Nourishing Tradition

By | September 01, 2013
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Ndowejiyek (Dowagiac)—“where hunting, foraging and fishing take place”

Last year some very special white corn and four varieties of bean seeds traveled from Kansas to Dowagiac, Michigan. They were hand delivered by Eddie Joe Mitchell, a member of the Kansas-based Prairie Band of Potawatomi, to Michiana’s Pokagon Band of Potawatomi. As local tribal cultural specialist Andy Jackson explains, they were “Grandmother Seeds that left this area and were carried in the pockets of the Grandmothers to Kansas,” when over 800 Potawatomi people were forcefully removed from Indiana in the 1830s and marched on the “Trail of Death.” For the Pokagon Band, the seeds represent an important link to those who were relocated and to the foods of their past.

Today, the Pokagon, like many Native communities, are rediscovering their traditional crops, game and wild edibles. Shifting back to these foods from the European-introduced diet of wheat, sugar and processed foods greatly reduces their high rates of diabetes and other health issues.

It can also bring more to the community than just good food.

I recently spoke with Andy Jackson and Michael Zimmerman Jr., the tribe’s historic preservation officer, to learn about some of the foods the Pokagon people historically hunted, harvested and grew in our region. I also hoped to hear about some ongoing examples of such foods in their community.

Historically, wild fruits were an important source of food for local Native peoples. Strawberries (demnen), blueberries/huckleberries (minen), chokecherries (zeswemnen), small grapes and pawpaws were all gathered in season.

Zimmerman explains, “When pawpaws drop from the plant, they’re all over the place. That’s where they get their [indigenous] name— ‘bebaya’ means ‘the ones that are laying about.’”

Corn (damen) and acorns were ground into flour in a botagen, a hollowed-out tree used like a large mortar. The flour was made into a paste, put over a fire to bake and topped with maple sugar, not unlike early American hoecakes.

Fish were caught in the lakes and rivers, and wild game—including deer, moose, beaver and muskrat—have always been an important food source for the Potawatomi.

Wild rice was plentiful in the Kankakee River area of Indiana in the 1800s, and its harvest was historically a community activity among the Potawatomi people. Two years ago, the tribe began replanting rice on their property on the Kankakee as part of their wetlands restoration efforts.

When the Grandmother Seeds arrived from Kansas, Andy Jackson followed Eddie Joe Mitchell’s instructions not to plant the seeds with other corn to protect their integrity and prevent cross-pollination. The seeds, both corn and bean, were grown in the tribe’s community garden last year.

Growing those seeds was a new experience for many of the tribe’s children. Jackson recollects, “The wonder on this little boy’s face, this little Indian boy, who didn’t know a bean grew out of the dirt. He said, ‘It’s a bean! Do you know this is a bean?’ So we have to teach them, we have to bring them back. It’s very important that they go through the whole process, and then take it home and cook it.”

When the beans were harvested, Jackson had the little kids and their moms touch all of them. “I made them pick the very best ones out—that’s what we saved to plant [for next year]. The rest we ate.”

Jackson insists on including all generations in as many programs as possible, so that there is continuous learning between children, youth, adults and elders. “I think that it’s important bringing our whole family unit [together] ... everybody has a gift.” She believes the cross-generational diversity of perspectives and skills builds a strong community.

Jackson recently found out that her grandfather was one of the key gatherers of wild foods and medicines for the tribe. She remembers that he pointed out where things grew when she was young: “Now I get why he kept telling me where to go!” Today, Jackson is active in teaching the younger generations the same skills.
Others are also helping to bring back awareness of traditional foods and medicines to the Band. Nick Dillingham and George Hedgepeth, who are both knowledgeable about local wild edibles, led a spring workshop for the Pokagon Youth Council. Wild ginger and wild leeks were among the plants they discovered on the Band’s property in Dowagiac.

When they can, Jackson and Zimmerman provide traditional foods—like a favorite milkweed leaf soup or venison—to the tribe’s elders. Jackson explains: “One of our pipe carriers who had knee surgery can’t get around and he can’t get the ingredients for milkweed leaf soup himself. It was his wife’s and his favorite. So I froze it and that is what I gift them when they do something—and they’re all excited because they didn’t have to go out there. That is our job as the younger generation, to help those that knew those things and pick it and bring it back to them.”

More information about the Pokagon Band, including Potawatomi culture before and after European contact, can be found at

Some of the foods that the Potawatomi grew and found in the Michiana region include: peas, squash, melon, pumpkins, maple syrup and sugar, salt, wild potatoes and carrots, milkweed leaves, wild ginger, venison, beaver, muskrat, sturgeon, walleye, whitefish and smoked fish.

• bebaya—pawpaw
• botagen—a hollowed-out tree trunk used like a mortar for grinding corn and nuts
• damen—corn
• demen—strawberry (plural demnen)
• min—blueberry/huckleberry (plural minen)
• mnomen—wild rice, literally “good berry/seed”
• Ndowejiyek (Dowagiac)—“where hunting, foraging and fishing take place”
• nenwesh—milkweed
• nepani— our (Nappanee, IN, was the location of a  our mill after European settlers arrived.)
• Neshnabek—the Original People(Potawatomies call themselves Neshnabe.)
• Potawatomi—from Bodewadmi, which means “Keepers of the Fire,” the ceremonial role of the Potawatomi in the Three Fires Confederacy with the Ojibwe and the Odawa people
• pegna—a type of cornmeal bread
• Pepeya—a leader from the Paw Paw area; one who is here and there, like a pawpaw
• zeswemen—chokecherry (plural zeswemnen)

Article from Edible Michiana at
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