A rematriation project brings plants’ progeny back to their ancestral origins
Shiloh Maples, the regional representative of the Indigenous Seedkeepers Network, stands next to harvested ears of fox blue corn.
As part of a multi-year collaborative pilot initially funded by the Graham Sustainability Institute, in late 2020 corn and squash seeds from plants grown at Matthaei Botanical Gardens went back to the indigenous communities from which their ancestors came.
This process—called rematriation—returns traditional seeds or plants to the community that was home before their ancestors were removed. In most cases a museum or institution collected the plants or seeds for research or study.
The University of Michigan’s Museum of Anthropological Archaeology (UMMAA) holds one of the largest collections of ethnobotanical seeds in North America. Many of the collections are traditional crop seeds such as corn from tribes of the American Southwest, but a few are from Anishinaabec tribes in the Great Lakes region.
A squash grown from Illini seeds is nearly ready for harvest in late summer 2020. Size 13 shoe for scale.
The year 2020 marked the third planting and harvesting cycle of the pilot program. This year Matthaei-Nichols, together with tribal members, U-M students, and UMMAA, grew corn and squash seeds from seeds as old as those at the UMMAA as part of our phased plan. In 2020, Fox (Meskwaki) blue corn came from the USDA (via Dan Cornelius of Intertribal Agriculture Council and squash from Illini).
Both the gardens and museum are working to establish respectful relationships with the tribes whose collections we now steward—an under-appreciated fact, given that U-M properties are on historic tribal lands.
“We grow the plants, collect our basic data, and harvest the crop,” says David Michener, Matthaei-Nichols curator. “The harvest is then rematriated to the representatives of the community of origin.”
Close up of an ear of fox blue corn. The corn was returned to the Meskwaki Nation (Iowa) community where its ancestors came from.