Ella Tutlis

Each intern in the Nature Academy internship program at Matthaei Botanical Gardens & Nichols Arboretum chooses a summer project to research and report on. The project culminates in a poster displayed in Matthaei’s public indoor spaces. Interns also write a blog post about their project concept or the research they’ve conducted.

This summer I was fortunate to participate in preparing, planting, and caring for a garden of heritage seeds at Matthaei Botanical Gardens. The project—the Anishinabe Collaborative Garden—is part of a long-planned partnership between Matthaei-Nichols and native and tribal members from tribes including but not limited to the Pokagon Band, Grand Traverse Band, Gun Lake Tribe, Lac Courte Oreilles, Little Traverse Bay Band, and Saginaw Chippewa & Walpole Island.

As I helped with getting ready for the day of planting the seeds, I learned more about the efforts made to connect tribal leaders with their seeds. The seeds had been taken in the past by anthropologists from tribal communities and then stored in collections at the University of Michigan for up to 100 years.

Laying down compost in the heritage seeds garden space

Laying down the first layers of compost in the heritage seeds garden.

I wanted to tell the story of this partnership and of the day of planting in my poster and blog article. Along the way I learned that much effort and discussion had gone into how museums can create sustainable lifeway initiatives in indigenous communities. Part of this process was taking into full account the importance of the seeds as citizens rather than inanimate objects. The garden was a test run, so to speak, to prepare both parties for partnership in planting the heritage seeds collected and stored in the ethnobotanical collections library.

The garden begins! Fellow interns and I prepared and tilled the space, a courtyard between two greenhouses at Matthaei. We hand tilled the earth, laying down landscape paper and spreading truckloads of compost on top of the paper. As I look back, this was definitely not the normal data collection that went into some of the other intern posters, but in essence I was gathering information for my poster throughout the whole process. As we shoveled hundreds of loads of compost into the courtyard I felt as though I was contributing to a long-lasting partnership.

On planting day tribal representatives and botanical gardens staff gathered in a large circle near the display gardens at Matthaei to participate in a ceremony that opened the space to the ancestors. We drank fresh maple water, shared a ceremonial pipe, and said blessings. Then we moved to the courtyard where fresh compost had been recently laid out. Kevin Finney, a tribal representative and head of the Tribal Seed Library, introduced us to how he and his community wanted to plant the seeds. This was dictated by the rules set up through the Jijak Foundation of the Match-E-Be-Nash-She-Wish band of Pottawatomi Indians of Michigan. Elder Punkin Shananquat introduced the seeds to the space by smudging with sage and drawing a large snake pattern in the middle of the garden space to represent the mounds we would dig and the hills and valleys of our own lives. We dug mounds to plant the seeds in with hoes made from the shoulder bones and antlers of animals native to the area. These natural garden tools are gentler and firmer than metal implements. It was the women’s job to plant the Mandaamin, or corn seeds, and we held them in our mouth so that they would grow faster. The men planted the tobacco, and we all helped with the sunflowers, watermelon, and beans.

Tilling and planting the heritage seed garden

Day of the heritage seeds planting. Students and native elders alike tilled the soil and planted the seeds.

Throughout this process the native elders in particular emphasized that planting seeds was like planting ourselves. Putting care into the earth and our bodies was important, and the planting and ceremony were times to reflect on our own lives, aspirations, and goals. This interconnectedness between the tribal representatives and students in particular helped make this space welcoming, encompassing, and moving.

The heritage seeds garden growing

The garden today as it grows all the healthy seeds we planted.

Intern Ella Tutlis

The partnerships established on that day will be long lasting. Building trust between the University of Michigan, which has played a part in the colonization of indigenous land and resources, and the Anishinaabe representatives was an important step. As the archeologists, university staff, and tribal individuals continue to negotiate about the seeds being held in the museums, this plot stands as a physical reminder of the mutually beneficial partnerships that can be crafted. For many interns and staff, this was the first time they had interacted with native representatives. The first steps in becoming more inclusive and welcoming to all is to simply listen and experience what those from a different culture are willing to teach.

Next steps include harvesting the crops of corn, beans, squash, and watermelon for a dinner to celebrate the partnership in the fall. Those tribal representatives present at the planting will return to enjoy the bounty of their labors. The tribes will continue to work with the University Collections and Anthropological Museum to determine the best course of action for the seeds still in storage. As Jason S. Wesaw, the Historic Preservation Officer and representative of the Pokagon Band said, “What that’s leading into, is in 2019, for some of those seeds to start returning back home from the collections… to their home communities.” As these discussions continue to take place, Matthaei remains a place of collaboration and growth for both the university community and the tribal community.

Ella Tutlis, from Lake Leelanau, Michigan, is a Campus Farm intern this summer. She is currently a graduate student studying social work in the fall. This summer she’s most excited to start harvesting all the fresh veggies the Campus Farm will produce. Ella’s internship was made possible by donors to the Campus Farm to support and provide students with tools, knowledge, and hands-on experience in food production, allowing them to be at the center for activity and innovation.