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 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.
“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 turned 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.”
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.”