans and Indians for hundreds of years is also fertile ground for genealogy research. Black Indians form a well-known pantheon in Native history as well, as well as a lively line of genealogical research.

The proliferation of over-the-counter and online DNA kits have also fueled interest in Native genealogy. The results of this method, however, can be far more complicated an ambiguous. Identifying certain strains of heritage through various haplotides is extremely fraught, and a degree of ‘Native blood’ does not often resolve very much. Building and verifying a family tree is the only real means of making sure of a particular tribal descent.

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I thought you might find this interesting:
The Real Story of That Giant Squash: Separating Myth from Reality

URL: https://indiancountrymedianetwork.com/history/genealogy/the-shocking-true-story-of-that-giant-squash/